Indigenous women carry on facial markings tradition to inspire their daughters Grete Bergman was among the first Gwich'in women to get traditional facial markings since colonizers barred the practice. She and markings artist Sarah Whalen-Lunn did it for their daughters.

With 3 bold marks, Indigenous women helped revive a once-banned tradition

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It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps, and today we have Grete Bergman, a native Alaskan who's a member of the Gwich'in nation. For years, she wanted traditional facial markings, but at one time, those markings were banned for Indigenous women. But in 2016, she became one of the first women in the Gwich'in Nation to get tattooed.

GRETE BERGMAN: They are strong lines, bold lines, no-fooling-around lines.

SARAH WHALEN-LUNN: They are no [expletive] lines.

INSKEEP: Grete sat down for StoryCorps with Sarah Whalen-Lunn, the artist who gave her markings.

BERGMAN: My dad would have hated it. He would have looked at me, and he would have said, what the hell you do that for? You know, my dad was beaten in school for speaking his language because being Native was the worst possible thing you could be. So I didn't know anyone who had their traditional markings, and every time I brought it up, I always got the same sort of this is taboo. We don't do this.

WHALEN-LUNN: A lot of people are still scared. When I gave you your markings, I didn't yet have any of mine. So you all of a sudden became this pillar of strength to me.

BERGMAN: Oh, I'm weak as hell, girl.

WHALEN-LUNN: No, you're not. You keep on saying that, but it is not true. I see who you are. You are the first person that I tattooed.

BERGMAN: I didn't realize I was the first one.

WHALEN-LUNN: Oh, yeah, I wasn't going to tell you.


BERGMAN: Well, I'm glad I was anyway.

WHALEN-LUNN: You were somebody that I could trust. When I came over to do your markings, I was nervous, but I remember looking down, and you were laying there, and your daughter was holding your hand.

BERGMAN: She was 7 at the time.

WHALEN-LUNN: That moment was a changer for me (laughter). It was a changer for you.

BERGMAN: (Laughter) It was a change for me, too.

WHALEN-LUNN: It's more than just your appearance. It changes the way that you carry yourself. And we're doing it so that our girls can.

BERGMAN: Yeah, I feel like I've given them something that my grandmother had taken away from her.

WHALEN-LUNN: You show them it's OK to be who you are and be proud of that.

INSKEEP: Grete Bergman and Sarah Whalen-Lunn in Anchorage, Alaska. Their StoryCorps interview is archived at the Library of Congress.


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