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This painting, by artist Stevie Nande, stood on the main street of Fort Liard near the hamlet office. Some youth in the community fear legalizing marijuana could be as harmful as allowing alcohol. - photo courtesy of Sophie Kirby
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Ancient ink

Ulukhaktok women receive traditional tattoos
Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services

More than 30 women in Ulukhaktok received traditional Inuit tattoos when the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project visited the community this month, said project lead Angela Hovak Johnston.

nnsl file photo

Angela Hovak Johnston gives Freddi Anne Inuktalik a temporary tattoo in Ulukhaktok as part of the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project's visit to the community on April 4. - photo courtesy of Thomas Gagnon-van Leeuwen

"We tattooed 32 women and eight of those were facial tattoos," Johnston said.

The project is bringing back the ancient art of Inuit tattooing, which had almost completely disappeared by the time Johnston received her own facial tattoos nine years ago.

"Nobody had been practicing it for about three generations," she said.

When she learned that one of the last elder women who did tattoos was ill, it jumpstarted Johnston's quest to preserve the tradition.

After learning tattooing techniques, she started the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project and has been delivering tattoos to women throughout the North.

From March 31 to April 11, Johnston and her group travelled to Ulukhaktok where they tattooed women in the Hamlet of Ulukhaktok building.

Local elders sang traditional songs while mothers, daughters and grandmothers were being tattooed, surrounded by female members of their families.

"They'd be there singing traditional Inuit songs the whole time women would be getting tattoos," Johnston said. "It was such a special moment for everybody."

Mollie Oliktoak, a teacher at Helen Kalvak School, said her grandmother was the inspiration behind her tattoos, which she received on her wrists and her face.

Oliktoak's two eldest sisters and her niece were with her when Johnston did her tattoos.

"It was powerful, you could just feel family in the room, all the support. It was beautiful," Oliktoak said. "You could even feel our grandmother, we could even smell our grandmother, in the room."

As part of their visit, the group also held workshops at the school, where Johnston taught students the significance of Inuit tattooing and gave interested participants temporary tattoos.

"The kids had a lot of questions and were really curious," she said.

Some children began arriving at school with their own homemade tattoos.

Their interest was phenomenal, Johnston said.

"When I was doing the presentation to the younger girls I was like, 'some day you girls, some of you will be one of the tattoo artists'," she said. "So it's pretty exciting and I'm so looking forward to having more women practicing it."

Oliktoak agreed.

"Even the little children in the community were coming to school with tattoos drawn on their face, their arms," she said. "It's a very important tradition to keep and pass on."

Traditionally, seamstresses were the tattoo artists, Johnston said.

"All the tattoo artists that I did research about were seamstress, really good, well- respected seamstress in the community that became the tattoo artists," she said.

Tattoo patterns vary by region, so Johnston asks women to do their own design research before deciding on their patterns.

Just as important as the tattoo itself is the celebration that goes along with it, Johnston added.

In Ulukhaktok, the 11-day visit ended with a drum dance ceremony to honour the women who received tattoos.

"We had an incredible closing ceremony at the end for the 32 women that got tattooed," Johnston said. "It was young and old, men and women, just celebrating together."

The next stop for the project is Cambridge Bay, Nu., but Johnston said the date has not yet been determined.

In the meantime, she said the interest from girls and women in communities like Ulukhaktok is breathing new life into an ancient tradition.

"We have all these younger generations who are very curious and very proud of showing their interest and seeing their moms or their grandmothers or their aunts or cousins wearing these new tattoos," she said. "You know it's never going to be close to dying again."

Oliktoak said she wanted to thank Johnston and her crew, as well as the sponsors who made their trip possible.

"It's like they brought back a tradition that has been asleep for a long time," she said. "It's nice that it's being brought back into the communities."

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