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A new generation of Alaska Native women are returning to a tradition - face tattoos. The practice was banned by 20th century missionaries. Alaska Public Media Zachariah Hughes reports on why it's coming back.
ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: Inside a small Anchorage tattoo parlor, Greenlandic artist Maya Sialuk Jacobsen uses a thin needle to pull an inky thread through the skin on her friend's wrist.
MAYA SIALUK JACOBSEN: I use the exit hole as the entrance for the next stitch, if you will.
HUGHES: The friend is Holly Mititquq Nordlum, organizer of a week-long series of tattoo-related events.
HOLLY MITITQUQ NORDLUM: It's loose. I put on a few pounds and then...
NORDLUM: ...So she'd have some extra skin to work with (laughter).
JACOBSEN: And her skin is, like, so much better than my husband's skin or anyone else I'd try (laughter).
She has really lovely skin to tattoo.
HUGHES: Jacobsen is one of the few Inuit women who knows how to tattoo through traditional methods, like sewing directly into the skin or using a needle to poke in dabs of dye. She's spent years cobbling together a body of knowledge about what the practice meant before European colonization of Inuit lands. There are few historical records, but they all came from explorers and missionaries.
JACOBSEN: I assure you, they did not really know what tattooing was, a lot of them (laughter).
HUGHES: But then can the mummies, a group of 500-year-old Inuit women discovered in the 1970s inside a Greenlandic gravesite, preserved tattoos and all. Jacobsen found a book about them, studied the designs and realized the marks on their foreheads, cheeks and chins came from the same tight stitches she'd learned as a girl. It was her first primary source.
JACOBSEN: I have, like, literature, and then I have, what I call, from the horse's mouth. And that is the mummies. And that is all the interviews with women about Inuit culture and about, you know, sewing, stitching.
HUGHES: Jacobsen and Nordlum's project is called Tupik Mi, which means tattoo people in Inupiaq. The two of them met over Facebook when Nordlum couldn't find anyone to give her a traditional tattoo in Alaska. A friendship blossomed, and they arranged an event series in Anchorage, including lectures, a skin stitching demonstration and culminating in Jacobsen poking her first-ever chin tattoo - on Nordlum.
NORDLUM: Yes, it did hurt. But I had chosen to do this. I kept telling myself it's supposed to hurt. It's supposed to hurt because I'm transforming.
HUGHES: Nordlum now sports six lines fanning out from her bottom lip, the thin inner two descending with martial straightness, a sign she didn't flinch from the pokes. Nordlum's great-grandmother had similar tattoos that marked important events in her life - menstruation, finding a partner, children - stuff that happened in your teens and early 20s. But now those big, meaningful achievements, like graduations, career goals, families, are the province of your later 20s and 30s. It's a tricky issue Nordlum bumped into when a woman requested a face tattoo for her 18-year-old daughter.
NORDLUM: Although I support the idea, the girl is only 18. Like, what does she know what she's going to do?
HUGHES: Permanence is why tattoos carry be so much weight. And for Nordlum and the growing number of Alaska Native women getting traditional tattoos, particularly along their chins, it's about showing the world a permanent, proud native identity. Nordlum is an artist who does a lot of freelance and commission work within the Alaska Native community. She's not worried about her job prospects taking a hit from her tattoo.
NORDLUM: People get used to it quickly. It's the initial reaction that is going to - and if I'm prepared mentally to walk into a place that might not be as friendly and I might get some dirty looks, eventually, 10 minutes, they're not looking at me anymore.
HUGHES: The only real criticism she's gotten so far came from an older Inupiaq man, part of a generation that was taught to see tattoos and other parts of traditional culture as shameful. It hurt. But Nordlum says it was a visceral reminder of why this kind of cultural preservation is important.
NORDLUM: The idea, though, is for Inupiaq, Inuit, Yup'ik women to feel proud of who they are, to feel strong, to create a sisterhood.
HUGHES: And, Nordlum says, for each woman to feel part of something bigger than herself, supported each time she sees another striking mark of pride on a smiling face. For NPR News, I'm Zachariah Hughes in Anchorage.