By Eleanor Albanese
The first time I met Reneltta Arluk, turned out to be a case of unfortunate miscommunication. Previous arrangements had been made for Arluk to stay at my home during the Thunder Bay, Ontario, run of Thompson Highway’s play, The Rez Sisters. She had been misdirected to my mother’s address and had to wait a while for me there.
Appearing un-phased about the initial inconvenience of her situation, she managed to greet me cheerfully upon my eventual arrival, flipped her 75-pound backpack onto her diminutive frame ready and willing to make her way to my home, undeterred. The pack looked as if it weighed almost as much as she did!
In retrospect, the walk provided a good opportunity for us to share what had been going on in her life. Arluk first explained that she had just returned from Greece, where she had been touring with the extravaganza theatre Caravan Stage Tall Ship Theatre Company. And, as she put it, she was (today) carrying “six months of living” in that monstrous pack of hers.
Arluk’s work in theatre takes her far and wide. The criss-cross travel she needs to do seems, in the telling, disruptive and exhausting. Off to Yellowknife, then back to Toronto, and then west again to the Coast only to then head off to undeterminable places beyond Canada’s shores. Such is life for a dedicated performing artist.
For many this uncertain “life of a touring artist” weighs heavily, impacting wear and tear on both body and soul, but not so for the indomitable Arluk. Despite her hectic schedule, it was evident that she had grown lighter in spirit and garnered wisdom that helped her find a deeper expression in her craft.
In recent years, much of her theatre work has drawn her back to the Arctic, her first home. Arluk is researching a remarkable Inuk woman named Tookoolito, who served as an Arctic guide to the explorer Charles Francis Hall in the mid 1800s. Tookoolito and Hall would remain good friends for close to a decade before he was killed by one of his own crew. Her research discovered that there is still disagreement amongst historians as to who actually poisoned Charles Francis Hall with arsenic. It was rumoured to be Captain Tyson, but Hall himself accused the Doctor of spiking his tea. In itself this was not an essential point though it is one that Arluk hopes to resolve definitively. Her main focus is firmly fixed on creating a stage play based on their friendship. For Tookoolito, despite the death of her friend, she and her husband Joe Eiberbing kept the entire crew alive while they floated on an iceberg that would not find land for six months.
So where did Arluk’s urge to tell stories through inspirational theatre actually begin? Born in Fort Smith, NWT, she spent the first five years of her life on the trap-line with her grandparents. Growing up, like most of her young peers, what she wanted most of all was to “fit in.” After high school, she did what many of her high school friends did to “find themselves”: travel to Europe. Once there however, Arluk felt terribly homesick and realized that she needed to be on home soil to truly discover who she was. Once back home, a serendipitous meeting with an Apache musician, (Robby Romero), gave her the impetus to travel throughout the United States.
Romero was sort of an ambassador for aboriginal culture and the environment. During her travels visiting many Aboriginal communities, Arluk’s eyes were opened to the fact that it takes effort and commitment to
keep culture alive.
“For the first time, I realized that culture can die,” says Arluk. “And that’s when my Peoples stories started to become really important to me.” That was also when her search for stories of and from her culture — stories that weren’t always easy to access, began in earnest. Now, many years later, Arluk has moved from searching for the stories to joining the circle of storytellers.
Her recent projects include performing in Human Cargo’s production of Night based in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, where they performed in 2010; being an acting coach for a select group of youth filming a traditional Innu story in Sheshatshiu, Labrador; and shooting her first feature film Maina in Kuujjuaq, Quebec, due to be released next year. And if that isn’t enough to keep her busy, she also runs her own theatre company out of Yellowknife, NWT, Akpik Theatre. Akpik was the name given to her by her great-grandmother Alice Simon when she was just a babe, which translates into “cloudberry”.
The distinctive yellow colour of the cloudberry, and the fact that it flourishes in harsh northern climates is reflective of Arluk herself. And if anyone has had the joy of enjoying a cup of cloudberry tea or tasting a smear of cloudberry jam on warm toast, they will appreciate the unique and delicious flavour of this berry.
For Arluk, her storytelling is an alchemical process — one that allows her to turn her life into art-making and her art-making back into life. It is that same natural, simple pleasure and holistic enjoyment derived from enjoying cloudberries in all their forms, that Arluk hopes her Akpik Theatre performances will bring to audiences wherever it performs.