Canada lost a national treasure when Inuit writer and artist Alootook Ipellie died of a heart attack at the age of 56, on Sept. 8 in Ottawa. When Alootook was born "on the land" in a small hunting camp on Baffin Island in 1951, his parents Napatchie and Joanassie could never have predicted their small, sickly baby would become a spokesperson and international ambassador for the Inuit.
Alootook's father died less than a year later in a hunting accident and in 1955 the family moved to nearby Iqaluit. As a teenager Alootook relocated to Ottawa to attend high school, and spent most of the remainder of his life there. He is survived by a daughter, Taina.
Alootook became the most significant Inuit writer of his generation, which experienced enormous social upheaval as a result of the forced transition in the 1950s from a semi-nomadic lifestyle to life in settled communities. His impressive body of work encompassed articles, editorials, essays, poetry, short stories, and cartoons.
John Robert Colombo described Alootook as "the most prolific Inuit writer." He will be remembered for his dedication to the Inuit, creative brilliance and sense of humour.
A quiet and diminutive man who often dressed in black, Alootook cut a striking figure with his long dark hair and sparse beard. From 1973-1982, he played many roles for Inuit Monthly (later named Inuit Today) magazine, including writer, designer, photographer, translator, cartoonist and finally editor.
His landmark work for the magazine, published by Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, highlighted political, social, and cultural issues during a time of turbulent change for the Inuit. Of particular note were his column "Those Were the Days", recalling his childhood in Iqaluit, and the popular "Ice Box" cartoon strip. Alootook both informed and entertained, and gave the Inuit a strong voice in the years leading up to the creation of Nunavut.
Other publications Alootook edited included Inuit, the magazine of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, and Nunavut Newsletter. In the 1990s he created the amusing cartoon strip, "Nuna and Vut" as well as the column "Ipellie's Shadow" for Nunatsiaq News.
Alootook was a perfectionist with a diverse range of artistic accomplishments. He specialized in exquisitely wrought pen and ink illustrations, and political and satirical cartoons. His artwork was displayed in exhibitions in Canada, the United States, Greenland, Norway, Germany, Serbia, and Australia.
Alootook's short stories, drawings and poetry were featured in several anthologies, including Paper Stays Put: A Collection of Inuit Writing. Arctic Dreams and Nightmares, his illustrated book, became the first published collection of short stories by an Inuit author when it was released in 1993.
Alootook contributed the cover artwork and foreword for The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab, a tragic historical account of Inuit who were put on display in Germany in 1880 as living ethnographic examples of Eskimo culture. In 2001, his insightful essay, "People of the Good Land," encapsulating the sudden dramatic changes forced upon Inuit in his lifetime, appeared in The Voice of the Natives: the Canadian North and Alaska. This book featured the photography of Hans Blohm and was published in English and German; an Inuktitut version is in the works.
The greatest irony of Alootook's life was that he eventually became an alcoholic; in the early part of his career he vehemently expressed his opinion of how alcohol abuse had adversely affected the fabric of Inuit life. It is to his credit that despite his personal problems, Alootook persevered with his creative work and mentored other writers as co-coordinator of the Baffin Writers' Project and editor of Kivioq: Inuit Fiction Magazine.
In recent years, Alootook's work gained exposure at opposite ends of the world. His political and satirical cartoons were exhibited in August 2005 at the International Cartoon Festival in Serbia. In May 2006, he lectured at the University of Wollongong in Australia. A month later Alootook embarked on a six-city lecture tour of academic institutions in Germany that showcased his work and the photography of his friend Hans Blohm.
Alootook's final exhibition was held at Gallery 7A in Ottawa during March and April 2007, and received excellent reviews. Shortly before his death, a children's book he co-wrote was published. The Inuit Thought of It: Amazing Arctic Innovations highlights more than 40 Inuit inventions and ideas, and is a testament to the resourcefulness and ingenuity of Alootook's people.