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Sharing her talents with the world
By Isabelle Dubois

When I first met Lucy Tulugarjuk, in 2007, I was immediately reminded of the character she played in the highly acclaimed, award-winning Isuma Productions film based on ancient Inuit legend: Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (2001). She appeared as Antanarjuat’s feisty second wife Puja, a performance that launched her acting career globally. Indeed, at first glance, she looked just like Atanarjuat’s mischievous second wife — with the same beguiling smirk and playful twinkle in her eye.

Tulugarjuk was in Kuujjuaq with Atanarjuat director Zacharias Kunuk to present his newest motion picture, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Fall 2006). Her contributions to the project were many. In addition to playing a small on-screen role in this drama depicting the sorrowful disappearance of shamanism at the hands of Christianity, Tulugarjuk played an even larger role behind the scenes as first assistant to Kunuk, as casting director, make-up artist, and helping with the Inuktitut transcription of notes from the historic journals.

Born February 28, 1975 in Churchill, Manitoba, Tulugarjuk spent her earliest years in Iglulik, Nunavut, with her paternal grandparents, whom she called Anaana (mother) and Ataata (father). At five years of age, she moved with them to Sanirajak (Hall Beach) until both passed away. Only 12 at that time, she moved back to Iglulik and eventually found a home with her birth parents.

“Being one of the oldest in a house of nine children, I soon learned that you have to work to get where you want to be,” she confides.

Tulugarjuk still spends many weekends and most summers camping out on the land. Her biological mother teaches her how to sew her own pualuuk (mittens) and how to chew walrus skin to make the bottoms of her kamiik (boots). These are times she is most aware of how important traditional knowledge and skills are to her own Inuit identity.

While attending Iglulik’s Ataguttaluk High School, she was active in sports; playing basketball, volleyball, soccer, even wrestling. Sports proved a good way to stay out of trouble. Having gone through a difficult time from the loss of her grandparents and moving to a “new” family, Lucy candidly admits:

“There was a time where I was becoming a person I didn’t like, so I had to find a way to get rid of that negative energy and get my anger out of my system. Sports taught me to be strong, emotionally and spiritually,” she explained, “and gave me confidence to compete with others and challenge myself.”

She also joined the Army Cadets. They taught discipline and valuable outdoors survival skills. Cadets also gave her a sense of real belonging, something she found marching in uniform representing her community.

With her life on a much better track, Tulugarjuk joined her school’s dance club, which also offered drama. Performing with the group during the Christmas concerts, or at the end of the school year, she took those first steps to performing on stage.

The late Paul Apak, co-founder of Iglulik’s Isuma Productions, involved with Nunavut’s Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) at the time, spots her talent and recruits Tulugarjuk to play a friend of the main character in an episode of the television program, Friday with teenagers. Here her acting career takes root.

High school graduation came in 1994. Wanting to improve health services for Inuit, Tulugarjuk enrolled in a nursing program in Yellowknife, but after one semester realized nursing is not her calling. She returns to Iglulik in 1997 and gives birth to her first child, Kayla, whom she also names Nattikuttuk, to honour the memory of her beloved grandmother. Soon, she is hired by Zacharias Kunuk to work for Isuma Productions, managing the local cable show Tarriaksuk (shadow people).

In 1998, Isuma starts shooting the winter and spring scenes for Atanarjuat, and Tulugarjuk is cast in the role of Puja, but by summer the production stalls due to lack of funding. That same summer, two Iglulik teenagers (one of them a close friend) commit suicide. The tragedy shatters the small community of 1500.

Through an Isuma Productions initiative, a Youth Drama Group called Inuusiq (“life” in Inuktitut) is formed by local youth. Their idea is to produce a television series about the reality of youth in today’s Arctic. Tulugarjuk, a member, becomes a co-writer and actor in the series, along with Guillaume Saladin.

Studying at the National Circus School in Montreal, Saladin, along with Lucy and a few others, later form Artcirq, with the support of Isuma and Cirque Éloize. This popular Inuit Performance Collective’s mission is to provide Inuit youth with a vehicle for creative expression through theatre, performance and circus arts, while maintaining a strong link to Inuit traditions, a mandate to which Tulugarjuk and others attach great importance.

