Thursday April 23, 2015

A daily reminder: one woman's 'Eskimo ID Tag' tattoo

Olivia Ikey Duncan has an 'Eskimo identification tag' tattooed on her forearm.

Olivia Ikey Duncan has an 'Eskimo identification tag' tattooed on her forearm. (Olivia Ikey Duncan)

Listen 5:45

Olivia Ikey Duncan is a young Inuit woman from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik. With light hair and blue eyes, she told DNTO that she always felt like an outsider growing up. 

"I was the qallunaat - the white person - and I never understood my culture," said Duncan. "There's a lot of alcohol and drug abuse, a very high suicide rate [...] I never understood why this was going on in my community." 

But everything changed a few years ago, when Duncan started to learn more of the government's complicated history with the Inuit. In particular, she was shocked to learn of the controversial practice of tracking the country's Inuit through a system of 'Eskimo Identification Tags'.  

"My people didn't know where their people were - [they] couldn't find their children who were in residential schools, but the government tracked us with these numbers. Why couldn't we have been informed? Why couldn't the children be returned?"  Olivia Ikey Duncan

Used across the North for nearly fifty years, the discs identified each individual with a number. The small discs, made of hide, were expected to be carried around your neck or sewn into a parka. 

"That's when people were settled and monitored," said Duncan. "But my people didn't know who was where and what was being done."

Olivia Ikey Duncan's Grandmother's Tattoo

Olivia's grandmother's Eskimo identification tag.

"My people didn't know where their people were, couldn't find their children who were in residential schools. But the government tracked us with these numbers. Why couldn't we have been informed? Why couldn't the children be returned?" 

Duncan says the ID program - which meant that Inuit weren't given names, only numbers - reflects the attitude the government had towards her people. That's what inspired her to get an image of the disc tattooed on her arm.

"This tattoo is a daily reminder for me to understand the hurt that is being felt every day," said Duncan. "It reminds me to fight for my history to be known."