“Just because you don’t see something on a regular basis doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” says Lucy Tulugarjuk.
The Fort Smith-based actor, artist and mother has had a lifetime of close encounters with the unusual beings famous in Inuit folklore, from miniature people to shape shifters and even (possibly) a mermaid.
“When I was young, my father and mother always told us stories and legends of Inuit beliefs,” she says. “So I grew up knowing them and I believed in them. I think that’s why I tend to have these experiences. If you believe in something, then it becomes strong.”
While some of the incidences have been chance sightings or fleeting glimpses, most of Tulugarjuk’s experiences with the fantastic have been the result of not heeding warnings from her parents about wandering off alone on the tundra.
She shared a few stories with EDGE about some of the creatures she met growing up in the Arctic.
Inugarulligarjuk, or “little people,” are thumb-sized versions of humans who live on the land, who sport traditional clothing like miniature eider duck parkas and kamiks, and who even carry little tools.
Tulugarjuk was 22 when she first caught sight of five of them in the early morning hours in her home in Igloolik after being awoken by the calls of her younger sister.
“I ran to see my sister and they were against the wall running in little outfits of traditional clothing,” she says. “The front man had a little harpoon and the other man had a little spear.”
When she went to see where they had gone, they had disappeared. But her brother-in-law had also spotted them and, years later, still corroborates her story.
“What I hear from Elders is that they live traditionally and hide when humans are around,” Tulugarjuk says. “Some say if a human mistreats the little people they can transform into a bigger being in a split second. Inuit believe it is best to leave them alone if you don’t want to get attacked.”
Two of her sisters, her brother and her father all have stories of seeing the inugarulligarjuk at outcamp, climbing up the radio or scaling the edge of the bed inside the tent.
It’s hard to say if they’re tiny humans or spirits or something else, but Tulugarjuk has her own theory:
“Maybe we’re the giants.
Tulugarjuk was about eight years old when she was first tricked by the tarriaksuk, beings that humans cannot see unless they make themselves visible.
She was out at her family’s outcamp. Her mother had told her not to wander off alone, but as a curious child, it was hard to stay put. Then she felt the pull.
“I thought I heard my name being called,” she says. “They seemed to be waiting.”
Up ahead, she could see her aunt and uncle walking out away from camp, so she decided to follow. She called their names, but they didn’t respond, which felt strange.
“The further I got away, the more that I could sense my mother calling for me: ‘Don’t go far,’” Tulugarjuk says.
But her aunt and uncle seemed to be waiting. In her mind she could hear the words, ‘Time to go.’
“It was like my thoughts were being controlled.”
She came to a small stream. In the moment it took her to jump the little creek, her aunt and uncle jumped further into the distance. Something didn’t seem right. She heard her mom’s voice again.
She continued on after them, but took her eyes off the pair for a split second to watch a fly buzz by. Again, her aunt and uncle jumped a seemingly impossible distance further. It was then that Tulugarjuk became sure something was wrong, and ran straight back to the tent.
When she arrived, her mother could tell she was frightened. After hearing Tulugarjuk’s story, she became concerned. “I told you not to go far!” her mother said.
They headed over to the next tent where her aunt and uncle were sitting inside. They had been there the whole time.
That’s when Tulugarjuk realized the beings she had been following were shapeshifters trying to lure her.
“They can switch to people you know to convince you to go with them.”
The tarriaksuk are just one type of these land-based tricksters who can steal children, according to Tulugarjuk. Others include the ijiraq, similarly deceptive creatures that have the ability to kidnap people and hide them, and inukppasugjuk, or giants.
“When you’re on the land, they wait until the children are alone and snatch the child and run away,” she says of these massive creatures. “If you’re lucky you might survive. Otherwise you might be eaten.”
Qallupilluq is a well-known creature of the sea in the Arctic. She is a woman who lives underwater and will take disobedient children who wander too close to the shore or the edge of the ice, hiding them in the hood of her amauti and keeping them forever.
When Tulugarjuk was about eight years old, her mother had once again warned her not to wander too close to the ice, but she was far too inquisitive to heed the message.
She marched straight up to the shore and yelled, “Qallupilluq! Are you around?”
There was no answer. She turned around and was about to walk away when suddenly, she heard the telltale knock.
“I thought, ‘It’s just in my mind.’”
Then came three more knocks.
Frightened, she took off away from the water, but not before she turned around to see if the something that had caught her eye was actually the famous monster.
“When I looked back, I saw it. It was really hard to see the face; it was blurry, with darker skin sort of like fish scales, and long tangly hair,” she says. “I wondered, ‘Am I really seeing what I thought I heard?’ I thought it might be a seal.”
But when it raised itself up and lifted its arms out to its side, Tulugarjuk knew she was not mistaken.
“I ran back, shouting ‘Anaana! Qallupilluq almost took me!’”
Some years later when Tulugarjuk was in her late teens, she was out seal hunting with her family when she says she may have caught sight of an iqaluujaq, a creature half fish, half human.
“I was pretty sure I saw a mermaid. I saw the flipper,” she says. “I thought it was a seal at first, but when I had a closer look it turned and went down, but I saw the flipper. It was either a huge fish or a mermaid.”
Though she isn’t certain she saw one, her uncle has a story about seeing one and following it by boat, so she knows the iqaluujaq are out there somewhere.
A warning from beyond
Years later, Tulugarjuk met her biological parents and shared with them the stories of her strange encounters.
At first they weren’t sure how to respond, but the following day Tulugarjuk says they told her those experiences all communicate the same strong message: that she should not be alone on the land.
While she knows not everyone is likely to believe her stories, Tulugarjuk notes it’s not everyone who gets to catch the rare sightings of such fantastic creatures, either.
“It’s a matter of having an open mind to the universe, because we’re all part of the universe, even these other beings,” she says.