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Saturday, January 23, 2016

My chin tattoos. A personal reflection.



I've written a bit about my journey of coming to a homeostasis with my identity before in this blog, and now I have taken a pretty big step in that journey. A couple months ago I walked into tattoo parlor and asked to have my chin tattooed.

I have actually wanted traditional Inupiaq women's tattoos since I was a freshman in college.  After taking an introductory anthropology course where there was one page in the text book dedicated to our little culture it got me curious.  What other things do outside people say about our culture? One rainy afternoon I ventured to the university library and dug through the index card drawers for and hour, finding any and all references to my own culture.  There was no google back then.  I was left with about ten books that might say something, that might mention in a paragraph or two any reference to my home town or culture.  My excitement dimmed quickly as I pulled these books down from the shelves and realized that they didn't talk about my culture at all really...it was more like 'such and such scientist visited this place and saw stuff, lets talk about how awesome this scientist/anthropologist is'....no real detail.  Most referred to our people and culture using various words that meant 'barbaric' or 'going extinct.'  But in one of the last books there was a few old pictures from the first contact years, they were faded and somewhat blurry.  A few men, a few women, one with a child on her back.  Dark weathered skin looking like leather in the black and white photos, none of them smiled, looking stoic and somewhat tired.  I put it in the very small pile of books that might be interesting and checked them out of the library and took them back to my dorm.  Later I went back to the photos and saw that one of the older women had chin tattoos, almost hidden in the darkness of her skin.   The lines were powerful in their simplicity, in their presence.  I started crying.  In that moment I found something in my culture that spoke to me of beauty.  Of strength and bravery.  To me those tattoos were the epitome of how beautiful our culture could be, to completely shed the fear of being deemed less.  I think I cried because for once I found a something that was clearly and utterly of our culture, something not ever found in the western world.

It took a long time to talk to people about my secret dream.  About having chin tattoos.  And when I did I would get a mixed bag of responses.  Most would gaffaw or snort and tell me that it was dumb.  That only gang bangers had face tattoos.  Too impulsive.  Or squish their face in unconscious disgust and warn me how much that would ruin my life. That it would ruin my beauty (a somewhat racist remark? ) Others would tell me that they found them brave and beautiful too. But almost all would  tell me to wait.  To wait till I got older.  Some even told me that I couldn't get chin tattoos till I had children or grandchildren etc.  That I had to be an Elder, or that I could only get them done by hand, or that the church was going to come after me and burn me at the stake because only shamans had them (an actual thing said to me.)

So I waited.  And wanted. Eventually I had three lines on the back f my neck tattooed, a tattoo that I could hide if need be, but it always felt I was hiding more than ink on my skin.  So I waited.  For 20 years.

I decided to make them red.  Dark red. Old school chin tattoos were made by pulling soot and spit soaked sinew under the skin with a needle.  It left a blue black color.  For me though I wanted something modern. That was a combination of old and new.  Still Alaska Native Inupiaq, still speaking of our strong amazing ancestors but something that also spoke of my own journey, my own odd soul.  So I made them red.

I'm still getting used to them, oddly enough I forget that they are there most of the time.  My husband squinted a bit and said 'I like them'.  And that was it.  My baby girl, a toddler now with limited vocabulary, touched them for 5 minutes straight softly chanting under her breath 'pretty.'  For a while I was nervous because what if I eventually hate them?  What if I regret them?  What if I want to run for president of the United States?  But it hit me at some point to realize that the nerves I had were the voices that weren't even my own.  I guess becoming older has some benefits, as those nerves disappeared once I realized that I wasn't nervous about the tattoos at all, but instead I was re-playing those 'cautionary' statements over and over in my head. Like a inner chant of self abuse.  With age comes a lesser need of validation from the past.  At the end I realized that even without the tattoos I am still Native, brown on brown with slanted eyes smelling of tundra and caribou meat.   

Reactions 

After getting the tattoos in the city I realized that I still had to do some shopping at the grocery store before I went back to the village the next day so I hopped into the car and steeled my nerves and headed to the local Fred Meyers.  The tattoos at this point looked at first glance like blood, I'm pretty sure it was a gory sight as they had yet to mellow out in color and ....shiny-ness.  They were bright red and gleaming with freshness.   I was so wrapped up into my shopping list that I was floored with the effects they had on people.  Non-natives tried not to stare....one poor man I asked for helping me find a certain kind of caramel stuttered and stood with a slack jaw staring at my chin.  Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead and he nervously rubbed his hands on his jeans.  Long awkward silences dominated our conversation as we both tried to deal with what was going on.  At one point I think I giggled and his face flushed red.  At that point I put him out of hi misery and thanked him and walked away. 

A couple people asked me what they meant in my culture.  And to me this is the oddest question that I have gotten yet.  Because it implies that these cultural tattoos....in order to be accepted in society... have to mean something.  That our culture can't do anything just for beauty's sake, for aesthetic value or celebration.  That we as a culture might have different beauty standards.  These tattoos at their very core are a celebration of a woman's beauty and the proclamation of a cultural standard.  Back in the day they, along with other facial and body tattoos, were normal.  Abundant.  A celebration of woman.  A beautification of skin.  They could have many meanings, personal, spiritual, familial etc....but in the end they are simply the personal expression of the woman herself. 

It's like me asking a random stranger....'Can you tell me the meaning behind your eyeliner...what does it mean?' or 'Tell me the story behind your choice in outfit today....what does it mean?'

Odd.  And an awkward question. 

I usually answer simply...'These are symbolic of the reclamation of our culture.'  And let them do what they will with the answer.  I think the permanence of the tattoo itself is what scares people. The marking of ones face, ones core identity, permanently is a foreign concept in the western world though it is pretty common in other indigenous world.  And it shocks people.  But the western world prides itself on not having permanent......anything.  It's a place of fleetingness.....the un-tied....the non-forever.  But I have endured years of racism at it's most obvious and it's most covert, and I don't think that my beautiful tattoos will alter that in any way....since I will never be able to change my historical culture nor my core appearance.  And at least NOW when I go through the store in a big city some random Alaska Native with brown skin and dark eyes like mine will smile a big toothy grin and reach a hand out and touch me lightly on the arm and tell me...'Your tattoos are BEAUTIFUL.' 

18 comments:

  1. I loved reading this post and sharing your story. Yes, I agree that your tattoos are beautiful.

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  2. Your tatoos are beautiful.

    Also? Thank you for writing.

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  3. nice to read your words again.

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  4. I love your courage and passion for both the old and new. You are a true artist and gifted writer. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. In many ways I have been on this same journey (sans chin tattoos). Thank you for articulating so very eloquently the power and symbolism in reclaiming our culture :) - Krista Ulujuk

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  6. Thanks for the very nice article. I have always wondered what they mean, what's the symbolization. And you explained very well.
    To my defense my eyeliner does have meaning, I pick the color often times symbolically.

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  7. Hello, I love this post! I am looking to get my tattoos as well, and your commentary on waiting resonates with me. I too, am waiting, trying to learn more, ensuring I am following proper protocol- checking that the designs I want are acceptable for my region. I am more than ready to receive the questions and responses from people in my region, tattoos have been paused in our region for 80 years, but that does not mean they have stopped entirely or that they cannot be reclaimed by my generation. We are so far south, that unfortunately assimilation has played a large part in the way in which our people see ourselves and reflect our opinions of our culture on one another. Some of us have an undying pride, and some still feel the effects of imposed and internalized shame which is seen in reactions within my community to reclaiming our cultural practices/language and ways of knowing.
    Nakummek for this post! <3.

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  8. Hello, I love this post! I am looking to get my tattoos as well, and your commentary on waiting resonates with me. I too, am waiting, trying to learn more, ensuring I am following proper protocol- checking that the designs I want are acceptable for my region. I am more than ready to receive the questions and responses from people in my region, tattoos have been paused in our region for 80 years, but that does not mean they have stopped entirely or that they cannot be reclaimed by my generation. We are so far south, that unfortunately assimilation has played a large part in the way in which our people see ourselves and reflect our opinions of our culture on one another. Some of us have an undying pride, and some still feel the effects of imposed and internalized shame which is seen in reactions within my community to reclaiming our cultural practices/language and ways of knowing. I see a large cultural revitalization within many of our communities, especially in the south and urban centres, unfortunately I never had the fortune of growing up in a community with such a rich and vibrant continuation/retention of all aspects of our culture, as some communities have had further north.
    This is a beautiful post!
    Nakummek for this post! <3.

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  9. Love your post and message..made me cry (with joy). Thank you for spreading the power. Love to you ❤️

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  10. Your tattoos are beautiful indeed. I used to live in New Zealand where Te Moko (facial tattoo) is a significant part of the Maori culture. While men's tattoos usually cover the whole face, women's are on the chin and the lips. I have always found them absolutely beautiful, without wondering what was the "cultural meaning" behind it. Here are a few examples : http://static2.stuff.co.nz/1391673169/182/9694182.jpg
    http://www.teara.govt.nz/files/29816-pc.jpg
    http://zealandtattoo.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/maori-tribe-face-tattoo-300x199.jpg

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  11. This is very powerful, explaining your journey to finally getting your chin tattoos. I find the same reactions happen to me, and yes, I forget that I have my chin tattoos often, since they have become part of me, of who I am. I have had my chin tattoos for over four years now, but before that, I drew them on for our cultural dance performances with the women in my Inupiat dance group. It became normal for me to draw them on, and after the performances, I would leave it on, until I smeared it or I finally got home.
    I get the same different reactions, some staring, some looking at my chin (hello, my eyes are up here! Speak to me, not to my chin...) But the ones that are most important is recognition from our own people, that is what matters to me the most. I felt it was time for me to get my chin tattoos, and now in today's culture, it is getting to be more accepted. A lot of people still do not understand, but my kids and my family understand. It really is a reclamation of our culture, that belonged to us and still belongs to us in our hearts. I see it as a way to express pride in our skin sewers, how skilled they were long ago, that is why the lines are so straight. It represents our toughness, being able to live the far North. Also it is representing our journey in life, becoming a woman and establishing our womanhood in the community. And when we get married, then we can say to others, "I am taken, I have found my partner". Yes, tattoos have to mean something to you before you do any tattoos, and I think they are beautiful.

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  12. Great posts ! I absolutely love it and as so many said - you have a beautiful storytelling pen.
    I can relate a lot to that feeling " I found something in my culture that spoke to me of beauty"
    It took me to travel half way across the globe and meet a lady with a tattoo on her chin to have a flash back as a kid when I was fascinated by my auntie ( whom I barely saw) who had a tattoo on her chin and between her eyes.
    It led me to want to investigate that part of my culture in Morocco ( Berber the indigenous people of Moroccan mountains) and faced the same problem as you - only anecdotal referrals to those tattoos and exotic women - most the focus was on the carpets and outfits and cuisine.

    Re-appropriation by fashion happens now and again to make it hype and as you know it can turn tradition into circus...
    The tradition is a dying one which I aim to document :)
    There is a lot of taboo around tattoos - and yes people ask if there is a meaning and will always do. I wouldnt get too worked up about it - at least they show interest ! Thats what humans do - they look for meaning and a sense in everything -and life - ( ar at least it would be a good idea)
    Even the purely cosmetic or esthetic is a meaning . It is a profound act and it has a meaning even if the line itself was not meaning something per se . The act of having it done is meaningful :)

    At least they can't come up with the Oh - are you not scared of how it will look when you get old and wrinkled ( i get that everytime I have done a tattoo or intended to do one!)
    I am totally with you about the impermanence - throw away society versus the commitment and ownership of a tattoo. MAny want to keep the option of a way out instead of bearing full responsibility of a time in their life they decdied to act a certain way - be it here celebrating ones cultural identity.

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  13. Perhaps when people are staring at your chin they are struck by the beauty of it.
    I can understand someone asking the significance of the tattoos. Perhaps they are curious and want to learn more about different cultures. Not asking leads to assuming and we all know how what happens when one assumes.

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  14. Thought you might find this article interesting. It's about the revival of Inuit facial tattoos (from the Northwest Territories Canada).

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  15. I will be getting mine tomorrow. Thank you for writing this. I can not wait to proudly display my tavluġun.
    I was 14 when my Aaka came home from New Zealand with her chin tattoos and I was in awe. I asked her when I would be able to get mine and she said "well, you can't get married until you're atleast 21 so you'll have to wait until then" I waited longer because I thought maybe I'd eventually want to move out of Barrow or Alaska. But I'm so ready now.
    I've also been asked by a bunch of people what the meaning is. To me, it will represent a time and a people. It's our past, present and future. It's me, our culture, our ancestors and our children.
    I'm so so excited.

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