Honoring Inuit culture through traditional tattoos

Holly Mititquq Nordlum is an Inupiaq artist born in Kotzebue, an Inuit village in the Northwest Arctic Borough of Alaska. As an artist, she has followed a lifelong call that has led her to painting, sculpture, graphic design, photography, printmaking, jewelry making, and now filmmaking.

“I blame my mom,” she laughs. “She was an artist herself. I blame her for giving me permission to follow this path and supporting me through it all.”

Nordlum has been actively working at promoting Alaskan Inuit culture since she was a teenager, addressing issues prevalent in the Inuit community and educating people about them.

Holly Mititquq Nordlum. Photo by Michael Conti Photography.

After attending boarding school in Hawaii she returned to Alaska, where she attended the University of Alaska, Anchorage and earned a BFA. Anchorage is called the biggest Native “village” in Alaska because there are more than 23,000 Inuit people living in the city. It was here that Nordlum started teaching art classes through one of the school districts while still taking classes, painting, and printmaking herself.

“I was trying to better my community, but up until then the only way I knew how to do that was through education and getting kids to think about their community,” she says. “But at some point talking about alcoholism, drug use, suicide, all the bad things Alaskan Natives face, I realized I was just perpetuating that and not doing anything positive about.”

She started thinking about what else she could do, not just to promote a positive perception of the Native community within the Native community but also how in how that community is viewed by non-Natives.

“I wanted to bring a positive perception of our culture, not just call out the bad but bring something positive to it,” she says.

Maya Sialuk Jacobsen tattooing Holly Mititquq Nordlum. Photo by Michael Conti Photography.

One thing she had been thinking about a lot was traditional Inuit tattooing, tupik. The tradition of female face tattooing dates back thousands of years in Inuit culture. Nordlum’s own great-grandmother had such tattoos and Nordlum had been considering getting her own for some time, but was hesitant because of concerns over how it would be perceived.

“I had been thinking about it for a long time but as someone in the Western world, it’s obviously a big step,” she says. “So I started studying traditional Inuit tattooing five years ago and looked for someone in Anchorage to do it, but there was no one at the time still doing it here in the traditional method.”

Maya Sialuk Jacobsen. Photo by Michael Conti Photography.

With support from the Anchorage Museum, Nordlum found an inker from Greenland, Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, who still uses the traditional Inuit tattooing techniques of skin stitching and hand poking. Nordlum brought Jacobsen to Alaska where she started a tupik training program, training herself and two other women on these traditional methods. They are all now practicing tattoo artists in Anchorage using these same techniques.

“The point was to bring our community together, to bring these urban Natives like myself together and bring some pride to our communities after the colonization that happened to us,” Nordlum says. “Tattooing provides this vehicle for talking about these issues, not as a negative thing but just as facts. Colonization hurt our communities so how do we heal from that?”

She explains that traditional Inuit tattooing was done by women for women, almost exclusively. “The tattoos celebrated their lives and accomplishments,” she says. The first lines tattooed on the chin marked a girl who had come of age and was now an adult. That was celebrated. Tattoos symbolized moments in a woman’s life, reflecting things like marriage and children. More tattoos meant a woman was older and had accomplished more, which was also celebrated.

“That idea to celebrate Native girls and women is a big shift here that hasn’t always been done,” says Nordlum. “With colonization we lost that, but now we’re bringing it back. It’s ultimately about community.”

Nordlum also says that honoring traditional practices like the female face tattooing does not mean she is also advocating for a return to all traditional practices or ways of life.

Holly Mititquq Nordlum and Maya Sialuk Jacobsen. Photo by Michael Conti Photography.

“Obviously in today’s world not everything is going to equate. I’m not going to tattoo a 13-year-old, but I do talk to adults about what they want, what they can do, and what they want to accomplish. There are only a few getting chin tattoos, but when they [get any tattoos] it’s important culturally because now we live in the Western world. We’re not trying to go back to the way it was. That’s unrealistic. I’m not going to sell my house, take my kids out of school, and go live a nomadic life on the tundra. I’m from the Western world.

‘But we can be proud of who we are and walk around with it every day and that’s enough to bring some healing. That’s what I want to do: recognize we are a people that thrived here and have thousands of years of ancestry and that’s something to be proud of.”

Filming Tupik Mi. Photo by Michael Conti Photography.

Colonization by the United States and Denmark brought with it tremendous shame in being Inuit. Nordlum continues on to say, “Just walking around proud is enough. I’m not trying to go back in time; I’m just trying to bring back a little pride and community. I still want to thrive here, but in doing so also bring back a little pride and healing of our own culture.”

