Woman Warriors Newsletter

Inuit Tattoos by Tanya Roach

The practice of tattooing has lost honourable meaning in the 21st century. Prior to colonization, Indigenous peoples practiced traditional tattooing as proud announcements of their cultural heritage. Among the Inuit, there are variations of straight lines, Vs, and dots decorated on the face and hands. When young girls enter womanhood, they often get tattoos on the face. Tattooing a woman’s thighs is preparation for childbirth. When the infant passes through the womb, the thighs and calves are the next limbs he or she passes by. The symbols are a gesture of beauty and welcome for the soul entering this world.

I was 16 when I first got a tattoo. My best friend was 18 at the time and lent me her photo I.D. while I went down south to visit distant relatives. She is Dene and I am Inuk; we were often mistaken as sisters and didn’t object when people confused us. I waited in the foyer of the tattoo parlour, excited and nervous, envisioning a meaningful and memorable heart-to-heart experience, like those getting inked on the TV show Miami Ink with Kat Von D. Instead, a plain, frumpy, middle-aged woman with miserable unkempt hair, dressed for a jungle safari called me plainly into the room. The minutes passed silent and idle except for the constant electric buzzing of the tattoo gun marking my skin. I commented with earnest intent the thoughtfulness and extreme teenage meaningfulness of the symbol I had chosen. She didn’t look up and said: “Let’s just hope you don’t regret this decision when you’re old.” That was nearly 15 years ago and I’m still not sure if I regret it or not.

Today people get marked with caricatures of pizza, people, skulls and teddy bears. Urban tattoos are trendy, flashy and punkishly tasteful. At least that’s what I thought throughout my teenage years when I continued inking myself up out of dramatic and romanticized notions that the images permanently marked on my body illustrated my core values. 

My perception of tattoos changed when I found an old family photo that I somehow hung onto through my years of foster care. It is a black and white portrait of my great-great-great maternal Grandmother, Shoofly Comer, standing in a tent in 1904. She stands wearing a beaded amauti (a traditional parka worn by Inuit women) and a tattooed face piercing through the lens of the camera and into my soul. On her forehead is a distinct V; horizontal lines angled upward across her cheekbones and a clean claw of lines protruding her chin. When I admire her strength and piercing originality, I feel like my tattoos are a mismatched assortment of children’s stickers impulsive and immaturely thought out.

I didn’t know about traditional Inuit tattoos until I became an adult. Having been a foster kid during most of my childhood, I didn’t know much about my culture. My language was a distant echo in the back of my mind, and traditional food was something I was not exposed to or accustomed to. When I learned that my ancestors practiced traditional tattooing ceremonies for young girls transitioning into womanhood, this struck a strong emotional chord

My heart was heavy when I learned the value behind an Inuit woman getting tattoos. It marked the celebration of womanhood; the time when a girl got her first period. Looking back, I felt deprived of a cultural rite of passage. Throughout my teenage years I shared my desire for tattoos with my foster parents. But in their eyes tattoos were inappropriate, sick-minded and a form of self-mutilation. Am I sick minded person for wanting tattoos? The self-mutilating kind? No, but they were traditional Catholic educators adhering to many traits of colonial behaviour. I have to admit it brought me pleasure to see their disgust and disapproval, while I got tattoos answering the quiet call of my skin thirsty for ink. Thirsty for my body to announce where I come from.

The women in my maternal family have requested that I learn my language before tattooing my face. For the time being, I’ve embraced a large brown permanent V on my chest. I wanted something private and prominent that I can share with only my close family and something my baby would see while breastfeeding. Looking in the mirror each day, I hope the symbolism behind those lines will always guide me to live from the heart.

Tanya is a published author for Yellowknife’s Edge and Up Here magazine, and the Magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada sharing stories on urban Inuit culture. In addition, Tanya is a celebrated Inuit throat singer and has performed at the Winnipeg art gallery and many events around the North. Please contact Tanya through email to inquire about booking her for throat singing or as a writing contributor, tantomroach@gmail.com.

