Like thousands of others at the beginning of the pandemic, Patuk Glenn, Inupiaq, discovered TikTok as a way to cure lockdown boredom.
But unlike most users of the popular social media app, Glenn was catapulted to TikTok fame. Three months after she made her first post, she officially had a growing list of 120,000 followers that hailed from all corners of the Earth.
The reason behind her TikTok stardom? Inupiat culture.
“I saw that at that time, early in the year, there were not a lot of Native creators. And so I felt compelled to create content that was more relevant to me and other Inuit people,” said Glenn.
Glenn creates short clips demonstrating her everyday life in the nation’s northernmost community, Utqiagvik, Alaska. This includes videos of her making traditional food such as Inuit ice cream, which consists of caribou fat and ground caribou meat; walkthroughs of the ice cellar behind her mother’s house, where they store the food they hunt; and tutorials on sewing parkas. All the videos are filled with her signature sense of humor and awareness of catchy TikTok trends.
The entertaining videos have been shared thousands of times across the internet. But it wasn’t admiration that initially caught viewers’ attention. Glenn first went viral due to online harassment from outsiders who condemned her cultural practices. Oftentimes, the harassment stemmed from non-Native environmentalists who had misconceptions about Indigenous subsistence lifestyles. Videos showing traditional Ptarmigan soup preparation were flagged. Cruel comments directed at Glenn and other Inuits were left in the reply section.
Glenn could’ve let the statements get to her. She chose to view it as an educational opportunity instead.
“Through this misunderstanding, I felt compelled to educate and share who we are, and how we live, and the sort of things that we do for survival and for thriving,” she explained. “It's the distillation of all of our [ancestors’] knowledge passed down on to us. And I think that is something to be so proud of.”
One common misconception that Glenn encounters is the belief that traditional whaling practices should be abolished. The whales that Glenn’s community hunts are not endangered, and the hunting practices are done sustainably, based on knowledge that they have been using for thousands of years. Still, some people on the internet believe that because Inuits have other food options today, they should give up the tradition altogether. Glenn viewed this as a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of culture and heritage.
“The generations before us worked very hard to provide us with economic freedom and options, and just because people engage in a cash economy, that shouldn't be a reason to stop carrying out our culture of who we are,” she said.
It sometimes seemed these commenters only respected Native culture when it was portrayed as a thing of the past, rather than a living way of life that continues to evolve today.
“It's almost like people wanting to put us in a museum and that they're only comfortable with the idea of Inuit people as a peoples and culture locked in time and space,” she said. “And I don't agree with that one bit. We’re here today, we live a mix of our heritage, our history, but we’re also living in the modern day as well.”
In Glenn’s effort to educate non-natives about her culture, she also stumbled upon a different education need: those within her own community, who might not have been raised learning the details of their heritage. This included Inuit people who had been adopted by non-Inuit families when they were younger, or those who had moved away and lost touch with their community. Glenn began receiving countless messages from people, thanking her for sharing the details of an Inupiaq lifestyle.
“I felt like I became everybody's Auntie. By watching some of my videos, they said they felt a sense of pride and that it helped fill a void within them,” she said. “That really caught me off guard, and really started to make me think about all of the people that are in need of understanding who they are and where they came from, and their self identity.”
In one instance, a foster mom of a 3-year-old Inupiaq girl reached out to Glenn, and asked her if she had any Native food to spare, so that her daughter could be familiar with her culture. Glenn was happy to help -- she ended up making the girl a small parka and giving her some Indigenous children's books as well.
“I feel like social media is a great tool to help educate, and help bring that self identity into some young people's hearts and minds, that maybe they are lacking somewhere,” she said.
But Glenn hasn’t only been educating viewers during her time as a content creator. She also counts herself as one of the many who have learned from TikTok videos. While there seemed to be few Native TikTokers when she first joined the app, she now follows many, and has gained insights about other cultures along the way.
“I've been able to learn more about Indigenous people all over the world, just through checking out the short TikTok videos,” she said. “It's been awesome.”
The community of fans, creators, and viewers have given back to Glenn as well. Glenn, who works for the Arctic Slope Community Foundation, has made videos about fundraisers focused on improving life in the North Slope. After releasing these short clips on TikTok, she noticed a significant uptick in donations from places all over the Lower 48.
“I don’t think we would have had that new organic market had it not been for TikTok,” she explained.
Overall, the experience has been surprising for Glenn. When she first downloaded the app all those months ago, she never expected to go viral, and she never envisioned the powerful impact that a 10 second video could have on the lives of others. Today, she is looking forward to continuing the journey, wherever it may take her.
“Social media can be a very powerful tool in helping those that need help, in ways that we had never even considered before,” she said. “And it's my hope that this multiplies and that I and other Indigenous creators can help fill those gaps where our people need help the most -- even just in understanding self identity.”
Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a writer for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from Anchorage.