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Nellie Pokiak remembered as a 'pioneer' in the science community

·3 min read
Nellie Pokiak sampling a beluga. (Submitted by Lisa Loseto - image credit)
Nellie Pokiak sampling a beluga. (Submitted by Lisa Loseto - image credit)

An obituary remembering Nellie Pokiak left out one thing: her pioneering contribution to research and science.

Pokiak, a well-respected member of the Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, community, died last week at the age of 66.

After reading our story, Lisa Loseta, a research scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, reached out to CBC to share the impact that Nellie had on the department.

Pokiak and her husband Frank were beluga monitors at Hendrickson Island for about 13 years, helping the Department of Fisheries and Oceans with their research and giving invaluable knowledge.

"Nellie … had no fear," said Loseto.

"Nellie's love for the land and wildlife translated to science through her incredible depth of knowledge and her passion for wanting to share that and wanting it to be used for science."

Loseto described the Pokiaks as a team that worked together to collect samples from hunters for beluga research.

"It was such a special learning experience to be there sampling the whales with someone who knew so much and would just share a new window of perspective on how to see the whales in the system and how it connected back to them," said Loseto.

Loseto said she still remembers when Nellie went to her first conference to present with the department about her knowledge of beluga.

Nellie Pokiak, right, at a conference in 2009.
Nellie Pokiak, right, at a conference in 2009.(Submitted by Lisa Loseto)

"She was amazing … She had come up with a bunch of photos she had already printed. She had already made her own poster. She knew she was going up there … and she was so ready for it," said Loseto.

"We spoke together on stage and she just stole the show, and then I had so many people ask me, 'Could you bring Nellie again?'"

Loseto refers to Nellie as a one of the "pioneers," for being able to translate and use her Inuvialuit traditional knowledge to help further scientific research.

Loseto remembers how Nellie used to fix and set a fish net in such a short time while sampling beluga — all while she had a baby on her back.

"She could do anything … Nellie made the impossible seem doable," said Loseto. "And she did it with such grace."

A family affair

Nellie's husband Frank remembers when he first got asked to do work with beluga whales, he first brought Nellie along because he was able to take his family. However after a couple of years, she began to get paid as a cook. Soon she was helping with the sampling.

"All the people that hunted whales out there really enjoyed it because she fed everyone that came. Didn't matter what time of the night because it was a 24-hour job," said Frank. "Sometimes we only slept for an hour or two and then we'd have to get up to sample whales."

He said for the 13 years they did it, they would be out sampling for about a month and a half in the summer. Frank said Nellie would do most of the recording while he would do more of the hands-on work with the whale.

"It would be really tiresome sometimes," said Frank, adding "we really enjoyed it because I had my grandkids out there with me."

They trained one of their daughters to be a beluga harvester. She did that for three years, and also trained summer students who continue to work on the project.

It wasn't just the science community where Nellie made an impact. Frank said he's been getting multiple phone calls from students that she counselled, including MLA Jackie Jacobson who told Frank he wouldn't be where he is now if it wasn't for Nellie.

Frank said his wife was a kind person, a great listener and she loved everyone of her kids and grandkids.

Her funeral will be held in Tuktoyaktuk on Saturday.