By Stephen Hendrie
On National Indigenous Peoples Day this year I spoke with Putulik Ilisituk on the phone for over an hour. He was at his home in Salluit. I’ve known Putulik going back to the early ‘90s while working for Makivvik as an Information Officer. When he was working at Taqramiut Nipingat Incorporated (TNI) radio, he used to call to set up interviews with Charlie Watt, or Zebedee Nungak, or Pita Aatami. Later when I was at Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), he’d ask to interview Jose Kusugak, or Mary Simon.
I’ve always thought of Putulik as a Renaissance Man – somebody who is a well-rounded individual, gifted and skilled in many differentareas. He certainly proved that over the course of our interview. I started by asking him what he thought about National Indigenous Peoples Day.
“It’s meaningful today to be a part of the recognition of native people,” he said. “Being recognized more for who they are, and where they come from. I think it helps all the native people to be more recognized.”
Putulik was born in May 1957 in Salluit, out on the land in what he describes as a “half igloo, half tent.” He mother was Susie Ilisituk and his father was Tivi Ilisituk. “I believe I have some of the skills I obtained through my father, who was a carver of soapstone, and he was a very good artist. He used to show how Inuit used to live. I think I have part of that skill, but in the area of painting and drawing.”
allunaat at the time had difficulty pronouncing the name “Salluit.”
“When I was growing up as a boy, the village was small. The population was around 300 in the early 1960s. The igloo era was coming to an end when I was a baby. Wooden houses were starting to be built, and the first government school was built.”
He described the first school as having one room. So did his family home, which his father built. “It was a one-room shack. I used to stay near the stove to keep warm. The first government houses were called ‘matchboxes’ because they were square shaped. My father constructed one with the help of two people, for our family.”
He started going to the government school at age five. “The only language of education was English. They still had no French education at that time. It was only introduced in 1966 or 1967. I can remember my first English teacher, Miss MacArthur.” He says they had art classes from the very beginning, and it was something he excelled in.
When ITK held a logo contest in 2001 to create a modern image for the national Inuit organization, Putulik’s submission featuring four Inuit holding hands, signifying unity, over the map of Inuit Nunangat, won first prize.
He was naturally drawn to the field of broadcasting. Salluit was chosen as the first community to have a Television Production Centre, the first of its kind in Nunavik. Putulik was one of 15 Inuit to train for TV production in late 1979.
“We learned the trade of how to run the camera and how to produce a TV show. We were getting quite good at it, and we would ask to go on hunting trips, and fishing trips, carrying a TV camera with us. We were also introduced to other Nunavik communities, and could see other films and videos being produced in other villages, which was starting to get quite interesting.”
I asked him if there was a TV or radio story he worked on during his 31 years at TNI that he will always cherish. “It was a walrus hunting trip that I took with my colleague Adamie Saviadjuk. We both had small high quality film cameras. It was a Bealieu, and it recorded sound too,” he said. “I was on one Peterhead with the captain Jimmy Kakayuk, and Adamie was with Sammy Kaitak, an elder. It was a successful hunt, in the fall of 1981, to Nottingham Island on the Hudson Strait.”
That project brought Putulik to Ottawa, where he edited the film at the CJOH television studios, over the course of a week.
Fellow broadcasters in Nunavik Alec Gordon, and Charlie Shipaluk, at CBC Radio in Kuujjuaq had stories to tell about Putulik. “We gave him a contract one time to record some elders for us,” said Alec Gordon, the regular host of Tuttavik. “It was around 1995. He collected stories from quite a few elders, who are deceased now.”
Charlie Shipaluk used to work with Putulik at TNI. He was doing replacement hosting at CBC in Kuujjuaq. He remembered the walrus hunt story on “Super-8” film. “It’s one of the nicest films that he made. He also did a really nice show about Ivujivik hunters, hunting seals with a harpoon. Putulik has incredible talent,” said Charlie. He just produced a new collection of songs, and he wrote a book about the life story of the people of Salluit called We Are Inuit.”
Putulik says he completed the book after working in TV for 18 years at TNI. “I started to do some interviews with elders from Salluit, asking them what they remember about growing up in Salluit, when it was still called Sugluk,” he said. “They talked about what they used to do, where they used to go hunting or fishing, and what happened there in the early days. I was able to get old photos from the Avataq Cultural Institute in Montreal. They helped a lot in putting the book together. It covered from the early years to the modern times. It was published in 2014.”
TNI Executive Director Julie Grenier says Putulik’s contributions to communications in Nunavik have been substantial. “He’s done so much, with all of the interviews and stories he has put together. He has also helped with keeping our oral history alive, and the Inuit language. His voice is still heard. We replay a lot of interviews and programs with him in them.”
In 2022, Putulik self-produced a collection of gospel and old Inuit style country songs. “I started experimenting with a small little recorder that has multi-track in it. I started recording gospel songs, and it started to sound very good, so I put multiple instruments on it, like two guitars, bass guitar, and keyboards. I did that on my own and sometimes I would ask people in Salluit to help me add a musical instrument, like a guitar or accordion. I sent one of the songs to CBC in Kuujjuaq, called ‘My Love’, and they played it on the radio.”
Salluit, of course, is famous for the Salluit Band, originally called the Sugluk Band. “I used to hang around with them,” said Putulik. “Eventually they started asking us if we could help, playing together with them, and that’s how some of us got introduced to playing musical instruments, like guitars and accordions, and eventually we joined the band.”
He recalled significant concerts for the Salluit Band. “In 1974 they were invited to play in Cape Dorset. It was the year that Inuit players had their first performing concert. They had other concerts too. One was in Inukjuak in 1981, and in Frobisher Bay, now Iqaluit.”
I’ve seen the Salluit Band perform, and I remarked to Putulik that they were like rock stars!
“Yes, you could say that at that time. I remember I had long hair. I can remember one time back in 1994 in Kangiqsujjuaq, they had an All Organizations Meeting, and the Salluit Band was invited to play. I also remember we went to play in Pangnirtung, and also Kuujjuaraapik.”
Putulik suffered a stroke in the fall of 2022. He took time to recover in Montreal, and when he was well enough, he returned to Salluit. “I am still taking medication, slowly getting better. I am stronger, walking on my feet, and my legs are stronger too. I am able to apply for a job. I was accepted to work as an art teacher in the local school.”
In concluding the interview, I mentioned to Putulik that whenever he called to set up interviews with Inuit leaders that he was very soft-spoken. Alec and Charlie both remarked on this too. I asked if it has served him well in his broadcasting career to have a gentle, soft-spoken personality.
“Yes I think it has served me well. I can say others are soft spoken too. When they speak, they speak quietly and effortlessly, while others are loud speakers,” he said laughing. “They speak loud, and are hardly able to be heard.”
A true Renaissance Man.