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.

Inuit Art Quarterly - - COMMENT -

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.

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