Nellie Pokiak Remembered as a ‘Pioneer’ in the Science Community

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An obituary remembering Nellie Pokiak forgot to mention one thing; her pioneering contribution to research and science.

Pokiak, a famous member of the Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, community, passed away last week aged 66.

Following the news of her death, Lisa Loseta, a research scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, shared the impact that Nellie had on the department.

Pokiak and her husband Frank were beluga monitors at Hendrickson Island for around 13 years, assisting the Department of Fisheries and Oceans with their research and providing 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 gather 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 recalls when Nellie attended her first conference to present with the department regarding her knowledge of beluga.

“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 utilize her Inuvialuit conventional knowledge to help further scientific research.

She also recalls how Nellie used to fix and set a fish net in such a short period of time whereas sampling beluga, all while she had a child 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 recalls when he first got asked to perform work with beluga whales, he first went together with Nellie because he was able to take his family. But after a few years, she started to get earn money as a cook. Soon she was assisting 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 worked together, they would be out sampling for around a month and a half in the summer. Frank said Nellie would do most of the recording while he would do much 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. Nellie did that for 3 years, and also trained summer students who continue to work on the project.

But Nellie made an impact beyond the science community. Frank said he has been receiving several phone calls from students that she counseled, including MLA Jackie Jacobson who told Frank he would not be where he is now if it was not for Nellie.

Frank said his wife was a kind person, a great listener and she loved those around her kids and grandchildren.

Nelllie’s funeral will be held in Tuktoyaktuk on Saturday.

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