Making my Ookpiks

Before I was born, in the 1960’s My parents lived in the Canadian arctic. They lived in Inuvik as members of the local community and taught the local children at the elementary and middle school. I’ve heard the stories of the midnight sun, the necessity for seal skin coats, the skidoo races, dog sleds, and having to slowly and carefully release kids who dared each other to lick metal poles in the middle of winter. (Spoiler alert – their tongues would get frozen to the pole and you’d have to use tepid water to slowly release the ice from the skin without tearing.)

For my entire childhood there were remnants of this life they’d had before children including my favourite which was a traditional, seal skin Ookpik doll.

The story of Ookpik is heartwarming and in the 1960’s this fictitious snowey owl was a viral sensation. “Ookpik” is the Inuktitut word for “snowy owl” or “Arctic owl.”There were books, toys, cartoons, and even a pop song. Ookpik became a defacto Canadian mascot, and the Inuit woman that is credited with first creating Ookpik (Jeannie Snowball in Kuujjuaq/Fort Chimo) turned the doll into a craft cottage industry for her community.

The owl is significant to Inuit culture and spirituality. A source of guidance and wisdom, some Inuit believe that the owl safely shepherds the spirits of the dead to the afterworld. Although different Inuit communities have their own tales and legends about the owl, this creature remains a central figure across oral histories. For many, the owl, like other culturally significant animals, is thought to have an important relationship with both humans and the environment. A revered creature, the owl is featured prominently in many pieces of Inuit art, including Pitseolak Ashoona’s Owls in Spring Snow (1972) and Kenojuak Ashevak’s Guardian Owl (1997).

Douglas Coupland in Souvenir of Canada wrote that Ookpiks “are slightly silly looking, but they’re oddly wise, too, and many Canadians will melt before you at the sight of day they simply vanished. Where? Why? Alas, they burned too brightly too quickly, and paid the price.”

Later on, in my childhood when I was spending most waking hours outside of school dancing and making art at the local art centre I sculpted a simple family of owls that I still have to these days. My owl family which I’ve put back on display in my home were certainly crafted in the memory of my fondness for Ookpik and the stories of friendship and resilience.

I’m circling back on these small sculptures as I take a look at other works I made as a child and remaking them as new artworks.

The Ookpik Waltz by the composer, Frankie Rogers.