Traditional Inuit tattooing is being preserved and revived by their women, according to a news report in Nunavut News on Wednesday last week. The article quoted several women who spoke of their desires to preserve their sense of cultural identity, and to honor their families by getting traditional tattoos put on their bodies.

Birds by an Inuit tattoo artist
Birds by an Inuit tattoo artist (Photo by Ren Buford on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Inukshuk Aksalnik told the reporter that her family certainly shaped her identity, so she had traditional tattoos inscribed on both of her wrists in 2016 to remember and honor them. She explained that each small, Y-shaped symbol represents a family member with whom she had felt close.

She also adorns her wrists with dots, which imitate similar dots worn by her grandmother on her forearms. They symbolized for the older woman the milestones in her life. Thus, in addition to having personal meanings, the tattoos allow the women to connect and identify with other people and their stories. “I feel proud when I see other women have them (traditional tattoos),” she said.

Another Inuk woman, Nicole Ettiq, didn’t reveal the meanings of her tattoos but she did indicate that she started to follow her family’s traditions in 2017 by getting them applied to her wrists. Since then she has put them on her face, neck, and chin. She said that her great aunt was the last person in her family to wear the traditional markings.

Eskimo women from King’s Island, Alaska, with striking tattoos on their arms in 1910
Eskimo women from King’s Island, Alaska, in 1910 with striking tattoos on their arms (Unknown photographer in Wikimedia, in the public domain)

“My tattoos have helped me with my identity as an Inuk woman by connecting myself to a tradition that many of my ancestors and family practiced,” she said. She added that she feels her tattoos empower her. They remind her of the strength of the Inuit. She said they help her be more mindful.

A third Inuk woman, who asked to remain anonymous, indicated that her tattoos symbolized her transformation—she decided to get some traditional tattoos on the day she graduated from an alcohol addiction rehab program. She said it seemed good to see more Inuit women wearing tattoos. She explained that having tattoos symbolize that she is no longer a girl.

For her, they serve as a reminder of her accomplishments. They serve to strengthen her commitment to sobriety.