Before this year, I never wanted a tattoo, or kakiñik as they are called in Iñupiaq. I’ve always admired them, but never felt drawn to putting anything permanently on my body. Until my good friend, Margi Dashevsky introduced me to Holly Nordlum over email.
I was teaching a class and was planning on highlighting the movement and work she’s led in revitalizing Inuit tattooing across the circumpolar north. We talked on the phone about the history of Iñuit tattooing, our efforts in cultural revitalization and artistic expression. I didn’t know Iñuit tattooing was only done by Inuit women. After that conversation I knew I would get one someday.
I first thought I would get one for healing purposes. Maybe dots or marks on my wrists and my feet. I wasn’t sure. I definitely didn’t think I’d dive right in and get a tavlaġun (chin kakiñik) AND forehead kakiñik right off the bat!
I found myself in Alaska in August and texted Holly asking if she had time to meet up for lunch or coffee. I was hoping to meet her in person and wanted to start talking about getting a kakiñik. We meet for lunch. At the end, she looks at me and says she can do it tomorrow. I fly out the day after tomorrow and don't know when I'll be back in Anchorage AND have the opportunity to get a kakiñik from an Iñupiaq female artist trained in the ancient practice! Do I want to do it? My spirit jumps and I know I do. I know I REALLY do! I know it’s time.
Holly had told me that some qaġġun (forehead kakiñik) have been associated with the sun and sunshine. Some people wore it as a reminder that the sun would come back during the dark winter months. I’ve wrestled with mental health challenges most of my life and this meaning really resonated with me. I knew I would get my own version of a sunshine kakiñik after hearing that.
I’d heard about and seen quite a few tavlaġuns (women's chin kakiñik) in the past few years. A tavlagun is given to a woman after she becomes a woman. It is a mark that she is strong and capable. It brings out her beauty in a way only a tavlaġun can. I love my tavlaġun.
We can’t really say this kakiñik design belongs to these people because tattooing was so prolific throughout Iñuit communities and happened over such a large period of time. There may not have been such hard and fast boundaries between people, culture and traditions as there are today.
In the same vein, defining what a kakiñik means is not hard and fast. Just like all art and specifically cultural art, tupiks have specific meaning to the person wearing them, the person giving them and the many individual people seeing them.
All the tattooing was artfully done by Holly’s hand with a needle. The dye is made of a plant root from India. I feel so fortunate to have had her as my kakiñik artist. Her beautiful work and art is very important, desperately needed and connects us back to our ancestors, ourselves and each other. Quyanaqpak (thank you very much) Holly for these amazing kakiñik, I am honored to wear them. ❤️
Before we began tattooing, I opened myself up spiritually to the unity of all things, the current from which I connect to my ancestors. I believe that our bodies die but our spirits, the energy and essence of who we are, continue to evolve. In this way, I am not an individual. I am here because of my ancestors and all life that came before me.
My ancestors have been tattooing for thousands of years. Generations of my Iñuit mothers, grandmothers and sisters have been using their hands and needles to help people heal, celebrate and remember. Countless Inuit have walked this earth tattooed. Laying on the kakiñik table before we started I said,"You and I have never done this. I have never gotten a kakiñik from you but I also know I have. I know we have been here together as Iñupiat women thousands of times."
We did the qaġġun (forehead kakiñik) first and within moments I could feel weight from my forehead lift. It also became very bright. My sister, Naŋinaaq Edwardson, who has had her tavlaġun for a few years now, asked that the spirits of our ancestors be with me while I was under the needle. They were. The current of strength I could feel from them thunderously pumped through my body as the designs were permanently inked in my skin. It was exhilarating and I wasn’t scared. I was ready.
I am back in Washington DC now, adjusting to a new life with a new face but I don’t feel new. I feel like I’ve taken off a mask by putting this one on. I never felt right in my body and I never felt terribly connected to my face. One of my third-grade teachers once told me I was pretty and without thinking, I said "thank you but you should really tell that to my parents." She asked me why and I said, "because I didn’t do anything."
The kakiñik I wear today are about reclaiming my body and my identity as an Iñupiaq woman. Through them, I stand in solidarity with other Iñupiat, other Inuit and other indigenous people and say we are here. We are resilient. We are beautiful. We are strong.
They are also about healing. Getting these kakiñik was transformational. I could feel sexual trauma from my childhood that had finally made its way up to the surface leave my body. I had been working on that trauma for over twenty years – first in the heart, then the head and now through the body. I hope this means I can live with less pain, I don’t know and I don’t presume to know. All I know is something was let go and that’s a really good thing.
Before this, I felt like I was hiding. I knew I passed as not Iñupiaq and that bothered me. I am not hiding anymore. I am standing against Western conformity and embracing my indigenous past and present.
I honor my Western heritage and don’t deny it. I am Iñupiaq, Norwegian and Russian Saami. I come from the Iñuit and the Vikings. I grew up with stroganoff and Norwegian flags on our Christmas tree. My mother, Debby Dahl Edwardson, is Norwegian and she is the strongest and most inspiring woman I know. Now, you can see both the Norwegian and Iñuit ancestry on my face.
The most meaningful part of my face happened unintentionally. There are 19 dots in my qaġġun. That’s how old I was when I had my son, who was the first light of my life. His birth opened up a new world for me, at a time I really needed it. Being his mom has made all the difference, I wouldn’t be here today without him. Holly didn’t know all that and I didn’t tell her. The fact that she ended up putting 19 dots on my forehead is magical to me.
Both the tavlaġun and sunshine kakiñik are connected to my son, who responded fairly well the first time he saw me with these kakiñik. I told him the day before I got them so it wasn’t as big of a shock as it could have been. But, he was still pretty surprised! He said, “I like them, it’s just going to take a little while to get used to.” 🙂
Read more about the Iñuit Tattooing Movement: