By Carolyn Brown
In a harmonic convergence of craft beer and nostalgia, I ordered an Ookpik on Kijiji, and it arrived Feb. 1, still in its original box. I had had one when I was young, as did many children in Canada and the US, but I fear that long-lost Ookpik ended its days in landfill.
The Ookpik came along just as Canada was becoming cool — culturally, I mean. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Ookpik began as a traditional Inuit handicraft: a small sealskin snowy owl (which is what its name means in Inuktitut) that served as a toy for Inuit children. The first commercial Ookpiks were created by the Fort Chimo Eskimo Co-operative in Québec in 1963), and debuted at the federal government’s Department of Northern Affairs booth at the Philadelphia Trade Fair that year. The little toys were an instant hit, and thousands of Ookpiks were bought for children everywhere on the continent.
According to the box of my Ookpik (complete with cringeworthy outmoded expressions for and stereotypes of Inuit people): “Ookpik is Eskimo for Arctic Owl, a fuzzy, furry little bird from Canada’s Northland. Its likeness was created by Jeannie Snowball, an Eskimo woman from Fort Chimo in the Ungava Bay district of Canada’s far North. As the story goes, some 40 years past, Jeannie was starving, caught an Ookpik, ate it, and it saved her life. A legend was born when Jeannie created Ookpik. From this fateful day in a Canadian Eskimo’s life comes your Ookpik, Canada’s International Trade Symbol.” How much of this is true and how much apocryphal I do not know. However, the story of starving, eating an owl and then honouring the bird rings true from other indigenous tales.
You will notice that Ookpik was an official trade symbol, trademarked by the Government of Canada, who knew a good thing when they saw it. My Ookpik is in fact a reproduction, produced by the Reliable toy company, under licence from the Fort Chimo Co-operative Association.
In my memory, the Ookpik is indelibly connected to Expo 67 in Montreal and early Inuit art. Inuit art was just emerging, as art co-operatives in the Arctic were forming and bringing the unique culture to southern audiences. The Cape Dorset print workshop, for example, had had its first exhibition in 1959, kicking off a mania for Inuit art. The artwork was different from anything else that the world had seen, and it had a strength and primordiality that endure to the current age. Yet Inuit prints and handicrafts were — by chance — also exactly right for the 1960s. The epoch of the minimalist corporate logo and the spare, colourful “op art” of Warhol and his contemporaries fit well with the simple, colour- and form-based artistic expression of Canada’s indigenous peoples. The growing “ecology” movement also dovetailed with Inuit art’s unspoiled animals and landscapes.
The Ookpik became the mass-market vanguard of Inuit art. Along with Ookpiks, southern Canadian homes that saw only a dusting of snow were filled with images of men in parkas paddling kayaks, harpooning seals, walking in snowshoes and building igloos. My parents had trivets on this theme; my mother-in-law hooked a rug with an Inuit image. Inuit culture added to Canada’s cool.
While children naturally loved the little, wide-eyed stuffed toy, another aspect that added to its charm: the original Fort Chimo Ookpik was made from the fur of a seal or wolf. My reproduction is made from faux fur, and no seals were harmed. However, I once had a sealskin change purse, a centennial (1967) gift to me from my great-grandparents. This was well before Brigitte Bardot and Sir Paul McCartney deigned to haunt Canadian ice floes to protest the seal hunt. Seal hunting was a traditional Inuit source of furs for parkas and meat for food. The napped, silky, warm fur was a special treasure from the north.
Today, the Ookpik may seem more than a little hokey – mass-produced, the ersatz product of an indigenous culture, made from the skin of a dead animal. At the time, though, it was southern Canadians’ glimpse of our neighbours in the north. Ookpik made us curious and led us to the astounding prints and sculptures. It was the first window we had on this unique culture, and the foundation of a lasting respect.