Hovak Johnston is breathing new life into her ancestral culture, one tattooed woman at a time.
The Inuk artist grew up in the remote community of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, in northern Canada . As a child, she was intrigued by an elder woman with traditional Inuit tattoos – the only member of the community to have them. The memory never left her. Years later, she decided to research the sacred practice, which by then had become almost extinct.
Johnston was a guest at the Adäka festival , the Whitehorse cultural event now in its eighth edition. Those very themes – oppression followed by resurgence and revival– were weaved through the programing, reminding visitors that no matter how impossible the fight against oppression can be, art remains a beacon of hope, a cornerstone of the resistance. Hovak Johnston tattooing during the Adäka festival. Photograph: Cathie Archbould Johnston has now tattooed dozens of Inuit women – including some in their 70s and beyond . The markings, often made using a stick and poke method, are highly personal and usually emblematic of defining life events, as well as family connections. They adorn women’s fingers, arms , thighs and – perhaps more strikingly – their faces .
For a century, the markings were expressly forbidden by missionaries, who denounced the practice as shamanistic and contrary to the Christian beliefs imposed on the Inuit population. Consequently, those who dared to get the ornaments were shunned. It took enormous efforts by the younger generation to reclaim it – including archival and on the ground research by artists like Johnston and artists like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril , whose documentary Tunniit retraces her quest to get markings on her forehead, cheeks and forearms.
Adäka’s programming was bursting with similar stories of revitalisation. In the space of a week, more than 50 artists – visual artists, dancers, throat singers, musicians and fashion designers – took the stage, taught workshops and gave talks about topics as varied as herbalism, dog ownership in the Arctic or moose hide tanning at a “fish camp” set on the bank of the Yukon river. A dancer wearing an oversized traditional mask. Photograph: Cathie Archbould The festival welcomed everyone – from members of the Yukon’s 14 indigenous First Nations to locals and international visitors – and the joyous mood embodied this generosity of spirit: young children took part in special activities, tourists admired and purchased art in the galleryand artists mingled with the crowd, imparting their knowledge as they weaved, sculpted or carved in front of the crowd.
Ashley Cummings, 20, from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, was tattooed by Johnston during the festival. Through tears, she explained that no one in her family could remember a member sporting the markings, so effective was the ban. To be able to finally reclaim the practice felt like “a huge relief” and an honor.
The tide is finally turning – but it was a close call, and the blame can be squarely put at the feet of Canada’s residential school system. ‘Our identity is coming back to us’
Starting in the 1840s until the last school closed in 1996, more than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their family, and forced to assimilate. Gone was their right to see their family, to speak their ancestral language, to dance, to play the drums – to exist. A young dancer at the festival. Photograph: Cathie Archbould The system’s aim was to “ kill the Indian in the child ”. Physical and sexual abuse was endemic, and ignoble “ nutritional experiments ” were conducted. More than 6,000 children have died at the hands of missionaries.
In less than 100 years, […]
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