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Ookpik, or ukpik as it is sometimes spelled, is the Inuktitut word for 'snowy owl.' In Canada’s Eastern Arctic, ukpik can also be seen written in syllabics as ᐅᒃᐱᒃ.
In cultural lore around the world, owls are considered messengers, either as bringers of prophecy or omens of death. A source of guidance and wisdom, the owl is prominent in Inuit culture and spirituality, filling an important role in the relationship between humans and the natural world. Many Inuit believe that the owl plays a significant role in guiding the spirits of the dead to the afterworld.
In the early 1960s, Jeannie Snowball created the first ookpik. Snowball lived in Fort Chimo (now Kuujjuaq) in northern Québec. Her design became the Canadian symbol and mascot for the International Philadelphia Trade Fair in 1963.
Originally fabricated from sealskin, and sometimes wolf fur and other materials such as duffel, an ookpik is a well-known and popular toy that has become synonymous with Inuit culture. Ookpiks typically, are small souvenir owls characterized by a large head with two big eyes, a beak and talons.
Its popularity among Canadians short-lived, ookpik gained some prominence in Canadian cultural and economic history, and provided much needed income for Inuit in communities across the Arctic.
Hinterland Who's Who "Snowy Owl" was published in 2017 to mark Canada's 150th Anniversary of Confederation.
It captured the hearts and imaginations of a number of artists in other media and have found an ongoing legacy in fiddler Frankie Rodgers' "Ookpik Waltz" (1965) and Dudley Copland's book Ookpik the Ogling Arctic Owl, published in 1965. From 1964 to 1966, it was a feature in newspapers across Canada in Al Beaton's comic strip "Ookpik."
Ookpik remains an important symbol to some today. In 1964, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), in Edmonton, adopted as its official mascot. Its sports teams are still known as the NAIT Ooks.
In popular culture, J. K. Rowling featured a female snowy owl named Hedwig in her Harry Potter books. The French Air Force developed a drone aircraft and named it Harfang des neiges, after the snowy owl. Harfang des neiges is also the avian symbol for Québec and French Canadians.
I acknowledge there is growing dialogue regarding concerns about cultural appropriation and the commodification of indigenous symbolism especially following the decision to adopt the Ilanaaq, or Inukshuk, as the logo for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.
For me, personally, the snowy owl, ookpik, is an animal that seems to appear periodically in my life and is a symbol and memory of the amazing years I spent living and working in the Arctic experiencing Inuit culture. This is a way to honour those years.