Inuit facial tattoos have been forbidden for a century and are virtually forgotten. One hundred years ago, the ancient Inuit tradition was ubiquitous and almost all Inuit women proudly displayed their facial tattoos as a part of their identity. Writer and journalist, Ashleigh Gaul, explores what happened to the cultural practice and its controversial revival in Northern Canada.
As a little girl, Ellen Ittunga loved to trace the gray lines in her grandmother’s upper arms. From the top of her shoulder, she’d start with a line of vertical notches curving around the joint, rising from a flat, double line. Those notches made her think of the flames of the qulliq, the seal oil lamp. Underneath that, several rows of upside-downy-shapes completed a cap sleeve, and all the way down the rest of the arm there were short, broken stitches made to look like columns and columns of caribou sinews, neatly lined up for sewing; they fanned out across her heavy arms, almost to the elbow.
Underneath the old woman’s dress, Ellen saw her thighs were tattooed as well. The similar lines and notches formed “a living embroidery,” as one anthropologist called it, so her newborn babies had something to look at as they came into the world.
Ellen never thought to ask what the designs meant—she understood their purpose to be inherent in their uncomplicated beauty. But one day, after watching her grandma’s arms all morning—how they curved as she flexed while doing the dishes or just shifting on the couch—she searched for a black marker.
“Kakiniit!” she said. Tattoos. “Uvanga!” I want some! The older woman looked up. In the decades since she’d been tattooed in her outpost camp near Taloyoak, Nunavut, her tattoos had become a sin. The custom had gone from a widespread rite of passage and a source of Inuit pride to a mark of shamanism in a Christianized community. Ellen’s grandmother said nothing. She wouldn’t make the tattoos. Ellen kept drawing.
Elders’ stories, photos and anthropologists’ notes might reconstruct the tattooing process: It was mainly a women’s art. Just like the saying goes, You can’t take a wife until you’ve learned how to build an igloo; a girl wasn’t marriageable until her face was marked, and being tattooed meant she had learned the essential women’s skills: how to chop ice and melt it for water, make and repair sealskin boots, render sealfat and light the qulliq. The tattooist was an older woman who had proven her embroidery skills, and she kept her tools—a bone, wood or steel needle, sometimes a poker, maybe a knife and a string of caribou sinew, hidden away in a seal intestine-skin bag between jobs.
A girl’s first tattoos, usually done in the face, on the forehead, cheeks or chin, were often excruciatingly painful, especially around the eyes, lips and between the eyebrows. “It would be impossible to keep your toes from wiggling,” said one elder, while the tattooist ran her needle and thread through the lampblack of the qulliq and stitched it through the young girl’s skin. “It felt like your face was on fire,” said another elder. Still others said it felt like sparks from the sun. Sessions could last whole days. At certain points, the girl might scream out for the tattooist to stop.
Some say the tattooist probably prayed with every stitch, sometimes rubbing the soot in with a finger or her poker. She would gently remind the girl that the sea goddess denied access to the afterlife to women whose fingers weren’t tattooed. Women without face tattoos were banished to Noqurmiut, the “land of the crestfallen”, where they spent an eternity with their heads hanging down, smoke bellowing out of their throats.
Often, the girl fell quiet after that. The tattoo was sterilized with a urine-soot mixture and over the next few weeks and months, the black of the individual stitches would spread under the skin and the dots would resolve into thicker lines that would fade, but never disappear.
The oldest firm evidence of indigenous tattooing in North America is an ivory mask found on Devon Island, now at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. The face is decorated in much the same way the last tattoos were recorded in modern-day Nunavut. Radial lines branch down from the centre of the lips to the edges of the chin, arrowheads point in towards the corners of the mouth from the cheeks and several lines converge from the forehead to the base of the nose. Radiocarbon dating suggests the mask is 3,500 years old.
“And the earliest evidence of tattooing on St. Lawrence Island [in Alaska] shows the same kind of tattoo patterns that you could still see in East Greenland in the 1880s,” says Lars Krutak, an anthropologist who’s studied indigenous tattooing globally for almost twenty years. “So you could trace the migration of people through material culture that shows tattoos. If you look at the prehistoric era and then the recent historic period, on either side of the Arctic, the tattooing was almost exactly the same.” For several millennia, Inuit tattooing remained widespread, strong and unchanged.
