A Tribute to Inuit Elder Jacob Atqittuq


I heard the news from his daughter Rosie. After a period of illness related to pneumonia and COVID-19, her father Jacob Atqittuq had passed away at the age of 79. It immediately brought back the time I’d spent with him at the end of a canoe trip in 2018. I felt we’d lost another vessel of irreplaceable Indigenous knowledge, and perhaps more importantly a truly exemplary man and pillar in his community of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

Jacob AtqittuqImage by Frank Wolf

It was 11 p.m. on August 3rd, and the sky was bright in Chantrey Inlet. Ryan and I had spilled out from the Great Fish River (also known as the Back River) earlier in the day and were nearing 16 hours in our canoe on this 35th day of our 1,750-kilometre journey across the Barren lands from Yellowknife. We’d been looking for a waterfall where we’d heard locals might be camping in the broad flat landscape that characterizes the sandy delta where the Great Fish and Hayes Rivers meet the Arctic Ocean. Spotting a distant ridge with a white streak, we figured that must be it and paddled toward it for what seemed like forever. As we approached, I pulled out my spotting scope and saw that it was indeed a waterfall—and that there were two canvas tents set up at its base.

We slid onto the beach in front and I walked up to the tents to see if anyone was around. Knocking on the frame of the canvas tent, I heard a stirring inside. The flap of the tent whipped open and an older woman looked at me with saucer eyes and exclaimed “Kabloona!” (‘white person’ in Inuktitut) then quickly shut the flap closed. I heard excited Inuktitut chatter inside and then out came an elderly man with a big smile on his face. He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously, speaking with me in his native tongue. I was immediately set at ease by his exuberance and friendly energy.

Chatting with JacobImage by Frank Wolf

“He wants to know where you came from.” A young man had stepped out of the tent next door and translated the older gentleman’s questions. The younger fellow was Marvin Atqittuq, and the elderly couple in the first tent were his parents Jacob and Martha Atqittuq. Marvin was in the other tent with his wife and son. Martha immediately fired up their two-burner Coleman stove and started preparing bannock and coffee. The mosquitoes were descending in hordes, but no one seemed bothered by them as we sat around getting to know each other.

We described our journey and Marvin and his brother Sam translated for Jacob. Jacob excitedly told us he was born and then lived in the area at the mouth of the Great Fish with Martha until he was 25, housed in igloos or skin tents depending on the season, and subsisting off of what the land provided. At about that time, with their first son Sam a year old, they were moved off the land along with other nomadic Inuit and were settled in Gjoa Haven by the government at the time.

Martha and Jacob AtqittuqImage by Frank Wolf

It quickly became clear to me that Jacob had an intimate knowledge of this landscape, as much a part of him as his arm or leg. Just the day before, they’d shot three caribou and buried them in the tundra, which would preserve and eventually ferment the meat to a flavour they quite enjoyed. Several cuts of the caribou lay drying on a rock and they offered us a piece each. It was raw, slightly dried on the outside, and melt-in-your mouth tender. Without realizing, I’d just begun a culinary tour of some of Jacob’s favourite foods that would last for almost a week.

Marvin described a snowmobile journey of several hundred kilometres he’d done with his father the previous winter where they travelled to the town of Baker Lake in the south. Jacob navigated there purely by reading the direction and angle of the snowdrifts to keep an accurate bearing. This was obviously a man with a vast trove of knowledge about the surrounding landscape. For me, it was a rare glimpse into a different life and way of looking at things that has been all but lost as these elders pass on.

preparing raw caribouImage by Frank Wolf

Even more special was that Jacob seemed to me at 75 years old to be at the height of his powers, where most elders I’ve met at his age were shut-ins, no longer able to physically travel on the land with their full mental and physical faculties available to them. His predominant characteristics were his constant smile and a sparkle in his eyes that showed me he’d never lost the playful enthusiasm of his inner child.

