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Inuit artist's life celebrated
Reunion held by surviving members of Oonark family

Darrell Greer
Northern News Services
Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A special reunion was held earlier this month to celebrate the life of one of the most well-known Inuit artists of all time.

NNSL photo/graphic

Nancy Pukirngnak Aupaluktuq, Peggy Qablunaaq Aittauq and Mary Yuusipik Singaqti, from left, daughters of the late world-renowed artist Jessie Oonark, prepare to cut the cake at a family reunion in Baker Lake on Oct. 1, 2016. - photo courtesy of Sasha Hickes-Nakoolak

The children of the late Jessie Oonark held the reunion on Oct. 1 in Baker Lake.

Sasha Hickes-Nakoolak said the main reason behind the reunion was to gather Oonark's remaining children, and their families, to cherish her life and embrace her as their mother.

She said many museums have acknowledged Oonark's life as an artist, and it was time for her family to acknowledge her as the mother of their mothers.

"Jessie Oonark's life was a remarkable one," said Hickes-Nakoolak.

"She was born March 2, 1906, which means she lived on the land in caribou tents in the summer and in iglus in the winter."

In the early 1950s, Oonark's husband and four children died of an illness and starvation struck the family.

Her son walked to Baker Lake to seek help, resulting in them being airlifted to Baker by the Canadian Armed Forces.

Hickes-Nakoolak said despite these hardships, Oonark still strived for a better life for her and her children, doing dishes, cooking meals, cleaning skins and working as a janitor.

She said in the late 1950s, Oonark would claim she could draw better than the teacher.

"Dr. Andrew Macpherson gave her coloured pencils and paper, and, from there, her artwork was immediately recognized and her life went into the history books," said Hickes-Nakoolak. "She continued her artwork for 19 years, and her artistic work is displayed in many museums across Canada, as well as in the U.S., Italy, England and other countries."

Hickes-Nakoolak said Oonark's children survived to become well-known elders in Baker Lake.

Two sisters passed away this past spring, and the gathering was also a way to hold the family together.

"Each of Jessie Oonark's children raised families of their own," she said. "The family with the least raised six children, and the family with the most raised 11. Most of these children are grandparents today."

Hickes-Nakoolak said Oonark's children have blossomed and everyone still feels strongly for the accomplishments of family members.

She said the same is true at times of loss.

"Just as she wished, Jessie Oonark is still alone on the top of Blueberry Hill in Baker Lake," she said.

"Many family members were not able to make it from B.C., Ottawa, Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Baker. The family members who did not make it to the reunion were still in our thoughts and prayers."

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