The Magical Realism of the North: Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth

Do you remember when you first learned of Residential Schools? How old were you? How did you feel?

I was in high school. Well, I was in a kind of high school. I was attending the FLEX program at Saint Patrick’s Alexandria School in Halifax. It was a program that offered high school classes to students who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t fit into their local high schools, either because of family commitments, mental health and addiction issues, or legal problems. There, I remember a Mi’kmaq woman, still a teenager, talking to our History class about the effects that Residential Schools had had on her family, how it had affected her mother, her grandmother, and her. She opened the door to a labyrinth that I would discover lead to many rooms, many schools, many instances of horrific abuse committed by religious and political leaders in communities that had been separated from ours, on Reservations and in Christian run institutions. Opening that door, I walked away from my own family’s story of Canada, which was based on un-truths and covered up atrocities.

Split Tooth is available from Viking
Purchase it here

Tanya Tagaq’s debut novel Split Tooth (2018) picks up the counter-narrative, in a town in the far North, beyond the tree-line, in a landscape both brutal and beautiful. Tagaq’s novel has been described as a blend of fiction and memoir. More aptly, I think that her work fits into the postcolonial lineage of Magical Realism, more closely associated with the Latin American writers Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges.  The coming-of-age story of her teenaged narrator sets the drama of family life in an isolated Northern community beset by addiction and domestic turmoil against the mystical drama of Inuit spirituality and the traditional mythology of the North.

Split Tooth explores the relationship between the elements of earth, sky, and water. On earth, the totemic figure of the Fox visits the narrator as a spiritual cohort, a trickster figure that requires the aid of the narrator to overcome a family curse. The narrator has a vision of a canine figure in her family home, a terrifying vision of a corrupted, malignant spirit which she must use her own power to conquer. “It is very sharp, gnarled, masculine, canine, long-toothed and rotted. It was human once.” In fighting off the spirit, the narrator has been infected with its canine sense of predatory power. When she encounters the spirit of the Fox, the violence of the first encounter gives way to a vision of sexual pleasure and communion. The narrator is on the path of a shaman; the Fox the guide which has emerged out of the pure white of the tundra. “I saw in an instant the spiritual world we all ignore. Like the radio waves we can’t see, it is everywhere.” The encounter, unmediated by an Elder, pushes the narrator farther into the wild reaches of Spirit, of the shamanic practice, which has become dangerous in the absence of traditional structure. The ways of the shaman were destroyed by the Christian missionaries who forced the previous generations into Residential Schools, where “Everyone wanted to move forward. Move forward with God, with money, with white skin and without the shaman’s way.” Like the Fox, the narrator moves into the wild, unknown realm of spiritual power which has awakened in her with the onset of adolescence and the changing of her body from girl to woman.

Shortly afterwards, the narrator has a visionary encounter with the spirit of the Northern Lights, an experience that changes her forever. Here, her earth-bound body merges with the ancient element of the sky and she is penetrated by ecstatic lights. Again, her shamanic encounter takes place without the guidance of an Elder in her community. She is isolated both physically on the tundra, and socially by the absence of traditional teachings at her school. She is forced to navigate her emerging spiritual power alone. An impossible feat for a teenager.

The Northern Lights facilitate her transition from girl to woman. The sky has made her a mother. Her body becomes the vessel of spiritual life and two half-human children. In Christian terms, she is the figure of Mother Mary, carrying the children of the Holy Spirit. In her transition to motherhood, she finds guidance from an Elder, Helen. But there are limitations even to Helen’s ability to guide the narrator through this shamanic pregnancy. We are told that “the years of holding back words have eroded her spirit.” Helen speaks Inuktitut and the “babies flutter with contentment.” But the happiness cannot last long. When the children are born, their wild, spiritual natures quickly become uncontrollable.

The Artic sea carries its own mythology. The element of water is personified in the legend of Sedna, who is banished from the land by her father after she becomes pregnant by a shape-shifter. She is given to the sea. Her fingers, cut off by her father, became marine animals. Her long hair contained all the creatures of the sea, which she could withhold from the hunters on the ice, leading to starvation. “The only way to placate her was to send a shaman down to the bottom of the ocean to sing her lullabies,” to console her into releasing the animals from her long, tangled hair.

The narrators story mirrors that of Sedna. In becoming pregnant, her family withdraws from her. She is simply another teenage mother. No one knows of the spiritual element of her half-human children. Not even the Elder, Helen. As the children grow in power, the narrator is unable to contain them. She decides that in order to protect her family, she must venture out onto the sea ice. There, like Sedna, the sea takes what it wishes. Her shamanic journey ends in tragedy.

“Cleanse me. Wash the blood off. I am still working. I survive still. I am worthy. Start again.”

Split Tooth tells of how the coming of the Christian missionaries resulted in the erosion of the traditional spiritual ways of a people who were forced into Residential Schools, leaving behind not a new spiritual consciousness, but a deep void in the life of the Inuit people. The shamanic traditions survive because of the relationship between the people and the elements. The narrator shows us that without the guidance of traditional knowledge, the void created by colonial practices is filled by mind altering substances, substitutes for the transcendent experiences of spirituality. Without an Elder shaman to direct her, the narrator’s journey is chaotic and dangerous. That she embraces the spiritual experiences of the North regardless is a testament to the endurance and power of the spirit.

The dedication to Split Tooth reads: “For the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and survivors of residential schools.” In the spring of 2009, a body was found on the grounds of Saint Patrick’s Alexandria school. Classes were cancelled that day as yellow police tape went up around the premises. Tanya Jean Brooks, of Millbrook First Nation, had been murdered and left in a window well. I never went to graduation. But I keep with me the memory of Tanya Brooks. Her murder has never been solved. This epidemic of violence effects everyone. It’s everywhere. If you do not see it, you have simply refused to look.

Tanya Jean Brooks

If you have any information regarding the murder of Tanya Brooks, please contact the Halifax Regional Police at 902-490-5016 or send an email to

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