Marked for life – new documentary revives the art of traditional Inuit tattoos

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Back in 2005, when Iqaluit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril was considering a traditional tattoo in the style common for Inuit women until the mid-20th century, she could find only one living woman who still had tattoos – a 104-year-old Elder named Neeveeovak Marqniq in the community of Sanijarak.

With barely enough funding to develop Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos, her film about the lost history of Inuit women’s tattoos, Arnaquq-Baril decided to push everything aside and pour all of her money into a trip to Sanijarak to visit Marqniq. Some two weeks before their scheduled meeting, however, she got the bad news –Marqniq had died on Boxing Day.

“I just missed her,” sighed Arnaquq-Baril. “It was heartbreaking and I almost gave up on the film. I mean, I did. I decided I still wanted to do the research and get my tattoos, but what was the point of making a film if the last tattooed woman was gone? However, people kept bugging me about it – they were interested and wanted to see it, so I decided to make the film anyway. Although she was gone, there were people who knew her. I thought I could go to her community and interview her surviving relatives.”

For some time, Arnaquq-Baril had been trying to tease out the story of Inuit tattooing. No one she knew had the traditional tattoos – she’d seen and loved them growing up, but by the time she was an adult looking for information about their history was all gone. The tattoos and their history had been swept under the rug of colonialism, mainly by Christian evangelists who believed they were evil.

“As I grew older, I heard people say, ‘What do you mean traditional Inuit tattoos? I’ve never heard of them,’” Arnaquq-Baril recounted. “When I started talking about maybe getting them, the intense reactions that I got from people really surprised me. But the more I thought about it, I wondered why I was surprised. I shouldn’t be. Because by the time I got old enough to start working on the film, I was aware of the issues and the impact of colonialism.”

Tunniit poster flat

Tunniit was screened to a packed house of over 700 eager viewers, including many Inuit, at Montreal’s Concordia University February 8. It chronicles how Inuit women’s tattoos were wiped out by the same wave of colonialism that eliminated many Indigenous languages and traditions. Arnaquq-Baril said she heard from many people who still believe the tattoos are evil, and were upset by both her film and the possibility she would get one herself.

At the film’s core is the testimony of 58 Elders Arnaquq-Baril visited across more than a dozen communities of Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatisavut (in Labrador) and Inuvialuit in the western Arctic. She found her way through the communities simply by calling each Hamlet Office, asking to be referred to a translator, and then asking the translator about the Elders in each town who would be most willing to talk about the tattoo tradition. Though Arnaquq-Baril speaks Inuktitut the dialect of distant communities was a challenge that the interpreters helped her overcome.

“We have a generation of Elders who don’t speak a word of English, or if they do, just barely,” she explained. “So there’s this barrier, and those people who are fluent in both languages and old enough to respectfully interview Elders, who know the etiquette and can make those connections – that’s precious. They’ve got a foot in both worlds.”

The Elders are at the heart of the film. In numerous scenes, they share country food with Arnaquq-Baril while explaining in detail what the tattoos were like, why they were done, and how they were executed. As one Elder says in a particularly moving moment, tattooing was once a symbol of pride, not shame. This shame that European colonizers succeeded in imposing on Inuit culture motivated her to keep going.

“A generation or two from now that kind of hatred and anger is going to be much less,” she is convinced, “but the film and the knowledge that was collected will remain.”

traditional Inuit tattoos

Despite opposition from her parents, Arnaquq-Baril decided to go ahead and get the tattoos she’d always wanted. She wasn’t the first young Inuk woman to repatriate the lost practice – a few women preceded her. She jokes that if she hadn’t spent five years researching and making the film then perhaps she’d have been the first woman of a new generation to reclaim the practice.

The film also charts her own process of deciding to get the tattoos, learning designs from Elders, and being tattooed. This journey garnered interest from broadcasters who found the story of a woman choosing to tattoo her face potentially sensational.

“I often see people with tattoos when I travel, often they are covered from head to toe – everywhere except for their face and hands,” she explained. “I guess it was interesting to people that I started by tattooing my face and hands. It was the opposite of what other cultures consider off limits.”

In European cultures, Arnaquq-Baril notes, tattoos have until recently always been considered disgraceful. Even those heavily tattooed do not ink their hands and faces as a way of hiding tattoos beneath a shirt in the event of having to go to court. But this is a colonial shame, she argues, brought by Europeans and imposed on a place where tattoos were an integral expression of womanhood, strength, and the ability to provide for one’s family.

“We had a 100 years of that shame after contact with Europeans,” Arnaquq-Baril explained. “But we wanted tattoos on the face and hands because they’re the few bits of exposed skin that you occasionally see when you live in -42ºC through the winter, so it made sense. It wasn’t a shameful thing – it was a beautiful thing. You wanted them to be visible.”

During a question-and-answer period following the screening, Arnaquq-Baril noted that once the film was finished, tattoo critics suddenly fell silent. She could shop – now adorned with beautiful Inuit tattoos on her face, chest and shoulders – at the Northern Store without being harassed by an acquaintance who thought she was doing something evil.

“What I hope is that people see my decision and my attitude to get these tattoos not as something militant and radical – it shouldn’t be,” she said. “What was done to us was militant and radical.”

Matthew NuqinngaqJamie Jardine - Tattoo machine

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