Skip to content

May we suggest

Essays / March 18, 2019

Ancestral Threads

Through research I find clues to our centuries-old traditions, connecting stories to markings and pulling the past into the present
Maskette, Devon Island, Nunavut ca. 1900–1600 BC. Walrus ivory, 5.4 cm x 2.9 cm x 8 mm. Collection Canadian Museum of History. Maskette, Devon Island, Nunavut ca. 1900–1600 BC. Walrus ivory, 5.4 cm x 2.9 cm x 8 mm. Collection Canadian Museum of History.
Maskette, Devon Island, Nunavut ca. 1900–1600 BC. Walrus ivory, 5.4 cm x 2.9 cm x 8 mm. Collection Canadian Museum of History. Maskette, Devon Island, Nunavut ca. 1900–1600 BC. Walrus ivory, 5.4 cm x 2.9 cm x 8 mm. Collection Canadian Museum of History.

It was like I was afraid to come out of the closet as a full-blown Inuk. Born at a time when the Danification of Greenlandic Inuit was strong, I lived many years assimilated, though never in doubt of my ethnicity. As children we learned Danish in school rather than our own language. We were urged to travel to Denmark to study, to come back refined, more Danish and less Inuk. We were repeatedly told that there was no future in our language, our knowledge. I felt a disconnection from my reality and a deep sense of longing for my unreachable culture. Like many others I ended up in Denmark as a young teenager, later moving from country to country in Europe, living in a rootless state. Eventually I found a world that took me in without questioning my ethnicity. I became a tattooer. A Western commercial tattooer. It took me 10 years of tattooing and travelling in the Western world before I found my way back to my culture and my homelands. It was a tiny little mask that showed me the way to my roots.

At first her little face seemed wrinkled. Then I discovered that the lines were intricate tattoo patterns. She is at least 3,600 years old and from the Dorset culture—the culture that inhabited some circumpolar regions before the Thule, the culture that I descend from! She pulled me in. I understood that my cultural pride could no longer be held back. Her beautifully curved cheek markings are almost exactly the same as the lines found on the 500-year-old Greenlandic mummies from Qilakitsoq. These lines have remained unchanged for millennia and through the long distances of Inuit migration. On both sides of her mouth she has beautiful little branch-like patterns. Her chin lines are exactly the same as the lines I tattoo on Inuit women today: precise straight lines from lip to chin that mark childhood’s end.

The collected oral traditions of Inuit have been passed down over generations, and are a way that angakkut inform Inuit on maintaining balance between the Visible World of the humans and the Invisible World of the spirits. Even in our colonized, Danified community, the stories were kept alive, like our ability to make clothing of skins. Alive, like our hunting knowledge. I was always reminded that we have a rich history and culture to be proud of. I was also constantly reminded to act Danish.

Sassuma Arnaa finger markings. Photo: Maya Sialuk Jacobsen. Sassuma Arnaa finger markings. Photo: Maya Sialuk Jacobsen.

My favourite time as a child was storytelling with our Elders. We spent hours listening in the warmth, while the wild Arctic winter ruled outside. The storyteller would carefully make sure to maintain the main features of the story. Still, they applied their own temperament and individual storytelling style. Generally, Inuit have two kinds of stories. In Kalaallisut, the dialect of Inuit in West Greenland, we call them:

“Oqaluttuatoqqat”—stories from a time where Inuit inhabited lands west of “Hudson Bay,” maybe even as far west as the Bering Strait region. A time before migrations led our people toward eastern parts of Inuit Nunaat. Oqaluttuatoqqat are therefore common in all areas of Inuit Nunaat. They were spread halfway around the globe, circumpolar—as Inuit moved toward new hunting grounds and settled from the Chukotka Peninsula over the entire northern slope of the North American continent, including Greenland.

“Oqaluttualiaat”—legends about people who lived within an age that can still be remembered, and which take place in areas well known to the listener who then can be transported in their mind to the place of the legend being told. The stories can seem very similar to those that explain our creation, and have the recognizable Inuit style.

The three notions that all Inuit must know in order to maintain balance between humans and spirits: Things to Avoid, Things to Follow, Things to Do.

