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‘She was totally amazing’; family and friends pay tribute to June Okalik Klengenberg, who lived 105 years

June Okalik Klengenberg kept hearts warm with her gentle songs and kept bodies warm with her exceptional handmade parkas.

Leslie Klengenberg, June’s granddaughter, gives her a kiss on the cheek while visiting her at the Gjoa Haven Continuing Care Centre a couple of years ago. A memorial service for June, who lived to be 105 years of age, was held Jan. 16.
photo courtesy of Leslie Klengenberg

Those are among the memories shared as Klengenberg’s life, which spanned more than a century, was honoured following her death on Jan. 8.

“So amazing, she was totally amazing,” said Leslie Klengenberg, June’s granddaughter. “She sewed. She sewed parkas. She made everything for her children. She was really well known for her squirrel parkas.”

Edna Elias, who lived much of her life Kugluktuk, also remembers June’s knack for fashioning outerwear.

“She was really one of the leaders in intricate design,” Elias said. “It takes an awful lot of work to collect and skin that many siksiks (Arctic ground squirrels, also known as hikhiks in the Kitikmeot) to make a parka.”

Elias also remembered Klengenberg as a regular participant in the “good woman” competitions at the Northern Games held in the Western Arctic. June would exhibit her proficiency in events such as tea boiling, duck plucking, dry-fish making and skinning seals and caribou legs.

“She entertained crowds over the many years demonstrating her skills,” said Elias.

When passing through Gjoa Haven, Elias would stop by to see Klengenberg at the continuing care centre, where she spent the past several years.
“She was continually singing her drum dance songs. One day she told me, ‘I really could dance in my mind,’” Elias recalled, adding that Klengenberg was fluent in Inuinnaqtun, a language with only an estimated several hundred speakers remaining. “We just lost a real treasure of a language keeper, a knowledge holder.”

Leslie had a houseful of visiting relatives last week as well as a phone that was constantly ringing as June’s Jan. 16 funeral approached.

“People are sending their condolences from around Nunavut and the NWT. She had many friends all over, and family,” Leslie said. “I’m very proud to be her granddaughter.”

Her only surviving brother, Jimmy, who’s in his early 90s, made the trip from Cambridge Bay to be part of the memorial.

June was born on Read Island, off the coast of Victoria Island, on June 1, 1914. She recounted living part of her early childhood in a small tent until she and her family moved into a cabin, Leslie said. Most of her life was spent in Kugluktuk. She married Andy Klengenberg, who descended from Danish trapper, whaler and trader Christian Klengenberg.

June raised five adopted children and adored her grandchildren.

“She loved her grandchildren a thousand times to the moon and back,” Elias said. “She always made sure her grandchildren were very well looked after.”

Although Leslie was highly complimentary of the job the staff did at the continuing care centre in Gjoa Haven, she acknowledged that the distance and high cost of travel left June relatively isolated from family. It’s a reason why Leslie is an advocate for a long-term care centre in Kugluktuk, something the hamlet has been trying to arrange for several years.

“I tried for my grandmother to be transferred to Cambridge when the old-folks home opened there but it was kind of tough,” Leslie recalled of the unsuccessful request.

Relatives made the best of it by visiting when they could and by talking to June though tele-health a couple of times a week.

“She still sang for us and everything… so that’s totally amazing” Leslie said.