Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos

“A young woman is on a journey to revive the ancient Inuit tradition of face tattooing. Inuit tattoos have been forbidden for a century, and almost forgotten. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril struggles to find out all she can before she is tattooed herself. She has met serious resistance from some of her fellow Inuit. However, a number of brave elders are willing to talk about the tattoos, and the massive and sudden cultural changes that caused their decline.”

I am not a residential school survivor. I am not an alcoholic, nor are my parents alcoholics. I never suffered any kind of abuse as a child.  I am not illiterate or living in poverty. Though many, many of my fellow Inuit have suffered some or all of these harsh realities, I have been extraordinarily lucky and blessed to have healthy parents, a good education in both English and Inuktitut, and a good job. Yet, I have still felt a deep, inexplicable sense of loss in my soul that I have spent my life trying to address.

Everywhere indigenous peoples have been colonized, there is a sense of cultural and linguistic loss.  The fact that even a relatively lucky and healthy young Inuit woman feels this “hole in the soul”, speaks to how deeply our entire culture and society has been affected.

It has been said that Inuit underwent the most intense and rapid cultural changes of any surviving culture. While the First Nations and Metis (non-Inuit Native Americans) suffered as much or more than their arctic counterparts, their cultural changes took place over hundreds of years, whereas Canadian Inuit were colonized much later, and went “from the ice age to the space age” in one generation. As a society, we are still reeling from the transition.

Tunniit is an intensely personal film. It is about my journey to learn about traditional Inuit women’s face tattoos before getting tattooed myself. However, I think (I hope) it also speaks to a universal desire to feel part of a community.  A sense of identity is a necessary foundation for life that is often taken for granted by those who have never had their identity challenged or attacked.

This story takes place in the context of modern Inuit communities that are utterly confused by the staggering cultural changes wrought by the Canadian government, the Christian Church, and the reality of present day globalization. Today, evangelical Christianity is a shockingly strong force in arctic Inuit communities, causing tension around discussing anything that remotely touches on the old spiritual beliefs. The Inuit that attended residential schools, the generation that had their culture beaten out of them, and had their mouths washed out with soap when they spoke their native language – these people are hurting and confused. In some cases, the mere mention of traditional tattoos is enough to send a person into a spitting rage.

In this context, the dignity and bravery of the dozens of Inuit elders who were willing to go on camera to speak about the tradition of tattooing is awe-inspiring.

My personal struggle with these issues is laid out for the world to see in this film. I have felt touched and reassured to hear back from my fellow Inuit about what this film has meant to them. And though the process certainly upset and challenged my family at times, in the end we’ve come out stronger and closer for it.

Tunniit is not yet available online or on DVD. However, I am working hard at getting this set up in the near future. If you would like to be added to a list of people to be contacted once DVDs become available, please go to the “mailing list” page on this site and sign up to be included on my very occasional updates (once-a-month-ish, typically less).

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