How making viral TikTok videos about Inuit culture brought this mother and son closer
'It's just our journey, but we're putting it on film,' says Hovak Johnston, who makes videos with son Braden
They still can't quite believe it — 11.7 million views and counting. That's almost 100 times the entire population of Canada's North.
"Honestly, it's kind of weird. It's super cool, but when you really think about it, you're like, wow, like, that is just nuts," said Braden Johnston, who made the viral TikTok video with his mom, Hovak Johnston.
The 56-second clip, posted last month, shows Hovak demonstrating how to cut a piece of muktuk using an ulu, as a spellbound Braden looks on, almost visibly salivating. That's all there is to it — there's no clever editing, no music, no gags in this video, just a simple and sweet moment shared between mother and son.
"I was like, shocked when it went to one million views, and then it just kept growing," said Hovak.
The clip is by far the most popular one they've made so far, but it's representative of many of their other popular TikTok videos. The Johnstons use the platform to shine a light on Inuit culture, but also their own evolving relationship — one which has not always been easy, or healthy.
In fact, the two credit TikTok with helping them to open a new chapter together.
"Well, it's kind of complex, our relationship. It didn't start off strong," said Hovak. "We were mother and son that we couldn't even be in the same room together for more than five minutes."
Braden, who now lives in Calgary, described how the relationship started to change after he went to rehab a few years ago when he was in university.
"It was kind of then when we really started to reconcile and reconnect with each other. It was my parents giving me a safe space to heal that really allowed me to open up and find myself," he recalled.
At the same time, Braden started to become more interested in his cultural identity as an Inuk. His mother, who now lives in Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., proved to be an invaluable resource and inspiration.
"I've learned so much from her in terms of, what does it mean to be Inuit?" Braden said.
Hovak couldn't be more proud. She says watching Braden learn about and embrace his cultural heritage has been "really amazing."
Other videos focus on things such as sobriety, mental health and healing, and questions of Indigenous identity.
"We're very transparent, like we kind of share everything in hopes to inspire other people," said Braden.
Unscripted moments find an eager audience
The pair started making Tik Tok videos as a way to explore and share Inuit culture together and with a broader audience. Pretty soon, though, they started to realize that the audience wasn't just there for the muktuk, but also their simple and often funny or touching interactions as mother and son.
"It started out as us both pushing each other to share our stories and our knowledge and it kind of just so happened that the videos that were unscripted — showing us just interacting, just eating, sharing some traditional food — ended up being the ones that people ended up liking the most," said Braden.
At the same time, the two found that they were growing closer the more videos they made. They might spend a couple of hours together in the evening making a video.
"It builds up to a lot of time spent with one another," said Braden. "Especially when you're talking about such intimate subjects or you're being so vulnerable with such a large, large audience. It really helps you connect."
"We started cuddling too, because it was so, like, personal," Hovak added. "That's how we got closer. And then he started teaching me how to give, like, proper hugs."
They've been getting a lot of feedback from people who says their videos inspire hope.
"There's a lot who can relate to our relationship in the sense that they too struggled, like the parent and child struggled with connecting and being patient with each other and finding time with each other," Braden said.
Hovak says she never could have predicted how her relationship with Braden has evolved, and grown stronger and deeper.
"We're capturing that on video. Like, not intentionally — like, we didn't plan to have it that way. It's just our journey, but we're putting it on film."
- This story was updated to more accurately reflect the population of Canada's North.Sep 22, 2022 10:02 AM CT
With files from Marc Winkler and Rachel Zelniker