Why did they disappear then, in the space of just a few generations? Krutak says, “A combination of reasons,” because there were many reasons why Inuit tattooed in the first place. Some tattoos served as acupuncture, or for pain relief. But with the arrival of southerners, Europeans and modern medicine, he adds, “why would you subject yourself to all that pain when you could just pop a pill? And then with the coming of modern fashion, clothing and makeup, tattoos for beautification sort of fell out of favour too. The tattoos related to shamanic rights, repelling or appeasing spirits,” says Krutak, “those disappeared when the missionaries came.”
In particular, the early missionary Edmund Peck (particularly powerful because he was fluent in Inuktitut and built the first Anglican church on Baffin Island in 1894) did an efficient job converting shamans to Christians and wiping out cultural practices along with religious ones. Drum dancing and throat singing disappeared from everyday life, not necessarily because they were shamanistic, but because they were traditional, and when they were unable to tell the difference, the missionaries often erred on the conservative side. But as Jacob Peterloosie of Pond Inlet told Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, sometimes the traditional practices had no purpose at all outside of being beautiful and making people happy. “To think about the hard times,” he says, “the starvation they survived. Why did they bother having drums, fun things and tattoos? They had all kinds of games too. You’d think they’d only be concerned with food and daily survival, but they tried to rise above that. Looking back on their philosophy, it’s quite amazing. They were very wise.”
In place of those fun and beautiful and very wise things, Peck brought syllabics, quiet study, and expectations of extreme piety. He also brought the Bible and with it, Leviticus 19:28: “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.”
“Oh yes, I know Leviticus,” says Mike Austin over the phone from his studio in London, Ontario. He quotes it verbatim. Austin has been unofficial tattooist to the Inuit since 2003, when Gerri Sharpe, a Gjoa Haven native living in Yellowknife, brought him pictures of her grandmother and asked him to mark her eyes, wrists and hands. He’s since done more than two dozen hand, wrist, arm, leg and face tattoos for Inuit in Iqaluit and Ontario.
In April 2013, talking with a friend in Iqaluit, Austin realized he’d never been to any of the North’s small communities, and a mutual friend in Igloolik, Annie Désilets, offered to gauge her community’s interest in getting him there. She posted to Facebook, “There is a great tattoo artist…who is interested to come to Igloolik. Any one (sic) would like to get one?” Of the sixteen responses that were posted directly to her wall in the following eight hours, the majority—eleven—were positive. But over the next few days, Désilets says she received many more messages to her private inbox that were more polarizing.
“There were lots of people who were interested,” she says, “But lots of people who said he should never come to town.” Lots more Leviticus, and then “people started arguing very badly, and I was feeling upset about that,” says Désilets. “It was weird, because I always thought tattooing was part of traditional Inuit culture. But some people don’t seem to know about that. They just said, ‘Oh why would someone from another culture come up here with his own tradition and do it to us?’”
Désilets says she’s still interested in the idea, but she and Austin never took it further after her initial Facebook posting. “I’m still living in the community and I don’t want to be having issues with people,” she says, “so the project stayed on hold.” In the meantime, though Désilets says Igloolik has a lot of collective memory about traditional practices bound up in elders, the community could use a conversation-starter on “what the traditional tattoos are.” She suggests Iqaluit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s 2010 documentary, Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos. As a public service, she says, “I’d like to project it on the gym wall.”
“It seems a lot of elders are regretting how much of our culture we so willingly threw away over the last 100 years.” Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is sitting in the summer sun on a hill in the Netsilik region of Nunavut. It’s 2008, and her face is as clear and unblemished as the day she was born. She’s in the middle of a five-year mission to research—and eventually get—Inuit tattoos. It began in Halifax, while she was studying film at Nova Scotia’s College of Art and Design. She’d been away for twelve years, and though some memories of Nunavut had faded (like learning many of those women’s skills that girls required to get tattooed), other memories grew stronger.
Arnaquq-Baril is half-Scottish and can’t think of any ancestors that had traditional tattoos, but still, she was haunted by the “rows of dots and graceful curves” she’d seen on the arms, legs, fingers and faces of unnamed women in so many historical Northern photos. It was only after she returned from the south that she mustered the courage to ask about them.