Tanya’s great-great-great maternal Grandmother, Shoofly Comer (1904).
Tanya and Nanasee
August 15th. Legacy: Indigenous Women’s Health Stories. Tanya and her partner, Nanasee throat singing at our event. Tanya states that she learned throat singing in young adulthood: “While my mother tried my best to care for myself and my sister, Sam, alone we were eventually admitted into foster care between the ages of 4 – 19. At 18 I met a young man from Kingait, Nunavut (also known as Cape Dorset) where I was welcomed into an Inuit family with strong cultural practices such as hunting, carving, speaking Inuktitut and throat singing. With a child on the way, I learned how to throat sing as a way to normalize an ancient and once banished art form for my son, Agalukti-Ipkarnaak. Photo credit James O’Connor Unlimited.
Equak Niviatsiak
Tanya’s digital story shares the importance of the naming system in Inuit culture, and how being named after her grandfather, Equak Niviatsiak (featured in the picture above) impacted her health. Photo credit James O’Connor Unlimited.

Reconciliation in Healthcare

The premier of Legacy
August 15, 2019. The premier of Legacy: Indigenous Women’s Health Stories took place at Northern United Place in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Presenters (Front row l to r): Maxine Desjarlais, Elder & co-emcee, Gail Cyr, Dorothy Weyallon, Sheryl Liske & Tanya Roach. (Back row l to r): Beatrice Harper & Shelley Wiart. Photo credit for all photos: James O’Connor Unlimited.

Reconciliation in health is recognized in two documents that serve as a framework for reconciliation:

Article 24 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices…. [they] also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services” (UNDRIP, 2013).

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action (2015) #18-24 address the legacy of health. The Calls to Action relevant to this research include:

22 states, “We call upon those who can affect change within the Canadian health-care system to recognize the value of Aboriginal healing practices and use them in the treatment of Aboriginal patients in collaboration with Aboriginal healers and Elders where requested by Aboriginal patients.”

23 states, “We call upon all levels of government to: iii. Provide cultural competency training for all health-care professionals” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015).

In order to close the gaps in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada, it is critical that Indigenous people’s voices are central to the process of reconciliation in healthcare. Indigenous women’s knowledge is integral to sustaining traditional knowledge systems &healing practices and decolonizing knowledge production (Kermoal & Altamirano-Jimenez, 2016). An essential part of reconciliation in healthcare is giving Indigenous women a platform to tell their own health stories.

The culturally relevant methodology of Indigenous digital storytelling (DST) allows Indigenous women to share their health stories in a three to five-minute video that features their own first-person narration, images (personal and stock photos), and music. This decolonizing methodology allows for self-representation that challenges stereotypes and “aids in negotiating social priorities and contemporary community needs, expresses community viewpoints, and safeguards community values and norms” (Iseke & Moore, 2011). Furthermore, it is essential to the decolonization process that “Indigenous people speak with our own voices about our histories, culture, and experiences as we continue to resist the onslaught of colonial structures, policies and practices” (Regan, 2010).

I am currently writing my research paper on this past summer’s data and the digital stories. Some of the main messages of my research project include:

1) Indigenous women’s health stories are complex and digital storytelling is an important pedagogical tool to capture this complexity, and to teach cultural competency in health care settings.
2) In order for health care providers to have respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples, they must honour the diversity within each cultural group and have a baseline understanding of the First Nations, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) cultural concepts of “good health.”
3) Reconciliation in healthcare requires an understanding of how colonization, including residential schools, have negatively impacted Indigenous peoples’ holistic health and how it continues to have intergenerational impacts.
4) Decolonizing healthcare requires Indigenous women speaking in their own voices about their health stories and an earnest effort on behalf of healthcare providers to engage in active and respectful listening.

It is exciting to present our digital health stories to residents and get feedback on the questions that I’ve committed to answer through this research such as:

1) Do these digital health stories raise the levels of cultural competency of health care providers?
2) Do these digital health stories help health care providers better understand the concepts of holistic health from the perspectives of FNMI women?
3) Do these digital health stories have the capability of decreasing the time between knowledge generation and knowledge implementation in the health care system?
4) Do healthcare professionals have a better understanding of reconciliation in healthcare after viewing these digital health stories?

Please sign up for the newsletter to continue to learn about our community events and how our digital storytelling participants are creating space to discuss reconciliation in healthcare.

1) Iseke, J., & Moore, S. (2011). Community-Based Indigenous Digital Storytelling with Elders and Youth. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 35(4), 19–38.
2) Kermoal, N. J., Altamirano-Jiménez, I., & Horn-Miller, K. (2016). Living on the land: indigenous women’s understanding of place. Edmonton, Alberta: AU Press.
3) Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within : Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver, British Columbia: UBC Press.
4) Truth and Reconciliation Canada (2015). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
5) UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). (2013). Retrieved on September 9, 2019 from https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf.