Indigenous Arts & Stories - Tarnikuluk


2014 - Writing Winner

“Little one,” Tulugak spoke, his eons of life resounding through his voice, “Oh, little one, you must see. You will never be truly happy, in no matter which form of life, whether human or spiritual or as a god, you will never be fully satisfied. You have closed yourself off from that possibility.”

Read Aviaq Johnston's Tarnikuluk

Aviaq Johnston

Iqaluit, NU
Age 21

Author's Statement

This is a short story that takes a couple things from Inuit history and contemporary social issues today, while also touching on Inuit mythology. Throughout the eras of assimilation among aboriginal peoples in all of Canada, we have all been faced with similar abuses by colonial powers. From residential schools and relocations among Inuit, intergenerational effects have become one of the most potent reasons for the horrible statistics that are affecting Nunavummiut today, particularly Inuit youth. One of the biggest issues among Inuit in Nunavut right now is mental health. Without adequate services in our territory, many people resort to unhealthy ways of dealing with this. More often than not resulting in physical, emotional and sexual abuse, drugs and alcohol abuse, and suicide.

My story speaks about these intergenerational effects as experienced by the spirit of a young Inuk woman who has recently committed suicide. On this journey to the afterlife, she is guided by Tulugak, a raven in Inuit mythology who is being punished for his mischievous ways and causing the death and rebirth of the sea goddess, Nuliajuk. Historically, Inuit believed in spiritual reincarnation of all living creatures. I took this idea and played around with it, but it still accurately portrays how communities deal with the tragedy of suicide. I did not name a particular community as this story belongs to all Inuit who have experienced the death of a loved one by suicide. From 2011 to 2013, there were 105 deaths by suicide in Nunavut, the youngest being eleven years old.

I chose to write this story based on the death of one of my childhood friends, who committed suicide when I was fourteen years old. She was only fifteen years old when she took her own life. It was her death that made me realize that life is short and that these issues need to be addressed.

Tarnikuluk is an Inuktitut word meaning "little soul."



Tulugak stood on the sturdy telephone pole in front of a church in the community. To the people gathering at the small building, he only appeared as a raven observing the view. It seemed as if the whole community had come to the church today, as they were overflowing out of the structure, spilling onto the street. There was a mess of vehicles parked; pick-up trucks, small SUVs and dozens of snowmobiles. Weepy singing lilted out of the church as the people sang their sorrows. A death had come to the community again and this was the funeral for yet another young soul that tripped into the idea that dying by one’s own hand might make their sadness end.

Another soul joined Tulugak on the telephone pole in the form of a smaller, less majestic raven. She was shy and hesitant, confused at why there were so many people below them. Tulugak waited for her to gain enough courage to speak. Several moments later, in a squawk, she asked, “Is that my funeral?”

He nodded his head in assent and looked at Little Soul, so crumpled and quiet. In her life, she did not often know happiness. Her spirit was a mixture of bland colours that did not even begin to convey how beautiful and inspirational she had the potential to be. She had let these colours overbear her, hiding the true magenta, turquoise, cobalt, and gold of her essence. She stared at the crowd for a long time, eventually asking, “Why are there so many?”

“Your death created quite a morose atmosphere in the community,” Tulugak narrated, “As all deaths do. However, the death of a soul so young and vulnerable creates such a tear in the fabric of the town. They can’t understand why you did something so drastic as to end your own life.”

A silence followed as Little Soul contemplated the meaning of what Tulugak had detailed. As the mournful sounds below them grew louder, more frightened and upset, they bore witness as a closed non-stately wooden casket was carried out by six uniformed cadets. Little Soul remembered that she had been one of them, and had had the chance to go on trips to Whitehorse for Cadet Camp in the summers, but had never gone because she would instead go camping on the land with her grandparents. Her fellow cadets carried the wooden box and gently lay it in the bed of a pick-up truck. She could see their glistened cheeks from the top of the telephone pole.

Alive, she hadn’t been very close to any of them. In fact, in her final months of life, she hadn’t been close to anyone. Her abusive mother had been unbearably nasty, she’d never known her father very well. She wasn’t close to her siblings. Little Soul had found refuge in her cousins, but after a while, even spending time with them could not overshadow how dejected she always felt. Much of her friendships had fallen apart, which didn’t surprise her. Growing up in poverty and poor home environment led Little Soul to tarnish all her other relationships. She’d stolen money and little trinkets from the families of her friends, had alienated herself by saying things behind their backs knowing that someone would overhear her. It wasn’t something she could control, Little Soul had to lash out ending up with ruined friendships with people who seemed to care about her. She’d wanted to hurt them before she could be hurt.

Little Soul sat on the telephone pole, watching the whole community file out of the building. First, community members, peers from school, teachers, and childhood friends came out with all their sorrowful eyes. Then her relatives from out of town, her cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings and lastly, her mother. All their grief-stricken faces stung Little Soul, but it was the vacant look in her mother’s face that haunted her the most.

Tulugak noticed Little Soul’s trembling at the sight of her family, the denial in her eyes. At first, he assumed she was denying that she was dead. Then, in an unhappy squawk, Little Soul cried, “My mother still doesn’t care! Still! How can she be so cruel to me, even now? She always hated me!”

Throughout his immortal life – as punishment for tricking Nuliajuk into marrying him and terrifying her father into drowning her – Tulugak had guided innumerable souls from their suicides to their next spiritual forms. He’d encountered an infinity of lonely and anxious souls. They were all insecure, hurt, victimized and accusatory of someone in their human life, vulnerable to that one person. It did not surprise him that Little Soul reacted this way to her mother’s seemingly emotionless appearance.

“She is mourning her youngest daughter, Little Soul,” Tulugak cooed, “Everyone processes their grief differently.”

“She never loved me!” Little Soul repeated skeptically, ignoring him. Tulugak patiently waited for her anger to pass. For several moments, she mourned her life for all its difficulty, all the cruelty she had suffered. An abusive mother, one older brother that was adopted to their grandparents, a half-sister that lived with her father, none of them could relate to her or make Little Soul feel loved. Only in her cousins did she actually find some form of kinship. Then, her closest cousin had been flown to Ottawa by medevac for surgery from a snowmobiling accident. She’d been alone for weeks. Alone with her awful mother. “She hit me and yelled at me, embarrassed me. She was evil! And now, she acts like she didn’t do anything! She acts like she didn’t force me to… to…”

Though Little Soul drifted off mid-speech, Tulugak knew exactly what she was thinking.

… to kill myself.

Every time he heard the stories, Tulugak shrank. His life’s purpose had been about mischief, making himself happy, playing jokes on people and getting whatever he wanted. He used to shift his skin into a variety of forms, from giants to insects. He would use people’s secrets that he overheard as leverage, use his various shapes to steal whatever he pleased, from beautifully crafted ivory snow knives to gorgeous women. He’d misjudged the situation with Nuliajuk. Ever since she became a sea goddess through his malice, Tulugak couldn’t stop thinking about how petty he had been. He’d started out as a vibrant celestial being. Now, he couldn’t grow any larger than the raven form he took.

Each time the souls came, Tulugak dimmed. He fell. He hurt.

They’re lives carried such darkness and apathy. To live life on a constant edge, inching closer each and every moment that someone sneers at them, raises a hand to them, every time they felt lonely or foolish. Until one day someone just says one word, any single word, and suddenly it all tumbles down on top of them. They lose their footing on that cliff’s edge and they can’t remember the things that had kept them together for so long. Tulugak swallowed their painful lives in order to bring them to their next spiritual life in a way that will rid them of their terrible sadness, but doing this led him to soak it all up. He became more and more tired, more and more remorseful. Tulugak was falling into an abyss of absolute depression. Year after year, the number of souls multiplied as the standard of living became ever dismal. Tulugak had absorbed hundreds of thousands of these suicidal souls seeking escape.

Still, Tulugak had to help Little Soul see that she must move on. “Take me away,” Little Soul sobbed, “please, just take me somewhere so I don’t feel like this anymore. I need to… I need to feel something different. I need to feel better.”

“Little one,” Tulugak spoke, his eons of life resounding through his voice, “Oh, little one, you must see. You will never be truly happy, in no matter which form of life, whether human or spiritual or as a god, you will never be fully satisfied. You have closed yourself off from that possibility.”

“You don’t know!” Little Soul wept, “You don’t understand what it was like! You don’t know how I lived!”

