Long before European contact on Turtle Island, tattooing has been a prominent aspect of identity for many different Indigenous Peoples. Although unique in their style, tattooing spanned across tribal and community lines. Like many aspects of Indigenous culture, these tattoos were separated and in some ways forgotten due to colonization and the introduction of the Indian Act in which assimilation and removal of tradition was paramount. However, today the prevalence and meaning of Indigenous tattoos from the Inuit to the Haudenosaunee has returned and is being reclaimed.
For some Inuit communities in the North, an Inuk woman would receive tattoos from needles made from bone with either the hand-poking or skin stitching techniques. They were a mark of a milestone; an arrival into womanhood or preparedness to become a mother. With the arrival of missionaries in the continent’s arctic in the late 1800’s, the tradition quickly declined as it was seen as an antithesis to christian practice and beliefs.
The tattoos themselves hold the traditional name Kakiniit. When the art is displayed on the face of a woman it has also been referred to as tunniit although tattoos were also given on the arms, hands, chest, and thighs.
Today, thanks to work being done by organizations such as the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project, the practice has been resurrected. The project includes women Elders and focuses on the empowerment of young women, the whole community, and feeding their passion to bring their cultural traditions back to life.
Based in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, the project supports cultural revitalization with each tattoo and line possessing specific cultural significance to combat the disappearance of this traditional knowledge. For many, the revitalization of this practice is necessary for future generations as they struggle to even find elders from their communities with the permanent, traditional, art.
Similarly, although completely different in design and meaning, the Haudenousaunee confederacy of nations also holds traditional tattooing in high regard. While the designs and meanings vary, their hand-poked style was prevalent amongst many communities in the past.
Michael Galban, a Washoe/Paiute museum curator, has described the Haudenosaunee tattoos on men as reflective of skill on the battlefield, clan identity and other significant accomplishments. He has also used the traditional method, with some modern alterations, of attaching the needle to a lightning-struck piece of birch which the Haudenosaunee artists often did to harness the power of the Thunder Beings.
Today we are seeing a resurgence of these traditional tattoos across Turtle Island. Tattoos with meaning and traditional significance; tattoos designed with care and honour. And no, this does not include the random, small town, non-Indigenous person sketching a Chief with a headdress on onto another non-Indigenous person. They have meaning and they are a form of reconciliation and reconnection to specific cultural practice and wisdom.
Tattooing is a form of medicine; good medicine. Like healthy eating and activity, respecting and honoring the land, connecting with family, and listening and learning from Elders, this medicine is essential in reclaiming identity and must continue to be fostered with care.