The next morning, Jacob and Martha kept feeding us. He showed us one of his homemade fishing lures—a piece of caribou bone connected to a hook. “He caught an 80-pound lake trout on the Great Fish River with that lure,” Marvin translated. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “No wonder the river has that name!”

bone fish lureImage by Frank Wolf

Sitting and chatting, Jacob suddenly sprang up from his seat like a spry teenager, grabbed his gun and exclaimed “Tuktu!” (‘caribou’ in Inuktitut). No one else could see anything, but Jacob’s keen eye had picked up the movement of two distant caribou. He grabbed his ancient rifle and stalked in a low crouch for 50 metres over to our canoe with Ryan in tow. Both crouched behind the canoe hoping for the caribou to come into range. The creatures wandered off in the other direction, so no more meat for Jacob’s pantry, but I was amazed at the vigour of this man.

jacob stalking caribouImage by Frank WolfThrough Marvin’s satellite phone, we arranged a boat ride for the 170-kilometre trip up to Gjoa Haven. Some friends of theirs would come get us, while the Atqittuq clan planned to spend a few days fishing upriver. Jacob asked us where we were staying. I said, “Our flight doesn’t leave for five days so we’ll be camping… we can’t afford the $275 per person per night cost of staying at the local motel.”

Jacob said something to Marvin: “My dad says you’ll stay at his house in town.”

And so, that’s what we did. Jacob drove his clan in their boat upriver, and we were picked up later that evening by their friends. A couple of days later Jacob and the rest of the clan showed up back in town. By that point we’d gotten to know his adult grandsons Dustin and Richard quite well and had even participated in the annual char fishing derby. Since his sons also lived in Jacob’s house along with his grandsons, Jacob sent Richard away to his auntie’s house. He and Martha made additional room for us by staying at their little cabin by the sea outside of town. Despite the crowded conditions of the house, he insisted that as his guests, Ryan and I each have our own rooms, and would not take no for an answer.

Everyday Jacob would come by to hang out. When he was there, his whole extended family would filter in, with up to twenty people laughing and chatting as Jacob held court. Whenever he spoke, everyone would quiet down and listen—you could see the deep respect everyone in the clan had for him.

For pure entertainment, he would get Ryan and I to try various local delicacies in front of the group. One day he was cutting up raw char on the living room floor and had Ryan and I eat the eyeballs with everyone in attendance laughing at our reaction. However, the height of hilarity was reached when Jacob brought in a Rubbermaid bin that had been sitting out in the shed. The living room was crowded and there was much giggling going on among the onlooking members of the family as the container was laid on the floor. I’d seen that bin in the shed as I’d stored some of our gear there and wondered at the time what it was.

Jacob cutting up charImage by Frank Wolf

Jacob spoke to us and I looked at Marvin for the translation: “It’s a baby seal that’s been fermenting in its own juices for three months. My dad says he has to feed it to you by hand because if you touch it, you won’t get the smell off you for a month.’

They cracked open the lid and there seemed to be a grey blob surrounded by oil. Jacob dipped his finger in and brought up a piece of the blob, which was the consistency of paste. I opened my mouth and he fed me like a baby bird, his sturdy, powerful hands delicately dropping the morsel on my tongue. I was overwhelmed with a strong flavour that was 10 times more powerful than Limburger cheese. I swallowed it down and my facial expression was enough to have the whole family rolling on the floor in laughter. Jacob had tears of joy running from his eyes and his whole body convulsed with guffaws.

One evening we watched a fascinating series of old NFB film shorts starring ‘Tuktu’ with Jacob, which depicts the old skills and lifestyle of Inuit people on the land, set not far from Gjoa Haven. It was filmed in the 1960’s and Jacob knew some of the hunters who displayed their skills in the film, recalling fond memories of hunting with them. It was a strange experience, watching these hunters of old on grainy celluloid beside one of the last remaining people connected to that time and still actively hunting and fishing with the same skill set they used.

When it was finally time to leave, we felt like we were a part of Jacob’s family, and he gave us big bear hugs when we departed. I gave him our Esquif Prospecteur 17 canoe in thanks for his generosity and friendship, which he happily used to check the fish nets by his cabin for seasons afterwards.

finish with the AtqittuqsImage by Frank Wolf

A year later, I had to pull out of a ski expedition in the area after 18 days because my feet had gone bad. Even though I wasn’t going to be there to see them, after I asked them Marvin and Jacob still made the 80-kilometre trek by snowmobile to pick up my friends David and Richard at Pointe de La Guiche where the ski trip ended, delivering them safely back to Gjoa Haven.

Jacob is gone now and there’s a hole the size of a crater in Gjoa Haven’s heart. I feel privileged to have spent some time with this great man, to see the positive influence he had on everyone around him, and to see how his zest for adventure translated into a life well-lived to the very end. It will be impossible to replace this man, but he lives on in his family, in particular his son Marvin, who carry on the lessons he taught them into the future. Rest in Peace Jacob.

Read the CBC article about my time with Jacob Atqittuq and his family: Paddlers Embraced by Elders.