Birds Greeting the Tattoo Woman
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Notes from DaVic Gallery: ‘Birds Greeting the Tattoo Woman’ – Traditionally, Inuit women inked their skin to represent something of significance in their lives, from marriage to children or spiritual beliefs.
Only chosen women got traditional tattoos and they were done at puberty and it meant she was capable of taking the full responsibilities of a woman, so going from young girl to young woman.
It was mainly a women’s art. 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 seal fat 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.
For several millennia, Inuit tattooing remained widespread, strong and unchanged. The tattoos related to shamanic rights, repelling or appeasing spirits. The sacred practice was forbidden by Christian missionaries a century ago.
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.”
— From uphere magazine, “Between the Lines – Tracing the controversial history and recent revival of Inuit facial tattoos” BY ASHLEIGH GAUL