Ulukhaktok mural reflects life in a new land for Muslim teen from Ontario

For 17-year-old Ruqaiyah Noor-e-Zahra Naqvi, living in the small N.W.T. hamlet of Ulukhaktok means muskox hunts, snowfalls like she’s never seen before, drum dances and ravens — all of which have been painted into a mural.

Mural is 1 of 33 being painted as part of the Inuvialuit Mural Project

A girl wearing a head scarf stands behind a large painting.
Ruqaiyah Noor-e-Zahra Naqvi stands with the mural she and fellow student Alison Klengenberg-Kuneluk painted. (Submitted by Nicholas Kopot)

For 17-year-old Ruqaiyah Noor-e-Zahra Naqvi, living in the small N.W.T. hamlet of Ulukhaktok means muskox hunts, snowfalls like she's never seen before, drum dances and ravens.

Naqvi, a Muslim student at Helen Kalvak School who recently moved to the community of about 400 people, brought all those concepts together with the help of fellow student Alison Klengenberg-Kuneluk for a mural that now hangs on a wall at the school.

"It's definitely [an] interesting thing for me to try, because I never worked on a project that big," said Naqvi, who is in Grade 12.

"I think definitely because of the friends I've met here, I was able to try new things and kind of open myself up a bit."

Naqvi and her family moved to Ulukhaktok in 2020 when her mother took a job as a junior high teacher at the school. It was an unplanned move for the family, who had been living in Burlington, Ont.

"When we were going to move to Ulukhaktok … I almost felt like I get to see another view, another side of my brothers or sisters in humanity," said Ambreen Zahra Bokhari, Naqvi's mother. "We are all part of the same light."

Three smiling women and girls in a selfie taken against a backdrop of tall blue flowers and green grass.
Ruqaiya Noor-e-Zahra Naqvi, left, with her mom Ambreen Zahra Bohari and sister Sakina-Mariam Sufia Naqvi. The family moved to Ulukhaktok in 2020. (Submitted by Ambreen Zahra Bohari)

Though out of her comfort zone at first, Naqvi soon settled in. She began to meet people, make friends, and started her own creative arts club. She joined a muskox hunt with other students, took part in a drum dance and learned from elders about what they experienced at residential schools.

"It broke my heart," she said of hearing those residential school experiences. "But I think the point of them sharing it was to remind people of how far they've come in what has happened in the past, so you don't forget."

She wove those emotional and special experiences all together with paint. She's thankful, she said, for the history, culture and knowledge people have shared with her.

"If you told me two or three years ago that I would go hunting for muskox for nine hours in deep snow … I would be like, 'Are you crazy? I would never do something like that!'" she said.

"That's an experience you don't forget."

The mural is one of 33 funded by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and commissioned by the Inuvialuit Community Economic Development Organization back in March as part of the Inuvialuit Mural Project. The project aimed to support artists across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region with a stipend for their work.

A group of people stand and sit around a mural.
Joanne Ogina, Mary Kudlak, Agnes Kuptana, Annie Inuktalik, Alison Klengenberg-Kuneluk, Annie Goose and Ruqaiyah Noor-e-Zahra Naqvi show off the school's new mural. (Submitted by Nicholas Kopot)

Though most of the artists for the other murals are Inuvialuit, school principal Nicholas Kopot recommended Naqvi and Klengenberg-Kuneluk for this one — an unusual opportunity for the new student.

Alexandrea Gordon, communications manager for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, said in an email that individual community corporations selected the various artists.

She wrote that the decision to allow a non-Indigenous student to be one of the painters "demonstrates how inclusive our people are."

Gordon said the idea was to give artists freedom to express empowerment, culture and self-pride.

"This allowed the artists to create art without boundaries," she wrote.

Naqvi's finished product features a pink-cheeked girl with an ulu-shaped earring, breathing on her mitts to warm her hands. Three hills rise amidst clouds, and a baby raven takes flight over the silhouettes of a woman and a child holding hands. The silhouettes represent the important message of Orange Shirt Day.

"I thought, there's a lot of great things, but you shouldn't forget about the sad things that happened as well," she explained.

Copies of all the murals will be displayed down the streets of Inuvik early this winter.

With files from Karli Zschogner