Back in Iqaluit for good in 2006, she started work on a film about her experience tracking down the fading story of Inuit tattoos. Aside from a Carleton University masters thesis from 1985, scattered explorers’ observations, visitors’ photographs and Krutak’s work (which focuses mainly on Alaska, anyway), there’d been almost no primary research done on traditional tattooing in the Canadian Arctic, ever.
Arnaquq-Baril visited nine communities in the Baffin and Netsilik regions, and interviewed fifty-six elders about the meanings of the tattoos, how they were applied, and when and how they eventually died out. Along the way she collected an ally — Greenland Inuk and Inuit cultural rights activist Aaju Peter — who had learned about Arnaquq-Baril’s quest at a filmmaking workshop in 2008 and tagged along, helping with translation and moral support. They lost an invaluable source of information when the last Nunavut Inuk to receive traditional, skin-stitched tattoos, Mary Tallu, died just weeks before Arnaquq-Baril arrived in Taloyoak to interview her. Their search, and the film, gained urgency and momentum.
To Peter and Arnaquq-Baril’s surprise, the elders they met in Igloolik, Iqaluit, Pond Inlet, Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak were unafraid to talk about the old traditions. In fact, Peter says, they seemed relieved. “They were so pleased that we were asking them about the tattoos, which had been a taboo. For those who have since passed away, I think they felt better passing on, knowing that some of their traditions were being passed on too.”
In Taloyoak, an elder conducted a ritual left over from shamanic days — a qilanik — where he wrapped Arnaquq-Baril’s head in cloth and rope and asked the spirits for advice. If they thought she should get tattooed, her head would become extremely heavy; too heavy to lift.
It worked. Austin tattooed Peter and Arnaquq-Baril with a modern-style tattoo gun, but had it custom made to look like an ulu — a traditional women’s knife — to add their own symbolic twist.
For the younger generation, Peter is convinced the film and the discussion around it sparked a revival. “There are quite a few Inuit women now and some men also with tattoos,” she says. Some of the designs, like Ellen Ittunga’s, are exact replicas of their ancestors, but just as many aren’t.
Austin points to Arnaquq-Baril, as well as musicians Celina Kalluk and Lucie Idlout, who traced lines around their collarbones to symbolize the amauti — a parka for carrying children. Yellowknife singer Angela Hovak Johnston, has broken line cheek stripes and a “V” on her forehead. In Iqaluit, dancer and poet, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and musician Nancy Mike both have stylized bands around their upper thighs, in the style of Ittunga’s grandmother. Inuit games athlete, Johnny Issaluk, recently had his forearms decorated with women’s tattoos, in honor of his grandmother and namesake.
Nunavut’s new tattooed aren’t your everyday community folk; they constitute the North’s most visible social set and role models. “And what’s more,” says Austin, “they’re taking the old tattoos and they’re starting to do different stuff with them. They’re not necessarily traditional designs, but they have a traditional feel. It’s a good thing,” he continues, “it’s the spirit of Inuit, they’re always adapting things to their environment, their current situation. Nothing’s static.”
But what happens when the pain and ritual are taken out of such a spiritual practice—does it detract from the original’s raw, dangerous beauty? One woman remains in the Arctic with hand-stitched tattoos on her face. In the early 1980s, Adeline Peter Raboff, an Alaskan Gwich’in author, developed an allergy to makeup. Since she was a seamstress, she decided to hand-stitch three lines into her chin with a steel sewing needle, some sinew, soot and some regular Wesson oil. The process took close to a year, in half-hour intervals and waiting up to a month for each section to heal. She always made a ritual of it, dimming the lights, working at the kitchen table with a mirror, while her family stood by.
“The process itself,” says Raboff, “was deliberate. I wouldn’t describe it as spiritual. I was just reenacting something that was done over a century before.” But living with her tattoos over time, she says, “that’s the spiritual practice. Every day I wash my face, I look at my chin, and I think of right attitudes; I think of the Creator and it reminds me of my attitude toward life.”
After five years with her tattoos, Peter has a similar thought: “I’ve done many things without realizing how important they would be later on.” It wasn’t the momentary pain or the ritual that connected her with her tattoos and her tattoos with her belief system — it was the daily routine of living with them. “When I got the tattoos, I was told, ‘Now the spirits can see you.’ As I explain to people what my tattoos mean, almost every day, tracing over their lines reminds me of whom I respect and why.”