Decolonising the Arctic, One Tattoo at a time: A Conversation with Holly Mititquq Nordlum

By Erin Willahan

Erin Willahan

Erin Willahan, Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, speaks to Alaska-based Iñupiaq artist Holly Mititquq Nordlum about the recent resurgence of Indigenous traditional practices and movements across the Arctic, including in Alaska, and the role that Inuit women tattooists have played and are continuing to play in the process.

Even just a decade ago, face markings and other traditional Inuit tattoos were not often seen on the streets of Anchorage, Alaska. But today, their increasing visibility marks a powerful resurgence of Indigenous traditional practices and movements to decolonise Alaska. Part of that shift is thanks to Alaska-based Iñupiaq artist Holly Mititquq Nordlum and the other Inuit women tattooists going through her apprenticeship program, Tupik Mi.   

Along with many other cultural practices, colonisation interrupted the art of skin stitching and hand poking for many years in Alaska Native communities. Believing aspects of Alaska Native cultures to be ‘sinful’ and ‘uncivilised’, when missionaries came to Alaska in the 1900s, they banned Inuit tattooing along with traditional dancing and the use of Indigenous languages. 

Not only did generations of Alaska Natives endure abuse, trauma, and marginalisation at the hands of missionaries and the US government during this time, but they were also prevented from learning their cultural traditions and passing them down, breaking a link to millenia of traditional knowledge and practice.

And even after missionaries left and federally-run boarding schools closed, stigma against Alaska’s Indigenous peoples and their cultural practices lingered.

Today, however, efforts to reclaim what was lost to colonisation and heal from generational trauma abound. As one of a myriad of decolonising projects underway in the Arctic, Nordlum’s journey with Tupik Mi began six years ago.

“I started really early just wanting a traditional tattoo… But then, not being able to find anyone who was actively working or even working with regulatory things to make change to accept in this society something like traditional tattooing… the [Anchorage] museum funded us with the Polar Lab and then we were able to get training and get the public used to the idea.”

This brought her to Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, an Inuit tattooist from Greenland. Through the Anchorage Museum, Nordlum secured funding to invite Jacobsen to Alaska to teach her to tattoo and delve into its cultural significance. From there, the project expanded to an apprenticeship program for Inuit women to re-learn the art of skin stitching and hand poking, tattooing techniques practiced by Inuit women in the Arctic for millennia.

tattoos© Michael Conti

Traditionally, Inuit tattoos were done almost exclusively by women and for women, serving as an important rite of passage to womanhood, as well as marking other important moments in a woman’s life.

And for Nordlum, along with the growing number of practicing Inuit tattooists going through Tupik Mi apprenticeships, it is about so much more than just the tattoo. Tattooing also involves processes of healing from the traumas of colonisation – those that affect Inuit women in specific ways.

“My hope was that we would do this and then we could work with some Inuit women and maybe do some healing. Talking with Inuit women all the time we all have such similar stories of sexual abuse, of growing up in alcoholic families, growing up in the village, trying to be safe when it’s an unsafe situation. So those are things that I thought if we were tattooing, doing something and then talking about those issues that we might be able to help some people. And, of course, that has just been amazing because that’s exactly what it’s done.”

Receiving a traditional tattoo and learning together about its significance can be transformative, and intersects healing, spirituality, identity and heritage for many Inuit women. And Nordlum admits this work involves an intense responsibility.

“I’ve connected with so many Inuit women and felt such gratitude for even being in the room when they’re processing all that information. On one hand, I’m so thankful, and on one hand, it’s so heavy I don’t even know what to do with it, except try to be there and retain those relationships and try to continue to be there for them.”

tattoos© Michael Conti

The deep importance of traditional tattoos to healing, identity and reclaiming something that was violently taken is also part of why the appropriation of Inuit tattoos and practices is so harmful.

“We’re just trying to reclaim some of the things we lost. We’re learning as we go along… In the healing process, if I’m doing a chin tattoo, and then a bunch of non-Native women are getting chin tattoos, how is it healing and special for the Inuit women? The biggest thing about the chin tattoo is it’s Inuit and that we can be that sisterhood that supports each other and have a very similar story.”

If Inuit tattooing once teetered on the brink of being lost, it is now returning as an integral part of Indigenous identity and culture in the Arctic. And this re-membering of not only tradition, but also a painful past, is a profound aspect of decolonisation.[1]

“We are just getting back to it, so give us a little bit of space to do that, to find what it is for us now. And then also, going forward, with the women we want so desperately to heal. If you are ‘woke’ and you admire the chin tattoos, understand that that’s because we need that healing and that we want it to be special for us.”

There is little legal recourse for the appropriation of cultural practices such as skin-stitching. But Nordlum says one of the tools Indigenous peoples do have for safeguarding their culture is social shaming.

“There’s nothing to do except shame them. Recently… a Danish artist did our markings and then took photos of herself. Profited and did an art show about it. And holy cow! We came out in droves. We shamed her. We shamed the gallery. We shamed any funding she got. I think it was a real lesson of the harm she was doing. She totally shut down her stuff, and the gallery has even offered to do a show or something in recognition of our Inuit culture.”

