Traditional Tattoos of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska
Lars Krutak wrote about the tattoo practices of the Yupik women in "The Last Tattoos of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska." In the article, he speaks of how their skin-stitched tattoos were disappearing as the last generation of women who proudly wore tribal art on their faces and bodies succumbed to old age. He explains why the practice had largely left with these women:
Tattooing ultimately began to fade when missionaries and modernity
arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. Furthermore, as new
medical advances became known, tattoos of the medicinal kind were no
longer believed to "hold power" or to cure. Chris Koonooka (Petuwaq),
a local teacher at the Gambell School stated, "It seems like those
folks who were born after 1915 stopped getting tattoos. Some were
actually feeling fortunate for not being tattooed and some were feeling
ashamed for being tattooed. Perhaps some were embarrassed about their
tattoos, as some may have been influenced by the Christianity of those
But Lars was also hopeful that the younger generations of Yupik women would revitalize their tattoo traditions. It seems that this hope is being realized.
Last week, the Anchorage Daily News featured Yaari Kingeekuk (shown above), an artist and educator who wears the tattoos of her ancestors and also teaches native Alaskan songs and dances. While her tattoos were done by machine, not sewn, they still hold their original meanings:
"I have chin stripes, clan tattoos, tribal tattoos. They tell a lot of stories."
Those chin stripes, for example. "They
mean I'm a mature woman. I have children." The single mom has six
children of her own, in fact, plus one whom she's adopted.
The seven fluke shapes on her arms count the number of whales that her father caught during his lifetime.
"My hands tell you my clan, elders,
meetings, storytellers, dancers, Native games, how the houses were
arranged. They're almost like a village lifestyle story."
She further explains her tattoos and her teachings in this video. See more photos here.
Yaari credits her grandparents Jimmy and Mable Toolie for her interest in reviving St. Lawrence Island arts. Mable was one of the women Lars interviewed for his research into Yupik tattooing, and the first photo in his article.
Also reviving the skin sewing practices is Colin Dale of Skin & Bone Tattoo in Copenhagen. We got to see Colin stitching first hand at the Traditional Tattoo & World Culture Fest this past summer, and Brian posted a video of it here. If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend you check it out to watch the intricate (and painful) process.