The portrait of an Inuk woman in a British-style bonnet, looking solemnly from the book cover grabbed Reneltta Arluk’s attention.
Her interest only grew after reading Sheila Nickerson’s 2004 book, Midnight to the North.
She was captivated by the descriptions of Tookoolito, a woman who, along with her husband, helped guide U.S. explorer Charles Francis Hall through his explorations of the Arctic in the 1860s and 70s.
For the young playwright, actor and writer, born and raised in the Northwest Territories, her discovery of Tookoolito’s story was fascinating and inspiring – and perfectly timed.
Last year, she had declined an invitation to become a writer-in-residence with Whitehorse-based Gwaandak Theatre Society on the grounds she did not have appropriate material to work with and was completing her one-woman show, Tumit (“tracks” in Inuktitut).
This year, with Tookoolito’s story inspiring her to create a stage show, Arluk knew it was the right time to begin working with Gwaandak.
She pitched her idea and received an enthusiastic go-ahead from the company’s coordinators, Leonard Linklater and Patti Flather, both playwrights themselves.
Once funding was lined up, Arluk started on research, heading to Whitehorse in May for three weeks to work with Gwaandak.
“I’ve had a long and wonderful relationship with Gwaandak,” she says. “I think they know it’s important for me to be connected to where I come from… it’s a priority for a northern-based company to work with northern-based artists. They are really helping me, not pressuring greatness but just supporting me on this journey.”
A journey it certainly is. As her research and writing about Tookoolito has progressed, Arluk is convinced it is exactly the right thing for her to be doing.
“The minute I saw her face, I knew it just had to be done,” she says, her own face lighting up as she describes her project’s origins.
“All these explorers talk about how they discovered the North, but they very rarely acknowledge the help they had; it’s even rarer that they acknowledge the help of an aboriginal woman. But [Hall] talked about her all through his journals,” Arluk says.
“He really respected her and admired her as a friend. I’m basing this play on their friendship, because even today that’s a rare thing.”
With affectionate enthusiasm, Arluk describes how Tookoolito learned perfect English while visiting Britain, adopted some styles of British dress, yet still maintained her culture, living in an igloo and refusing to convert to Hall’s Christian beliefs.
“She took the bits of English culture she liked without compromising her own system,” Arluk says, “She captivated me… Writing this play feels like the next step, it feels really right.”
Even with everything that has gone into the project, Arluk’s work is far from over. She plans to focus on writing and have the first draft done by February, and continue working on it through workshops in Yellowknife.
Then, she hopes to have it produced and cast as much as possible in the North, before taking it to southern stages.
“It’s important to me that everything be done in the North, with as many northern people as I can,” she says, “That’s really my priority, which is why Gwaandak is so great.”
Arluk has been writing since junior high school, mostly poetry and stories. She completed her first play while attending the University of Ottawa.
Since then, she has been writing and acting non-stop. She just returned from performing at the Weesageechak Festival in Toronto, and will act in next year’s Magnetic North Festival in Calgary. She continues to do theatre workshops in the NWT with her own theatre company, Akpik Theatre.
“My whole mandate is that it’s very important for stories to be told,” she says. “With these workshops we’re encouraging youth to tell their stories and teaching them how to do it.”
If it already seems that Arluk has a lot on the go, there’s more!
As the interview concludes, she mentions offhanded, “Oh yes. I just signed with Bookland Press out of Toronto to publish my first book of poetry.
“It kind of came out of nowhere… I’m having a very strange year,” she laughs.
A compilation of Arluk’s best work between 1996 and 2011, Thoughts and Other Human Tendencies is scheduled for release in fall 2012.
Arluk has this advice for aspiring artists of all kinds:
“If you feel like you have a story to tell, pursue it! Personal, historical, contemporary, whatever. And seek out sources, because they’re just waiting to help.”
For more about Arluk, visit her Akpik Theatre Facebook page or follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/auspiciousr.
Willow Gamberg is a former What’s Up Yukon intern who writes about music and other arts-related topics.