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Project Jewel Success Story: David Roy Ekpakohak
Growing up on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, in a small, secluded community, a young David Roy Ekpakohak was rightfully quiet, shy, and content to keep to himself.
His childhood was spent learning the traditions and values of Inuvialuit culture. He was taught to drum dance and speak Inuvialuktun from his mother, and to hunt from his father – catching his first seal when he was 10 years old. His grandparents took him out on-the-land.
Immersed in the family teachings, David was soaking up the lifestyle. All in preparation for the near future – for when he would take on the responsibility to share his culture’s past with the present.
But he needed an opportunity to build certainty in himself and the chance to embrace a leadership role.
Located on the west side of Victoria Island, the population of Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories (formerly known as Holman) is approximately 500 people. It is a tight-knit community – where culture and traditional activities are a way of life – that attractively rounds the picturesque harbour of Queens Bay.
David grew up here – in Ulu, as its locally called; aside from a few months spent in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut as a youngster. At 23 years old, he enjoys hunting, fishing, golfing, and playing baseball. Really, anything that involves fresh air.
This connection to the outdoors led David to Project Jewel, an on-the-land wellness program offered by Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. Utilizing a cultural setting that builds upon existing skills, Project Jewel works with youth and adults to develop new strategies to help achieve personal goals.
David’s first experience in the program was through a youth-centred muskox hunt, taking place approximately 150 kilometres north of Ulukhaktok near Walker Bay. Slightly introverted, he found it difficult to work and talk with other participants. But Project Jewel encourages people to work together and value the positive connections that can grow in supportive environments.
Almost overnight, David became more confident. His mother, Julia Manoyak Ekpakohak, says her son quickly grew out of his shyness, started helping others, and began asking questions.
“The first program he took with Project Jewel, I noticed he didn’t want to say anything. He would nod his head or say, ‘I don’t know’,” Julia said. “But within a few days, he was saying what he wanted to say, vocally instead of using body language, and that made a big difference in him.”
Through Project Jewel, David has been able to build a support system to surround himself – enabling him to feel comfortable talking to others and come out of his shell. This has allowed David to become a local ambassador of Project Jewel, and other programs and culture opportunities, for youth in his community. He understands the importance of building connections and works hard to be someone young people can approach.
“Out walking around, he will tell the younger children that he is proud of them for just the littlest things,” his mother said delightfully. “He will give them a hand or ask them questions about what they are doing … I’m very proud of who he has become.”
Knowing the significant role that Inuvialuit culture played in his own personal development, David has made a point to utilize on-the-land and traditional learning opportunities to develop his leadership among the youth in his community. And as Project Jewel and his own upbringing taught him, next to nothing can replace the wellness outcomes that come from these activities.
As part of the Ulukhaktok Western Drummers and Dancers, David guides younger members during performances as they learn the proper vocal calls and precise movements. He also tries to influence his friends and other youth to speak Inuvialuktun, sometimes translating what is said in English for them to build a base for future learning.
Promoting walking over the use of wheels or engines, however, has been his most successful traditional learning initiative in the community. What grew out of necessity has grown to common practise.
With no transportation available to him, David still wanted to get out on-the-land and provide country food for his family and elders in Ulukhaktok. Just like his ancestors before him, he set out on foot, estimating that from May, when the geese first arrived, until July, he walked over 160 kilometres.
“Back in the day, from my grandparent’s era, people would walk that distance in three days,” David explains. “So, walking that distance in three months is not bad. We have it easy compared to what our grandparents did.”
Over the course of one year, David got stronger, his endurance rose, and he could walk for longer distances. It helped him lose 23 kilograms. That noticeable difference started influencing others to follow suit.
Now, when David plans to head out on a hunt, he receives multiple requests through Facebook asking if he would like company. Other young people want to join him – knowing they will be walking until something is caught – and they don’t mind it. Perhaps the most traditional of all activities has seen a resurgence in the community.
With the youth population in Ulukhaktok growing, leaders such as David will be needed – not only for his promotion of the Inuvialuit lifestyle, but in his recognition of the importance of being a positive influence in a young person’s life.
In the future, David would like to continue working with youth – providing them with opportunities to better themselves, like he received through Project Jewel. He wants to ensure that activities stay available to them, and that fishing trips and other programming is planned.
Above all else, David wants youth in his community to move in the right direction, stay safe and out of trouble, and follow their traditional values and culture. And he is prepared to lend a hand wherever necessary.
“Helping people is a good thing,” David said. “Helping out is what Ulu does.”