What’s an Ookpik?

An Oookpik is a toy owl, measuring about 12.5 cm tall. They are often handcrafted and furry, made with real (and sometimes, synthetic) seal furs and hide. Ookpiks are also known for their large heads and oversized eyes, as well as their beaks and feet.

The first Ookpik was created by Jeannie Snowball in the early 1960s. Snowball worked at the co-operative in Fort Chimo (now Kuujjuaq) in northern Québec. Her design was chosen by the federal government as a Canadian symbol and mascot during the international Philadelphia Trade Fair, from 11 to 16 November 1963.

Ookpik in Popular Culture

After the fair, Ookpik became popular among Canadian consumers. In fact, supplies of the dolls could not keep up with demand. Ookpik’s popularity even spawned the creation of companion toys in 1965, including Sikusi, Ookpik’s friend, and Mrs. Ookpik, a female version of the doll.

Responding to Ookpik’s popularity, the federal Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources trademarked the handicraft for the Fort Chimo co-operative in 1964 (see Inuit Co-operatives.) The Ookpik Advisory Committee — tasked with protecting the Ookpik brand and suggesting product licenses to the federal government and Fort Chimo co-operative — oversaw the use of the trademark in the creation and sale of books, clothing, comics, songs and more. Portions of the sales revenue went to the co-operative where Ookpik was first created.

By 1968, Canadians’ love for Ookpik waned and consequently, revenues fell. Nevertheless, Ookpik had provided an income stream for some Inuit and made a mark on Canadian cultural and consumer history. The doll inspired the creation of various forms of art, including Dudley Copland’s book Ookpik the Ogling Arctic Owl (1965), Al Beaton’s comic strip Ookpik which ran in a variety of newspapers from 1964 to 1966, and fiddler Frankie Rodgers’ “Ookpik Waltz” (1965.) Ookpik was also reinstated as a national symbol at Expo 67. Ookpik remains an important symbol for some, including the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, which still calls its sports teams the “Ooks.”

DID YOU KNOW?
The owl is significant 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, including Pitseolak Ashoona’s Owls in Spring Snow (1972) and Kenojuak Ashevak’s Guardian Owl (1997).

Indigenous Culture and National Symbolism

Handmade by the Inuit and appropriated by the Canadian government as a national symbol, Ookpik has raised questions about the use of Indigenous iconography in nationalism. On the one hand, the marketing of Ookpik demonstrated how the federal government and Indigenous communities worked together. A great success, the doll exhibited Inuit art to southern Canada and indeed, to the rest of the world. Although Ookpik was mass-developed, the “authenticity” of the craft was important to many Canadians, who sought handmade rather than factory-made dolls.

On the other hand, the owl — an animal of great significance in Inuit culture — was turned into a commodity, loved for it cuteness rather than its art form or symbolism. Moreover, the Indigenous exhibits at international fairs, such as Expo 67 and the Philadelphia trade show, where Ookpik and other forms of Indigenous art and history were on display, only reinforced stereotypes about Indigenous peoples as “primitive” and “naive,” and simultaneously celebrated colonization. The controversy over the use of Indigenous symbols in nationalism did not begin or end with Ookpik. For example, similar discussions surrounded the use of Ilanaaq, the inuksuk logo for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Indeed, issues concerning cultural appropriation and identity are ongoing matters of discussion.

Significance

Mass-marketed in the 1960s, Ookpik entered the hearts and homes of many Canadians. Although it is no longer a popular national icon, Ookpik still evokes feelings of Canadian nostalgia for some people, and for others, remains a significant cultural symbol and example of authentic Inuit handicraft.