Calling out cultural appropriation online has been effective in some instances. But the theft of Indigenous cultures and aesthetics for non-Indigenous profit and consumption is but one aspect of the pervasive colonial legacies which still plague Inuit communities across the Arctic. In terms of governmental regulation, sovereignty remains elusive. And Nordlum sees licensing regulations imposed on her by the State of Alaska as a frustrating illustration of enduring barriers to Indigenous self-determination.

“When we first had Maya come up three or four years ago… we did a demo where she skin stitched for me. Somebody complained because we were doing it in a Western shop, and we were put on notice that there was a case against us in the licensing for the State of Alaska.”

While that case was eventually dropped, Tupik Mi is still operating in a regulatory grey area. Right now, the women practicing Inuit tattooing under the apprenticeship program are technically doing it illegally.

In the State of Alaska, all tattooing is regulated by the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers under the Department of Commerce. A seemingly odd and potentially frustrating overseer for Inuit tattooists like Nordlum, who sees Tupik Mi primarily as a cultural practice and program for healing.

“The State is sticking to their rules, and they don’t want to make exceptions for us. They’re willing to talk about changing the law in the future. But we’re working right now. I don’t think that’s a quick process.”

As a traditional Inuit tattoo artist, whose work is more than aesthetic but also encompasses tradition, culture, healing arts, etc., Nordlum believes there should be exceptions made to the licensing process for Alaska Native tattooists and disagrees that her work should fall under the categories the State has placed it in.

“The Western tattooing world, even here in Alaska, is masculine. Which we’re not. We’re a bunch of women. It’s competitive, and it’s nasty, and it’s about keeping people out. It’s about making the rules so hard that only a few people will do it. I don’t want to do that. I just want everybody to be safe. I don’t want to keep everybody out. I want to be safe, have a program, be able to train other people safely, and travel.”

For Nordlum, frustrations over regulation have always come to down to a sovereignty issue. And she wants others to see it that way too.

“This isn’t even an Alaska issue. It’s an international issue… The Republican State of Alaska should have absolutely no say in what Inuit women are doing,” she says. “Maybe if we start accepting it as a sovereign thing, they [the State of Alaska] will too. They’ll have to. Because we won’t give in. I think that’s a lovely sentiment… I think that’s what we need to do as Native people – not compromise.”

And in fighting for sovereignty over the regulation of this Inuit cultural practice, Nordlum hopes to set a precedent for the future, one that stretches across many areas of Arctic governance.  

Nordlum’s frustrations with the way Inuit tattooing is regulated in Alaska lends itself to a much wider issue with governance of the Arctic overall. Despite the expertise and growing capacity of organisations like the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), Indigenous voices still often find themselves on the margins of national and international discussions regarding management of the Arctic’s land, resources, and futures.

“How do I say that we’ve been living here for millennia, which doesn’t even do the amount of time justice? For many, many, many, many, many generations, our people have been here”, Nordlum says, “And the arrogance of other people to manage us now. Not just us, our lands, our resources, our availability to our own place. That is just so hard for me to even fathom. Would I ever say to somebody living in another place, ‘you know your land, and the oil under your land; this is what we’re going to do with it.’”

“I’m not even emboldened enough to say I know what to do with our resources. I don’t. I’m just trying to balance a paycheck to activism that I can. I find it very frustrating as a Native person, and I don’t think I’m the only one. We are being looked down upon as people they can manage. And when you do have a Native person on the panel… it’s a token Native person.”

Going forward, non-Arctic countries increasingly vying for inclusion in Arctic affairs is troubling for some. The scramble for the Arctic is especially concerning to Nordlum as an Indigenous person whose seat at the proverbial ‘table’ was hard fought for and still often tokenised.

“Just because the Arctic is a hot topic, and there’s money being thrown into the Arctic, I don’t think anybody should be welcome. What happens is then they have a say to manage us. We don’t need any more of that. We barely have a seat at the table anyway. We have this courtesy brown seat. And it’s always after the fact; it’s never in the beginning… It’s frustrating.”

However, in the midst of tumultuous change in the Arctic and the world, there arise unique opportunities to revisit the past and reimagine the future. Where cracks in institutions occur, light can shine through. And in striving toward a future of sovereignty for the Arctic’s Indigenous Peoples, Nordlum is cautiously hopeful.

“I get tired of the question, ‘What does [a tattoo] mean?’. Because it’s big. It’s like governance. We are just taking back something. And in this day and age, it’s a good time. Even though there are these crazy things going on, I also think that this is the best time; we can have the biggest and loudest voice. So it’s an opportunity. That’s me being terribly optimistic. But I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to say out loud, ‘this isn’t right’.”

tattoos© Michael Conti

[1]For more on re-membering as an Indigenous project for decolonisation, please see Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (2012, 2nd ed.) Decolonizing Methodologies

Erin Willahan is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, where she focuses on connecting the intricate social, cultural, and economic realities of communities in Alaska to wider local-global dialogues across the Polar Regions. Born and raised in Alaska, Erin has worked in a range of fields related to Arctic issues. These include facilitating an ongoing project with the Alaska Division of Elections to translate official election materials into Alaska Native languages, research on cultural commodification in tourism, and working as a commercial fisherwoman. She is currently undertaking her M.A. in the Erasmus Mundus Human Rights Policy and Practice program. Her research interests revolve around decolonising Arctic discourse through Indigenous-led resource management policy, environmental justice in the face of climate change, and the ways in which sites of historical injustice are negotiated in North American Arctic communities.
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