When it comes to picking a school mascot, powerful creatures like eagles, tigers and bulldogs reign supreme. But in 1964, NAIT made a different choice. The NAIT Students’ Association (NAITSA) chose a 20-centimetre-tall Inuit handicraft: a snowy owl – known in Inuktitut as an ookpik.
“At that time, ookpik was a big pop icon in Canada. There was even a song about it,” recalls William Miles, NAITSA’s first president. On Oct. 28, 1964, Miles was presented with an authentic ookpik by an official from the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources at NAIT’s first awards day. “Being the most northerly institute of its kind in Canada, we thought it was a perfect fit,” he says.
Although adorable, NAIT’s Ookpik represents a creature that was no less ferocious and strong than the mascot of any other school of the day. The snowy owl, which can be found as far north as the Arctic Circle, is one of North America’s biggest owls at approximately half a metre tall and with a wingspan of about a metre and a half. The powerful birds are keen hunters and have few natural predators.
Naturally, NAIT athletics teams took the name in 1964 (shortening it over time to Ooks) and several incarnations of a full-size mascot followed over the next five decades. Going forward, the Ookpik became firmly embedded in NAIT’s identity, providing a positive image for the institute and helping to build community and camaraderie amongst students.
But over NAIT’s 50-year history, most people haven’t had the chance to see that original Ookpik. No one knows where it went – a situation that has caused quite a stir on campus.
That said, Ookpik has always had that effect on the staff and students of NAIT – not to mention those of other institutes.
Soon after its arrival, word of its importance to the institute made it south to the office of SAIT’s student newspaper, The Emery Weal. In 1966, its editor decided to act.
“We drove to Edmonton, rented a motel room and liberated Ookpik,” says Dan Lind.
The students broke the glass on the display case holding Ookpik (which they later had to pay $50 to replace), and took it to Calgary – making it wear a white Stampede hat. It was eventually sent back to NAIT in a black shoebox resembling a coffin.
The incident was part of a friendly tradition of mascot-napping between Alberta’s polytechnics. In fact, the hijinks got so heated that NAITSA had a replica Ookpik made and placed in a display cabinet for would-be thieves. The real deal was safely hidden away.
In the meantime, Ookpik fever spread across campus. The bookstore was named the Ookshop. The student pub was called The Nest. In 1977, Frosh Week (held in September to welcome new students) was renamed Ook Week.
Even classes and labs were inspired by Ookpik. In 1967, the electrical and electronics departments combined their talents to build an electric ookpik more than a metre tall. Sitting on four castors and completely covered in sealskin, the robot was manoeuvrable with wire-controlled brakes and steering.
It seemed that nothing happened at NAIT without Ookpik.
In light of that, as preparations began for NAIT’s 50th anniversary celebrations, it was only natural to want to include the missing mascot.
“We started an intense search all over campus,” says Erin Kuebler, advancement relations officer. “There was an amazing response from our staff. It didn’t matter which program or department you were in – the Ookpik represented the whole of NAIT and it was a way we could express our affinity and appreciation for NAIT.”
NAIT offered a five-course meal for six at Ernest’s, NAIT’s on-campus fine dining restaurant, as a reward for the tip that would lead to Ookpik’s return. But not even national media coverage, broadcasting the story to some five million Canadians in every province and territory, produced a viable lead. Instead, NAIT got other ookpiks – donations of about a dozen dolls from staff and friends of the institute.
But none came quite as close to the real thing as the one from Peggy Richardson.
Upon hearing about the predicament, the former NAIT Inuit elder was inspired to create two replicas of the original Ookpik. She was up for the task. Richardson grew up in the 1960s in the community of Hall Beach in what’s now Nunavut, and had a special affinity for the bird.
“The ookpik is very special to the Inuit,” she says. “They are our protectors.”
As well, her father worked along the Distant Early Warning line, a system of Arctic radar stations set up to detect Soviet bombers. He took orders from other workers for hundreds of souvenir ookpiks to be made by his daughter. She used the money to purchase clothes from the Sears catalogue – clothes she would later wear to attend NAIT.
Richardson presented one Ookpik to NAIT’s president and CEO, Dr. Glenn Feltham, and the other to NAITSA president Teagan Gahler. “It’s very important that students have something to identify with when they’re here on our campus,” says Gahler, “and [also] when they become alumni.”
“We are recapturing our past,” says Feltham. “As we think about where we’ve come from, restoring this symbol is absolutely priceless.”
NAIT never did find its original mascot. But the quest to locate it undoubtedly brought all of NAIT closer to Ookpik and its true meaning to us as an institute. Ookpik is NAIT’s symbol of tradition and strength. More importantly, it continues to unify five decades of students, staff and alumni. And it will continue to do so for decades to come.
What more could you ask from a school mascot?