The human face is a marker of individuality. It holds clues about a person’s gender, age, mood, and ethnicity. Since time immemorial, people employed this charged surface to announce their belonging to kin groups and a place through countless modifications. In Canada’s Arctic, a preferred method for such expressions of cultural identity has been “skin sewing,” the traditional form of tattooing.

In 1577, Sir Martin Frobisher encountered tattooed Americans on the first of his three unsuccessful sea voyages to find a Northwest Passage to China. Though unsuccessful in that endeavour, he did gain a certain amount of fame when he returned to England with three Inuit. The gentleman artist John White, painting their portrait, included the tattoos on Arnaq’s forehead and chin and the infant peeping from her fur-trimmed amauti. Sadly, all three died shortly after their arrival, and Arnaq was buried far from home, at Bristol’s St. Stephen’s church.

Tattooed Netsilik woman,
by photographer Albert Peter Low (1903-04).
© Canadian Museum of History

The tradition of “skin sewing” is thousands of years old, nourished by beliefs and procedures widespread in North America’s Arctic. It also had roots in the mythic realm. Nunavut girls received facial tattoos when they first menstruated. People believed that “Sister Sun” — the Sun spirit would burn the face of any woman, after her death who had not been tattooed, because unmarked faces displeased the Sun. The burning pain of a freshly stitched face was a reminder of that connection. Also, outlasting the body’s demise, face tattoos linked a woman to her ancestors, allowing the long departed to recognize her soul in the afterlife.

Elaborate finger tattoos reminded Inuit women of another powerful deity, Sedna or Nuliajuq, the “mother of all sea beasts,” controller of the animals’ migrations. Seals, walruses, whales, and polar bears sprang from Sedna’s severed finger joints, according to her origin myth. Women passing Sedna’s home on their way to the underworld of the dead pleased and honoured her with prettily tattooed hands and black bands encircling their finger joints. Those not adorned with ink might get stuck just under the Earth’s crust, in the limbo of Nuqurmiut, where listless souls dined only on butterflies.

Women’s intricate thigh patterns were thought to ease childbirth. Newborns beheld beauty in them, the first thing they saw as they slid from the womb. Depending on the body part, tattooing can be excruciating — a woman’s ability to tolerate it was a measure of physical and inner endurance, both valued in a harsh environment. “You couldn’t keep your toes from wiggling,” one Pond Inlet elder recalled apropos of her nose tattoo. The pain of getting one’s knuckles incised can be seen as a sacrifice to Sedna, and perhaps, to the sea’s animals.

Stone figurine of Inuit woman with facial and leg tattoos by Dominique Tungilik, Netsilingmiut from Gjoa Haven (Nunavut). © James Glazier

“They said you weren’t a real woman until you had tattoos!” Jacob Peterloosie of Pond Inlet, Nunavut, summed up the importance of female skin markings. Above all, an Inuit woman’s tattoos proclaimed her coming of age, her domestic competence; she was now qualified to marry and run her own household.

Men also were tattooed, though less frequently, and illustrations showing their body designs are extremely rare. A kigjugaq between the eyes could protect you against the spirits of the deceased. While a Bathurst Inlet shaman lay “dead” — in trance —he received a nose tattoo to return him to life, as part of his initiation. Similar rite- of-passage tattoos commemorated a shaman’s slaying of a spirit; a hunter harpooning a whale; or a warrior killing an enemy. Whale tallies could be lines traced across the bridge of the nose (Cape Bathurst), or three crosses on one shoulder and four on the other — one for each whale (Mackenzie Delta). In some places, man killing and whale killing were deemed equally meritorious and celebrated with eating and storytelling while the lines were tattooed. The harpooner so honoured was often allowed to take a second wife.

The inventory of Inuit tracery comprised lines, chevrons, squares, dots, arrowheads, triangles… It had its own vocabulary: quajaq (forehead lines), tunit (cheek lines), and tablerutit (chin lines). The practitioners were almost exclusively respected older women who drew on their experience as expert seamstresses. In “skin-stitching,” they followed each pass of a needle of copper or caribou bone with a greased wood sliver dipped in lamp-black or soot from a kettle’s bottom, to insert the pigment. For “hand-poking,” they pricked a hole in the skin with a needle fixed to a handle and immediately applied soot stirred in blubber to the wound, with a second needle or stick held in the same hand at the same time.

“Oomna”—detail of engraving by Charles Finden after a drawing by Captain George Francis Lyon. From Journal of a Second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific (1824). © Biodiversity Library

Inuit tattoos shocked Canadian missionaries, as they did those gawkers at Renaissance fairs. Like drum dancing and throat singing, to the clergy they spelled pagan life ways, backwardness. Scripture was the strongest indictment: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you” (Leviticus 19:28). Like shamanism, the practice became stigmatized and in most regions of the Arctic disappeared. On Baffin Island in the early 1920s, only a few of the youngest women still boasted facial tattoos. Church-operated boarding schools sped up the decline. Forcibly taking children from their homes over decades, they created generations alienated from their indigenous language and culture. The effects of this rift are felt to this day.

Face stitching is now being revitalized, a vigorous step in reclaiming ethnic identities. Iqaluit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos (2010) is an emotionally raw, succinct primer on the subject. Researching this then-moribund tradition, Arnaquq-Baril visited nine Baffin and Netsilik communities, interviewing 56 elders. Many who had long been ashamed, relished speaking about the tattoos. The filmmaker’s decision to have her own face ink-scored at first did not even find approval with her Inuk mother.

Inspired by activist-artists and by tradition bearers, more and more women (and men) again embrace traditional-style tattoos — old regional styles and innovative filigree flourish in sync with new self-esteem. The transformation Arnaquq-Baril and some of her cohorts underwent is not merely skin-deep. Their subcutaneous embroidery bestows sovereignty. It repatriates indigenous bodies and minds.

Trained as an anthropologist, Michael Engelhard now works as a freelance writer and wilderness guide. He is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.