As described in a 1964 Canadian Broadcast Corporation segment, Ookpik takes Canada by storm, in the 1960s Ookpik became a popular national symbol after the federal government chose the toy to represent Canada at the 1963 trade fair in Philadelphia.
As explained in Ookpik (Historica Canada), the fuzzy sealskin owls are known for their large heads and oversized eyes, as well as their beaks and feet. They are often handcrafted and furry, made with real (and sometimes, synthetic) seal furs and hide. In the 1964 broadcast, author Dudley Coupland says Ookpiks are “slightly silly looking, but they’re oddly wise, too, and many Canadians will melt before you at the sight of one.”
Produced by native Inuits, Oopiks were mass-marketed in the 1960s and entered the hearts and homes of many Canadians (and Americans). By 1968, the phenomenon waned considerably, but Ookpik remains a significant cultural symbol and example of authentic Inuit handicraft.
Sometime in the early 1970s — bought on a trip to Toronto — one Ookpik became a beloved member of one American family. While all members of the ur-family, as well as many relatives and friends, have appeared in the magazine, until now Ookpik has been absent. Especially given Ookpik’s new role, his presence– if he is a he–is long overdue.
Several years ago, my father had a stroke and now sleeps in the downstairs tv room. Since, the Ookpik family overlooks Eugene. Eugene has grown close to the family and welcomes their spiritual companionship. So far, Ookpik has helped keep Eugene healthy and upbeat.
As much as I loved Ookpik as a boy, I always worried that maybe the harvesting of seals was not worth Ookpik’s creation. We’ve all seen the pictures of the clubbing of baby seals, ones I tried to put out of my thoughts.
Now as I read Ookpik, I’ve learned that Ookpik has been an ongoing issue in discussions of Inuit cultural appropriation and identity. Some complain the owl “was turned into a commodity, loved for it cuteness rather than its art form or symbolism.”
In the 1960s, Ookpik and other forms of Indigenous art and history were displayed at international fairs, such as Expo 67 and the Philadelphia trade show, in ways that “reinforced stereotypes about Indigenous peoples as ‘primitive’ and ‘naïve'” — if not in need of colonization.
Maybe enjoying Ookpik is a guilty pleasure.
(On appropriation of Native American imagery, see also Sneak preview of our 2018 Rochester Contemporary 6 X 6 submission)
At the same time, I also learned more of the significance of the owl 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. from Ookpik
Perhaps Ookpik the wise owl was designed to look over the elderly.
Neither Eugene nor I share the religious beliefs of the Inuit. But I like to imagine the soul of that seal animated the inanimate Ookpik snow owl that soothes the living and safely shepherds the spirits of the dead to the afterworld
Ookpik has certainly led an adventurous life. On our family trips to Europe during summer vacations in 1972 and 1973, Ookpik was invited.
One summer, Ookpik was a victim of an unfortunate travel accident. Ookpik was placed in the same suitcase containing Eugene’s Kaopectate. Somehow the top of the Kaopectate bottle was dislodged and Ookpik was partially coated with pink viscous liquid. To this day, on Ookpik’s back is a very faint pink stain.
In 1975, Ookpik was invited to a fort my friends Dean Tucker, Billy Swift and I built in our basement.
As part of our fort narrative, Billy Swift traced Ookpik onto manila paper and created an artistic rendering. Interestingly, Billy would later in life spend time with Canadian indigenous people in Algonquin National Park where he still owns and operates a canoe and kayaking business.
At some point — nobody remembers exactly when — another Ookpik joined the family: Baby or Little Oopik who is smaller than Big Ookpik.
Little Ookpik’s experience is star crossed. Dean and I can’t recall all the details, but we know that Little Ookpik went through a laundry wash and noticeably shrank — really becoming Little Ookpik.
Then LO mysteriously disappeared, maybe in the early 80s. I mourned him, never expecting to see his shrunken figure again.
Then one day, maybe a decade or longer later, Dean happened to open a drawer in his house filled with discardable junk. Lo and behold, in the drawer was LO! We still don’t know how LO got there, but there he was. LO returned to his perch and has wisely stayed since.
A while back, my mother bought a stone carved figuring resembling an Ookpik, and he joined the family. Given his glassy eyed look, we call him Stoned Ookpik.
Another member of the ur-family also deserves inclusion. At my father’s bedside is a framed photo of the family in an MG (Morris Garage) and our cat, Morphy. Except for goldfish, Morphy was never replaced. Between the spirit of Morphy and the Ookpiks, Eugene is in good company.