A playwright, actor and producer reflects on the journey and distance required to bring the story of Tookoolito, a dynamic and modern Inuk woman, to life.
When I started working on a play about Tookoolito in 2011, I didn’t realize the journey she would take me on. My most recent leg of this journey was as an artist aboard the tall ship Antigua, sailing the Arctic waters of Svalbard, Norway last July with the annual interdisciplinary residency program The Arctic Circle. Still, I know there are more places we need to go together. Like past and present nomads searching to tell a personal and vital story, I call this Searching for Tookoolito.
Tookoolito, also known as Hannah, was an Inuk woman from Cumberland Sound, Nunavut. She gained notoriety at the age of fifteen when she worked as a guide for English whaling captain Thomas Bowlby in 1853. He brought her to England, where she was received by Queen Victoria. Bowlby then returned her to the Arctic, and seven years later she enlisted as a translator and guide to explorer Charles Francis Hall. She and her husband would become known for saving most of the crew that were part of the ill-fated Polaris expedition in 1871. Unsurprisingly, her story, like that of many other Indigenous guides of the time, is much bigger than that. These guides were the modern day nomads of their time, exploring new territories in non-traditional ways. Some returned to share their new world experiences, while others became causalities to viruses and illness brought over by the foreign explorers.
Searching for Tookoolito has brought me around the globe and across our country. To date, I’ve travelled to Nunavut, where I met with a living historian; the Yukon, where I exchanged research with a woman writing a biography about Tookoolito; Norway, where I connected the feeling of isolation on a tall ship to the expansiveness of the Arctic; England, where in their library archives remains a piece of music written about Tookoolito; and Ontario, where I began writing in search of her story. The next step is to drive down to Connecticut to visit Tookoolito’s gravesite, which is situated next to her daughter’s, a daughter she refused to leave. In every piece of my journey I’m never sure of the outcome, but as I go more of Tookoolito is revealed. The land keeps its stories and artists like her are their conduit.
We artists are the modern-day nomads. In our spaces of creativity, we hunker down in isolation to research and imagine new works. When born into art these new works need to be seen. To be witnessed. Through festivals, and gatherings, we travel great distances to be part of the world we inhabit. Like the mirrors carried by explorer Sir John Ross to delight and surprise Inuit, we are now the mirrors that reflect the new discoveries or reveal the illnesses of our present time. We transform imagination into the real, into new stories and histories, to bring them to the places that call for them—or in my case, to begin to provide the answers.