Reneltta Arluk first met the virtually unknown Inuk guide and explorer Tookoolito on the cover of a book, her “cute, pure little Inuit face” staring out from under a classic European bonnet.
“I didn’t understand how she could be wearing such European wear – how she took to this culture,” recounted Arluk, who began to uncover the almost unbelievable events of the woman’s short life aboard numerous Arctic expeditions and trips to Europe across the vast Atlantic in the late 1800s before she eventually settled in Connecticut.
“She met the queen and then learned to speak perfect lilted English. She took on the elements of that culture that she really enjoyed, but never allowed the culture to take over her or her identity,” Arluk said.
The intrigue of Tookoolito, called “Hannah” by her good friend and explorer Charles Francis Hall, became an instant inspiration for Arluk, an Inuk actor and playwright from the Northwest Territories, who wondered at the surprising anonymity of the woman who led such a remarkable life.
She began to write out the story of Tookoolito, of her trips to England, her time as a performer with the Barnum & Bailey Circus and her fascinating friendship with Hall that would place her at the fore of three Arctic missions, including the fateful Polaris Expedition, which would leave her and her husband Ebierbing struggling to keep a band of Europeans alive on an ice floe for six months.
But after 14 pages of “very exact writing,” Arluk realized the story she was writing was more about Hall than Tookoolito. She knew she had to start channeling the mysterious woman to get a greater sense of her personality.
“So I sat down and just said to Tookoolito, ‘What kind of story do you want me to share of you?’…She just started digging in and talking about how she can’t have children, how she wanted children,” Arluk said.
The result is now a fitful back-and-forth between the two forceful personalities of Hall and Tookoolito, who despite their strong friendship butted heads over her refusal to convert to Christianity.
“Everytime I’m writing, it’s like Charles Francis Hall wants everything really precise and exact, and Tookoolito, she just wants to go on these really long tangents of just free thought,” Arluk said. “So that’s kind of been the process of it. And eventually they’ll meet; I just don’t know when that will be. They’ve already met on his side, but she hasn’t met him yet. It’s weird; I haven’t had a writing process like that before. But it’s epic.”
Though the play is unfinished, Arluk already visualizes the turbulent exchange taking place on a rocking stage akin to a ship or an iceberg.
“An iceberg is a confined space; a ship is a confined space, in this vast area, and every piece of it is kind of utilized, Arluk said. “And the rocking, the unsteadiness, and having to be balanced on that – I visualize it.”
Now, Arluk said, she just needs a space to finish writing it.
Accepted aboard the prestigious Arctic Circle 2015 Tall Ship Expedition this June outside of Svalbard in Norway, Arluk is hoping to integrate visceral research with physical experience by experiencing chilled waters similar to those Tookoolito once sailed.
“I would love to just kind of experience a little bit of her life and what it was like to be on a tall ship in the Arctic in a confined space and experience her environment from that perspective,” she said. “This was something that Charles Francis Hall did, something she did as a guide, and I just thought I’ve never done that. It would be really wonderful to have a taste of that.”
After two weeks on the ship spent journaling, drawing and recording, Arluk plans to complete the play within a month of the expedition ending.
Arluk is currently trying to raise funds online for the trip to Norway. To donate to the project, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/890297281/searching-for-tookoolito-an-inuk-womans-arctic-exp