The unexpected history of NAIT’s mascot

by | Sep 22, 2023 | Arts & Life

When you’re taking classes at NAIT you’re an Ook, and once you leave NAIT you’ll be an Ook forever. You may have heard the phrase Ook For Life before, but do you know what the Ook actually signifies? You might say that the Ook is an owl, which is not wrong, but our winged mascot represents much more than that. 

The snowy owl, or Ookpik in Inuktitut, was crafted into a stuffie known as the “Ook.” Originally, our nocturnal mascot was a gift to NAIT’s president back in the ’60s. The gift came from Mr. G. Rancier, the Federal Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs. NAIT’s first rendition of the Ook was made by Jeannie Snowball, an Inuk elder who handmade the stuffie using sealskin. Since the stuffed Ookpik was given to NAIT back in 1964, our athletics team has played under the shortened name of the Ook.

The 1981 Ooks mascot costume. Photo via NAIT Content Collective

At the start of the Ook’s reign, the furry little owl was used in a game against our rival school, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). The goal of the game was simple: steal the other school’s mascot. At one point during play, NAIT had a second stuffed Ook made and hid the real one away to prevent it from being bird-napped by the enemies. 

Unfortunately, the Ook ended up falling into the hands of the SAIT Trojans a few times during the days of the game, but those days are no more.

SAIT’s thievery of the original mascot wasn’t the only time the Ookpik disappeared. It went missing around 2007 and has been lost since. Years later, during our school’s 50 year anniversary, NAIT even put a search out for the missing Ook, but had no luck locating the winged creature.

When the Ookpik went missing, Peggy Richardson, a former NAIT Inuit elder, created replicas of the original Ook, showing her affinity to the bird that held a special place in her heart since childhood. “The Ookpik is very special to the Inuit,” she said. “They are our protectors.”

A more recent Ook plush, used at convocation. Photo via NAIT Content Collective

Over the years, many students and staff fell in love with the Ook’s image. NAIT loved the Ook so much that in 1967, the Electrical and Electronics Department made a human-sized animatronic replica of the bird. The meter-tall machine was even wrapped in sealskin like its smaller counterpart and could move with built-in brakes and steering. The Ookpik even inspired the name of NAIT’s bookshop and campus bar in the late ’70s. To this day, many students flock over to NAIT’s campus bar, the Nest, for its tasty food and fun atmosphere. However, the ‘Ookshop’ no longer exists.

For what was just a simple gift to NAIT’s president in the ‘60s, the Ook has made a lasting impact on NAIT’s identity. Even after five decades the Ook still holds a special place in the hearts of students, staff and alumni. The meaning of the Ook has evolved from a furry mascot displayed in a glass case to the entire image of our community. 

When you walk through the school halls and see depictions of the Ook, remember its powerful history that defines our school today. And once you walk out of NAIT into your career, may you forever be proud to fly high as an Ook For Life.

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