Yes, Little Soul, I do, he thought quietly to himself. I know how the forty year old man felt when he killed himself last week, after his wife of twenty years left him. I know how the sixteen year old teenage girl felt when she decided to hang herself a month ago. I know how the thirteen year old boy felt when he did the same thing four years ago. I know how the fifty year old women felt when she decided to drive into nothingness. I know how the eleven year old felt. I know how you, the fifteen year old, felt.

“I do, little one,” he inclined his head toward her, brushing away his heavy thoughts, “you have let your sadness and your obstacles become you. Until you break free from those, I cannot help.”

Little Soul whimpered softly to herself. Below, the crowd had dispersed widely. The family had gone with her body off to the cemetery at the edge of town, whilst her old friends and other members of the community made their way home. Stores, office buildings and the schools were temporarily closed for the service. Her old classmates and teachers would all be returning to classes tomorrow. Men and women would return to their jobs until five.

Tulugak could feel her vulnerability, her undiluted despondency. She was sinking lower, but he was used to this. Tulugak hopped closer to her and listened while she breathed heavily between her sobs. Why, she wondered, why was everyone around her so much stronger while she too weak to even hold herself up?

“I am here,” Tulugak began to explain, “so that I may help you move on, to carry onward and learn to accept yourself for who you are, that life isn’t meant to be perfect, that there will always be better days and better people in your life. I am here to help you see that there are better ways to overcome your obstacles. When you accept yourself and the world, you accept life and all its harshness, but also its joys. When you accept these things, you may move on, and this will bring you a happiness that cannot be shaken, no matter which form you are given after this. You could move on to be human again, or take the form of a creature or you may become celestial, like myself. You can dance in the stars or swim in the ocean. Your acceptance of yourself is what will free you. Your acceptance of your circumstances is your deliverance. This will be very hard, indeed. It will also be truly rewarding.”

“But I don’t care about me,” Little Soul murmured, “I mean, yes I do… but I could accept myself and everything just fine. I just can’t… I can’t accept them. My mother, my father, the bullies. I can’t do that. They hurt me too much.”

“Ah, hatred,” Tulugak responded, “Such an awful thing. Hatred holds people back. It victimizes them, accuses them of terrible things, and leads them down a dark, dark path. Hatred is your excuse for not living. There is far too much hatred in the world, I think. Too much hatred and not enough love. Not enough forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness?” she echoed.

“Forgiveness,” Tulugak looked at her pointedly, “I’ve done wrong, little one. I’ve done such terrible wrong unto others, none of whom have forgiven me. For millennia, those I hurt have punished me, making me pay my due for the pain I’ve caused them. Though they feel that they are in the right, they are causing me such suffering. And I forgive them, though they had sought revenge rather than forgiveness. I forgive them for inflicting their hatred upon me, because I deserved it once, and they do not feel that I have redeemed myself.”

“You think I should forgive my mother?” Little Soul scorned, “My father? My bullies and the others who were mean to me? You think they deserve it? Just like you think you deserve the one’s you’ve hurt to forgive you?”

“I think everyone deserves redemption and forgiveness. It heals those who are unhealthy, mends those who are broken. You know… some of those people that went to your funeral are angry at you? They think you are selfish and cowardly. They think you left them behind, that you took yourself from being important in anybody else’s life, from their life and the future generation’s lives. Yet, they forgive you, because they cared for you. I think you deserve forgiveness. I think your mother deserves forgiveness, and all the others in your life. People aren’t born evil, they are molded. Your mother suffered long and hard as a child, she doesn’t know how else to live.”

Silence bore the air between them. It wore on for a string of time that none could measure, lasting both a minute and a century. They sat comfortably, even with the thick tension between their hunched shoulders.

Finally, Little Soul spoke, her voice carrying beautiful strength, “Okay.”

“You forgive?” he prompted.

“I forgive them,” she spoke gently into the wind, “I forgive them all: those that you have wronged, you for hurting them, my family, my mother, my friends.” She looked over the town, cloaked in white snow, puffs of smoke wafting from chimneys, growling engines of snowmobiles riling in the distance. Little Soul took a deep breath, saying, “I forgive myself.”

As she flew away, light bearing upon her soul, taking her to new places, new life, Tulugak remembered that at least one of those he had wronged had forgiven him. Nuliajuk may have given him this job as punishment, but she also knew how rewarding and uplifting it felt to send a passing soul soaring into the sunlight.