A Return To Native Roots, Traced In Ink A new generation of Alaska Native women are turning to a very old cultural practice: They're getting face tattoos. The tradition, which dates back centuries, was once banned by missionaries.
NPR logo

A Return To Native Roots, Traced In Ink

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/446868008/447451418" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Return To Native Roots, Traced In Ink

A Return To Native Roots, Traced In Ink

A Return To Native Roots, Traced In Ink

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/446868008/447451418" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Maya Sialuk Jacobsen of Greenland puts a henna tattoo on a friend's chin during a henna activity at the Anchorage Museum. The event brought more than a dozen Alaska Native youths together for a quick history of traditional tattooing, before letting them experiment on themselves with henna designs. Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media hide caption

toggle caption
Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media

Maya Sialuk Jacobsen of Greenland puts a henna tattoo on a friend's chin during a henna activity at the Anchorage Museum. The event brought more than a dozen Alaska Native youths together for a quick history of traditional tattooing, before letting them experiment on themselves with henna designs.

Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media

In a small tattoo parlor in Anchorage, Alaska, Greenlandic artist Maya Sialuk Jacobsen uses a thin needle to pull an inky thread through the skin of her friend's wrist.

"It's loose," says her friend, Iñupiaq artist Holly Mititquq Nordlum. "I put on a few pounds so she'd have something to work with."

And Jacobsen appreciates it. "Her skin is like so much better than my husband's skin, or anyone else I try," Jacobsen says. "She has really lovely skin to tattoo."

Jacobsen is one of the few Inuit women who knows how to tattoo through traditional methods, like sewing directly into the skin or using a needle to poke in dabs of dye. And now, she is also part of a new generation of Alaska Native women who are returning to a very old cultural practice: They're getting face tattoos.

She has spent years cobbling together a body of knowledge about what the practice meant before European colonization of Inuit lands. The tradition dates back centuries, but the few historical records of it came from adventurers and 20th century missionaries — who actually banned the practice.

"I assure you," says Jacobsen, "they did not really know what tattooing was, a lot of them."

But then came the mummies: a group of 500-year-old Inuit women discovered in the 1970s, preserved tattoos and all, inside a Greenlandic gravesite. Jacobsen found a book about them, studied the designs and realized the marks on their foreheads, cheeks and chins came from the same tight stitches she'd learned as a girl. It was her first primary source.

"I have literature, and then I have what I call 'from the horse's mouth' — and that is the mummies, and that is all the interviews with women about Inuit culture and about sewing, stitching."

Jacobsen and Nordlum met over Facebook, when Nordlum was looking for someone to give her a traditional tattoo. She'd been having trouble finding someone in Alaska.

Holly Mititquq Nordlum shows off her partially completed tattoo during a live demonstration at Anchorage's Above The Rest studio. Nordlum's Inupiaq name, Mititquq, means a place where birds land, and she commemorates big life achievements with bird feet tattoos, like the two on her opposite wrist. Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media hide caption

toggle caption
Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media

Holly Mititquq Nordlum shows off her partially completed tattoo during a live demonstration at Anchorage's Above The Rest studio. Nordlum's Inupiaq name, Mititquq, means a place where birds land, and she commemorates big life achievements with bird feet tattoos, like the two on her opposite wrist.

Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media

Eventually, a friendship blossomed between them, and they arranged an event series in Anchorage, called Tupik Mi — including lectures and a skin-stitching demonstration. The series culminated with Jacobsen poking her first ever chin tattoo, on Nordlum.

"Yes it did hurt, but I had chosen to do this," Nordlum says. "I kept telling myself it's supposed to hurt, it's supposed to hurt because I'm transforming."

Norldum now sports six lines fanning out from her bottom lip, the thin inner two descending with martial straightness — a sign she didn't flinch from the pokes.

Nordlum's great-grandmother had similar tattoos that marked important events in her life: graduating school, finding a partner, having children. In her great-grandmother's day, many of these meaningful achievements happened for women when they were in their late teens and early 20s. These days, though, they tend to happen later in life, the province of a woman's late 20s and early 30s.

That can make for a tricky issue sometimes for Nordlum, as when a woman requested a face tattoo for her 18-year-old daughter.

"Although I support the idea, the girl is only 18," Nordlum says. "Like, what does she know what she's going to do?"

Permanence is why tattoos carry so much weight: For Nordlum and the growing number of Alaska Native women getting traditional tattoos, it's about showing the world a permanent, proud Native identity.

As an artist, Nordlum does a lot of freelance and commission work within the Alaska Native community. She's not worried about her job prospects taking a hit from her tattoo.

"People get used to it quickly. It's the initial reaction," she says. "And if I'm prepared mentally to walk into a place that might not be as friendly — and I might get some dirty looks — eventually, 10 minutes, they're not looking at me anymore."

The only criticism she's taken to heart so far came from an older Iñupiaq man, who was part of a generation taught to see tattoos and other parts of traditional culture as shameful. The criticism hurt. But Nordlum says it was an visceral reminder of why this kind of cultural preservation is important.

"The idea, though, is for Iñupiaq, Inuit, Yup'ik women to feel proud of who they are, to feel strong, to create a sisterhood."

And, Nordlum says, it's important for each woman to feel part of something bigger than herself — and supported — each time she sees another mark of pride on a smiling face.