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Celebrating Inupiat Identity: A Pointed Take on Cultural Pride

Marjorie Tahbone is helping to reawaken the Inupiat tattooing tradition. The master’s student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks sees this as part of a broader effort to give Northern youth a strong cultural foundation.

Written by John Thompson Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Marjorie Tahbone practising the skin-stitching method of traditional tattooing while visiting Kugluktuk, Nunavut, in April 2016.littleinukphotography

You could say Marjorie Tahbone’s cultural pride is written on her face. Or, more precisely, inked there: Three black vertical lines run down her chin. Such tattoos were once a coming-of-age rite for Inupiat women, but stigma and shame led the tradition to fall out of favor for many years.

Tahbone, a 28-year-old resident of Nome, Alaska, is part of a movement to awaken these “sleeping” pieces of her culture. She sees this as part of what’s needed to overcome the challenging social conditions in the North – if northern aboriginal youth are to beat problems such as suicide and substance abuse, it helps to know where they come from, and she says traditions can help do that.

“We need to bring back our culture and our celebrations and our festivals, ways that we were able to cope with mourning, with death or being able to acknowledge a boy becoming a man and a girl becoming a woman – those ceremonies are important to a healthy society and those were taken from us. And so my motivation is to make sure that they come back in a healthy, strong way and people feel that they’re theirs.”

Tahbone is completing her master’s degree in cross-cultural studies at the University of Alaska’s campus in Fairbanks. She’s also become a tattoo artist – and in addition to her chin she sports traditional tattoos on her wrists and thighs. We spoke with her as part of our series that focuses on emerging leaders in the region.

Arctic Deeply: Tell us about how you got involved with Inuit tattooing.

Marjorie Tahbone: Well, that process came slowly. I studied abroad, actually, in Nunavut for a year, in Iqaluit, and it was there I learned some Inuktitut and also some of the traditions of skin sewing, and they’re similar to us – that’s why I went over there. We call ourselves Inuit as well, and I learned a lot about their stories and legends and found that they’re extremely similar to ours. I was inspired by how they’re just so proud to be Inuit, and after that I wanted to bring that back home. I wanted people to feel happy and comfortable being Inuit, and so I, at that point, realized that I was figuring out my identity, and I decided to get my traditional chin tattoos after I graduated college in 2012.

It was a long process because I had to get permission, make sure my family was comfortable with it – especially my grandmother. She was the one who needed the most time with it because she was a product of the boarding school era; residential schools. But I didn’t think that I would be a tattooist until I was approached by a tattoo artist who was helping to revitalize the efforts of Filipino tattooists. He owns a shop down in Los Angeles, and he asked if I wanted to learn to be a traditional tattooist, and I just jumped on the opportunity. This was last year.

When I asked to be a tattooist I felt like I was ready. I had learned about the process and I had learned about the reasons and meanings on some level, but once I became a tattooist then I started learning them on a different level, a spiritual level – there’s so many layers of this tradition and it’s been amazing learning about it for the past year.

Arctic Deeply: Could you describe the different traditional tattooing techniques?

Tahbone: There are two main ones. The first is skin stitching, and that’s when you have a needle and sinew thread and you dip the thread in ink. The ink’s usually made out of soot of some kind, from the bottom of a seal oil lamp or a pot of charcoal of some kind, and mixed in with different things – it could be seal oil, urine or water. And they dip that in there and they pass the needle through the skin, just on the first layer – you don’t have to go very deep, and as the sinew passes through the skin then it leaves the ink. The other method is hand-poke or stick-and-poke, which is just dipping a needle in ink and piercing it into the skin.

Arctic Deeply: Is there a defining moment that helped lead you to where you are today?

Tahbone: I totally credit my family and my upbringing in Nome, because we grew up at camp, at fish camp on the land. My mother, she taught me how to take care of our traditional food, so I know how to prepare a seal and make food for winter. I really am fortunate to have had a childhood where I grew up in that way.

Arctic Deeply: What’s your vision for the Arctic 10 years from now?

Tahbone: Oh, well, I think I’m a big dreamer when it comes to what we can do as Inuit in the Arctic. In 10 years I definitely see us owning the tables when it comes to policymaking and legislation. I think we are going to be the ones who are going to be the deciders of these big, huge changes that are happening in the climate – we’re on ground zero and we’re going to be the ones who are going to be making the tough decisions. I feel like in 10 years we’re going to be at a time where our schools have totally shifted in a way that is more culturally relevant, our curriculum is going to be based on the environment that they’re in and we’re going to have immersion schools by that time that are going to be centered around our culture and language. In 50 years, all the schools wouldn’t be immersion schools, they would just all be in the language. That’s the hope.

And I think in 10 years the Arctic is going to be a totally different place; maybe not physically, like environmentally – 10 years is not too long – but as far as when we see people and how people are interacting with one another, I think it’s gonna be a different place. We’re collaborating right now and I think in 10 years we’ll be thriving. I really see that: I see we’re going in a good direction as Inuit and people of the Arctic.

THIS Q&A IS PART OF OUR SERIES ON YOUNG LEADERS IN THE ARCTIC. READ MORE:

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