We learn from our oral traditions about the creation of the world and all its beings. We learn that humans will be punished with illness, famine and death if taboos are ignored or if we act selfishly. We learn how to change the situation, to bring the wildlife back to the shores so that famine might end. It is in the oral traditions that we find indirect explanations of Inuit tattoo patterns. Not information about how tattoos looked or were given, but what they mean to a bearer. Inuit lands are widespread and small clans inhabited all corners of those vast lands, an incredibly different life compared to the way humans live today. Like the tattoo patterns, the Oqaluttuatoqqat and Oqaluttualiaat have variations and adaptations to the local area but are still basically the same and carry the same educational value. The three notions that all Inuit must know in order to maintain balance between humans and spirits: Things to Avoid, Things to Follow, Things to Do. Our tattoos are included in this careful balance. In this East Greenlandic version of a story known all over the Inuit lands, we are told of the creation of the sun and the moon:

Aningaaq lived in a sammisulik where many families gathered for the winter, and so did his sister Maliina. Each night, when the lamps were turned down and the house filled with darkness, Aningaaq would find his sister and lay with her. Maliina, not knowing who the young man who slept with her every night was, began to wonder. In order to find out, she made her hands black with soot from the lamp. As usual Aningaaq came to her and this time Maliina touched his shoulders with her blackened hands. The next morning, as the lamps were lit, Maliina said out loud, “Someone is here with soot on his shoulders.” She looked around and saw the sooty shoulders of her own brother. Maliina grabbed her ulu and cut off one of her breasts, threw it at her brother and said, “Since you desire me so much you should eat me.” Maliina took the burning moss from the lamp and ran out of the house and into the sky. Aningaaq followed her outside and saw her in the sky. He took his sermiaat and stuck it into the burning moss from another lamp and ran after his sister up into the sky. His strong legs caused him to run too fast and the fire on his sermiaat went out, leaving a glowing ember. Aningaaq blew on it and made many sparks that turned into the stars. Aningaaq’s fire went out. With only a cold glow left, he became the moon. Maliina is the warm burning sun because her fire still burns. Aningaaq, still filled with lust and desire for his sister, follows her in the sky.

Aningaaq, ruler of land animals and the provider of children, controls the tide and the cycle of women. He is greatly feared. The man in the moon is mentioned in many stories. Inuit pay a lot of attention to those they fear, those who punish when taboos are broken and unbalance occurs between the worlds.

Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, <em>Yupik qajaq frame parts</em>, 2019. Watercolour, 30 x 21 cm. Courtesy the artist. Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, Yupik qajaq frame parts, 2019. Watercolour, 30 x 21 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, <em>Forehead markings</em>, 2019. Watercolour, 30 x 21 cm. Courtesy the artist. Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, Forehead markings, 2019. Watercolour, 30 x 21 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Maliina is only mentioned in the one story (her own story of creation) but she is represented in other places in Inuit culture, and richly so. The moon chasing the sun on the sky is depicted in many ways: in the two faces of the happy moon and the sad sun in the Yupik qajaq frame, in qajaq beads holding the hunting tools in place, on hand masks made for female dancers to simulate the movements of the sky spirits. And of course in our tattoos. Our forehead markings are for Maliina, who is always melancholic due to the hardships her brother put her through. She became the symbol of women who overcome bad situations: raped by her brother and forced to relocate to a completely different and lonely environment, never to perform tasks she was born to do; still, she is life-giving, warm and full of light. Maliina always returns after the darkness of winter. She never gives up on Inuit or any other life, big or small, in the Arctic.

When I see my reflection in the mirror I see the carvings of beautiful sad Maliina. I see her frown forever inserted in my skin. Like my foremothers did. I see a living version of the masks. I am proud to greet her and honour her. I am grateful for her light and her warm rays.

The lines on my fingers honour another great feminine spirit. She has many names and in my dialect goes by Sassuma Arnaa. English speakers call her the Mother of the Sea, but really the translation of her name is more like the Woman of the Deep. The story of her creation has many variations, as Sassuma Arnaa is possibly the biggest of the spirits that Inuit depend on for survival. The similarities are great though: Sassuma Arnaa is a young woman denied the chance to grow up and become a member of the social order, just like Maliina. One version of her creation story from Nunavut goes like this:

A young woman lived in a sammisulik with her parents—an only child. And her parents loved her so. She reached the age where it was time that she find a provider. Her father said, “Daughter, I will paddle out and seek out a young hunter for you to partner with.” She replied that she had no interest, that she preferred to go into the mountains with her dog. The father paddled out nonetheless and many amazing hunters paid the little sammisulik a visit: strong, capable men, young in years but with great hunting experience. Never would she sit with idle hands. Never would she feel hunger. But she turned down every young man, and slowly the story of the young woman who denied partnership with a hunter spread along the coast. A shameful situation for her parents. One day the young woman returned from one of her many walks in the mountains and declared to her parents that she was pregnant. Her parents were very surprised, even more so when she told them that her dog was a shapeshifter, and that during their walks in the mountains he took form as a man. This dog-man was her lover. The father was furious and overwhelmed with shame. He threw his daughter on top of his qajaq and rowed her out to sea and threw her into the water. The young woman clung on to the qajaq, desperate for her life. In fury her father cut off her fingertips at the knuckles with his hunting knife. She tried to hold on to the qajaq with what was left of her fingers. Again, he cut her remaining knuckles off, leaving the young woman to sink to the bottom of the ocean. The pieces of her fingers became sea mammals, fishes and ocean birds. The young woman became Sassuma Arnaa, the spirit of the ocean and the ruler of all its animals. Because she is unable to comb her long hair with her fingerless hands, all the broken taboos of humans stick to her hair and make her very angry. In anger she withholds the ocean animals from the shores of the humans and the humans will starve until an angakkoq has made the dangerous journey to the bottom of the ocean and persuaded her to let them comb and clean her hair. She was pregnant when she sank to the ocean floor; her babies were born, and, because their father was a shapeshifter, they became all the people in the world who are not Inuit.

Skin-stitching a talloquteq. Photo: Per-Erik Dahlman. Skin-stitching a talloquteq. Photo: Per-Erik Dahlman.

As Inuit, we call the Dorset people “Tunit.” I wonder: Did Tunit tell the same stories and believe in the same world order as Inuit? People often ask me, “Do your facial tattoos mean anything?” That’s exactly the question I would like to ask the beloved little mask. To me the answer is…Yes! They mean so much on so many levels. The patterns that adorn my face are very old and have a cultural significance as well as a very personal one. To me they represent a connection to my culture that I finally carry freely. They are a sign of dedication to being a good Inuk. The meaning of Inuit markings as a group is deeply rooted in the oral tradition that has described Inuit ways in relation to the world surrounding us. I’m proud to be the bearer of patterns that women have worn for countless generations. Patterns that oppressors banned for 250 years. Yet I find that I am not the owner of my markings; I only keep them safe for the future generations of Inuit women. An incredible honour and privilege.

I find that I am not the owner of my markings; I only keep them safe for the future generations of Inuit women.

I do not remember a time in my life where I had no awareness of the great mighty woman in the ocean, a time where I did not fear the man in the moon and cherish his sister, the sun. It was ingrained in my brain at such a young age that it almost seems I was born with it. I just had to learn to value them, to remove the Danish mindset that was implemented on top of my Inuit learnings. When I started understanding Inuit tattoo patterns and could connect them to my childhood, it was a very small step to actually get them tattooed permanently. I have a strong sense that the patterns belong in my face, and that they build this bridge between my Isuma and my physical being.

Over the years, I have given many Inuit women their markings. Women from the Yupik, Inupiat, Inuvialuit, Nunavimmiut, Nunavummiut and Kalaallit regions. Women from almost all Inuit territories in Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Nothing beats finding patterns from a woman’s specific area. I used to think that we should share the patterns and that all Inuit could find joy in all the patterns, but I get a deeper and deeper sense of strength in the markings that truly connect a woman to her ancestry—the same patterns as her foremothers.

It has taken time, and is still taking time, to place the patterns on a map. Placing where our peoples had settlements and lived semi-nomadic lives, following the wildlife and the seasonal changes. The reward is too great when a woman looks in the mirror and sees exactly how the women of her clan looked. During the tattoo sessions, we are often many women in the room. Together, we tell stories and share knowledge. We support each other in our decisions to represent Inuit by inserting pigments into the skin in specific patterns. Often we talk about Maliina and Sassuma Arnaa. These great spirits. Our hardships reflect their hardships. Their resilience feeds our resilience. We feel whole and complete. When the process of tattooing is done and I lay down my needles and the woman sees her markings for the first time in the mirror, very often the words she whispers are the same wherever her lands are, whichever clan she belongs to. She looks at herself in the mirror and says, “I recognize me!”

This is an article from our Spring 2019 issue, “SPACETIME.”

Maya Sialuk Jacobsen

Maya Sialuk Jacobsen is Greenlandic Inuk from Qeqertarsuaq and now lives in Svendborg, Denmark. She is a culture bearer, researcher and educator with 17 years of tattoo experience, solely committed to Inuit tattoo traditions. She writes and speaks publicly on tattooing, and is in dialogues regarding legislation on facial tattooing in Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, where the practice remains illegal.