By 1999, the cameras are again rolling on Atanarjuat and Tulugarjuk finds herself quite taken with her part as Puja.

“I found it challenging and exciting at the same time, having to draw different emotions to portray my character.”

Tulugarjuk enjoyed learning the old ways of Inuit alongside elders like actor Madeline Ivalu, artistic director Susan Avingaq and head seamstress Atuat Akkitirq.

“I was learning more about my culture: how to look after kamiit so they won’t dry, the proper way to handle caribou clothing, how to light the qulliq (traditional soapstone lamp), names of old tools that were new to me, drum dancing, traditional songs and the stories behind them, etc.”

“While looking for someone to teach us how to throat-sing, I found out my birth mother knew how, but had kept it to herself. She had been told by missionaries that it was bad, a connection to evil spirit,” she adds. Tulugarjuk learns from her mother and in return teaches girls in high school how to throat-sing and drum dance.

“Thanks to Atanarjuat, we got the younger generation interested in learning all that again,” applauds Lucy.

This motivated her to pursue further studies, and in 2000 after son Damon was born, she enrolled in Nunavut Sivuniksavut in Ottawa, a unique eight-month college program designed especially for Nunavut Inuit youth to learn about Inuit history, organizations, land claims and other issues toward a future career in Nunavut. Upon graduating in 2001, she travelled to Tokyo, Japan, with other students to promote Inuit culture through drum-dancing and throat-singing performances, Inuit games demonstrations and more.

“We also talked about our people, and the fact that we don’t live in iglus anymore, that we live a modern life, like everyone else,” elaborates Lucy. With the Tokyo International Film Festival also taking place at the time; it was also an opportunity for her to promote Atanarjuat.

Lucy then moved her family to Edmonton, but she didn’t stay in one place, travelling here and there to promote Atanarjuat. The film won award after award, including a Best Actress award from the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco for her own performance as Puja.

All the while, she continued to take courses — cooking lessons, parenting, etc. “It was a good time for me to see what I wanted to accomplish in my future for myself and my children,” says the actress who remains, first and foremost, a mother.

In 2004, Tulugarjuk moved back to Iglulik with her children to continue working with Isuma Productions, as well as the performance troupe, Artcirq. Later that year, she was invited to France to act in the climate-change inspired comedy role as the last Inuk on earth, who came to save the day in the Belgian production L’Iceberg. Around the same time she also became involved in Isuma’s, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.

By spring 2012 she is back in Kuujjuaq, this time with her four-year-old daughter Nuvvija, named after her great grandmother, who was the sister of Avva, the shaman described in Rasmussen’s journals. In the film, Tulugarjuk portrays Nuvvija. This time she is in town to take on the role of Aasivak in the major Québec film production, Maïna: a feature film storyline that brings Innu and Inuit together for the first time on the big screen.

Although I haven’t seen the final edit yet, I can definitely say that Tulugarjuk is much more like her Maïna character, Aasivak. Tulugarjuk is not afraid to say what she thinks or befriend a stranger without pre-judgment. She is generous and patient in sharing Inuit ways with those wanting to learn.

Tulugarjuk now lives in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, working as a Coordinator at the Community Justice Office while studying toward a Bachelor in Business Administration degree at Aurora College. Her goals are to promote Inuit arts and crafts through her own business and to build a bright future for her children.

“My concentration is now on my children, to be the best that I can be in life, and through all its challenges and obstacles, to live a positive life.”

Perhaps we’ll see Tulugarjuk in another film in the near future. Determination and talent such as hers seldom stay hidden for long.

Author’s Note: A powerful tale of love and survival, Maïna, which recently won an award for Best Picture at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, will be released in Québec theatres the end of March 2014. Filmed entirely in Innu and Inuktitut, the movie will be presented with French and English narration and subtitles. A dubbed version in French is also planned.
Visit mainathemovie.com for details and trailers.