She admits that walking around with such pride can be difficult, especially when people shoot her looks of disgust or go out of their way to avoid looking at her at all. It helps that Western culture has normalized tattooing so much, she says, but when it’s tourist season in Anchorage and people come pouring out of the docking cruise ships daily, being confronted with dirty looks when she’s just trying to get a cup of coffee wears her down.

“It’s insulting after awhile. I just get run down by it. And that’s going to change here; every week we’re tattooing more women. But it’s exhausting sometimes, the mean looks. Obviously I knew what I was getting into; I’m an adult. And I try to explain it to people who are genuinely curious.”

Her greater mission is, as ever, to educate as much as celebrate, which is why she started making a film documenting the process of women in the Arctic connecting through traditional Inuit tattooing and reclaiming their cultural and personal identities. The film, called Tupik Mi, is still in production, and features Nordlum and Jacobsen on their journey of connecting to each other and others across oceans, educating people on tupik and training other Native Arctic women in the practice, as well as their own personal journeys through tupik.

“Bringing Inuit people from around the world together was a goal for us,” Nordlum says. “Greenland was colonized by the Danish and we were colonized by America, but the language is still the same and the culture is still the same. This is bringing us all together to make a bigger community, and together we can make a bigger impact in the way people perceive us and the way we perceive our community.”

While Nordlum will tattoo non-Native people, there are certain Inuit designs she will not tattoo on them to protect this art form from cultural appropriation.

Holly Mititquq Nordlum. Photo by Michael Conti Photography.

“The few things I’m keeping sacred are the chin and finger tattoos that have Inuit significance to them,” she says. “We’re Inuit so we’re keeping them for ourselves because that makes them special for us, and I think that’s an important element because we’ve not been special for so long, it had just been people trying to assimilate us.”

She recognizes that just because she won’t tattoo non-Native women with these designs of cultural significance to Inuit people doesn’t mean that they can’t go to someone else and have them done, no more than the lower 48 can seem to stop sun-kissed blonde SoCal Millennials from donning Native headdresses at Coachella every year. But she can certainly speak out about it.

From IKEA appropriating Inuit designs to use on cheap pillows to high-profile New York galleries selling off 12,000-year-old Inuit artifacts that no living Inuit person has ever seen or touched, much less could possibly afford to purchase and return to the community, Nordlum is proudly outspoken where issues of cultural appropriation are involved.

“How does [IKEA] benefit Inuit people? They’re just taking 10,000 years of history and putting it on pillows. It’s really important to get the message out there that appropriation is not okay. Taking out patterns without benefit to our community is not okay. This tattooing project has got a lot of press and that’s great because it allows me to speak about these things.”

She encourages people like herself who experience appropriation of their own cultures to talk about it and get it out in the open.

“It’s enough to just get it out there. Tell them we’re watching,” she says. “Saying it and making people aware is enough. I do understand the frustration in this America that we’re living in. The frustration is unbelievable from my point of view. Everything is being taken, not just from me but from everyone. I think we need to be this outspoken. I have to spit it out all the time and be very vocal and talk about these things all the time to make people see that they’re benefiting from our demise, especially in Alaska. The United States brought it for a cheap price and they got mines and oil. There is so much profit in Alaska, the only problem was the Inuit people and how to get rid of them. I have to encourage other artists and other people to say as much as they can and point it out: it’s not okay.”

Nordlum says she gets criticized by her own people for being “too vocal” on these issues.

“They don’t want to rock the boat too much, but I’m powering forward with my small group of people and we going to keep talking about this. I look at what other people are doing and think, ‘I’ve got to do more.’ There’s so much to be done around educating people about Inuit culture. It’s a tumultuous time we live in but that’s the best opportunity to make change, and I’m using that opportunity to be as fearless as possible.”

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I find I collaborate best with people I already respect and admire, so I choose wisely. With Maya (my tattoo project, life pursuit) I didn’t know her and she was a world away but fate brought us together and I trusted we would have more in common than differences. She is now the closest thing I have to a sister and business partner.

(2) How do you a start a project?
Dream big, start small…it’s cheesy but true, and I also don’t ever let anyone say NO to me and if they do I don’t give up. I reason with them and/or I gain perspective from listening.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
I don’t. I still have a hard time charging for things but try to always be fair.

(4) How do you define success?
I try to be grateful and praise those who are with me but also never stop striving. I never really feel successful but I do feel proud of things we have accomplished.

(5) How do you fund your work?
At the demise of my kids and house! I scrounge and apply and talk about work and try to bring in partners that have funds…I am definitely still learning.

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