Inuit tattoo project one of 8 Arctic Inspiration Prize finalists

For Angela Hovak Johnston being shortlisted for the Arctic Inspiration Prize means getting one step closer to achieving her childhood dream of revitalizing Inuit tattoos.

Shortlisted projects include nominees from all 3 territories, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut

Millie Angulalik, Janelle Angulalik, and Angela Hovak Johnston. Hovak Johnston's traditional Inuit tattoo project is one of the finalists for the 2016 Arctic Inspiration Prize. (Cora DeVos/Little Inuk Photography)

For Angela Hovak Johnston, being shortlisted for the Arctic Inspiration Prize means getting one step closer to achieving her childhood dream of revitalizing Inuit tattoos.

"It's an incredible feeling," says a choked-up Hovak Johnston.

Hovak Johnston's Inuit tattoo revitalization project — an initiative to help Inuit women get traditional markings and symbols and learn how to tattoo — is one of eight finalists for the over $1 million prize to be awarded in a ceremony in Winnipeg on Dec. 8.

The prize, co-founded by Sima Sharifi and Arnold Witzig in 2012, was established to support Northern groups working towards a better Canadian Arctic.

Hovak Johnston says the money would mean bringing to life a tradition shared among Inuit women that has been slipping away with the pressures of colonialism and residential schools.

Cecile Lyall from Taloyoak receives stick and poke hand tattoo from Angela Hovak Johnston during the Inuit tattoo revitalization project in Kugluktuk. (Cora DeVos/Little Inuk Photography)

Hovak Johnston got her first glimpse of Inuit tattoos when she was a child in Kugluktuk. The traditional markings were on one of the older women in the remote Nunavut community.

"I always thought she was so beautiful," says Hovak Johnston.

"She had so much character. She didn't have to say anything; she was so powerful.

"I knew someday I wanted some."

When that elder was dying, Hovak Johnston started to worry about losing the art form with that generation of women.

"It was really disturbing to me to realize that this was going to be another history you just read in the books," she says.

That's when Hovak Johnston sprung to action and started the Inuit tattoo revitalization project.

Photo of the women involved in the Kugluktuk Inuit tattoo project. To date Hovak Johnston has tattooed Inuit women ranging from ages 13 to 73. (Cora DeVos/Little Inuk Photography)

'Inuit women are uniting'

"It's really important for the woman; it's a wonderful part of healing," she says.

She adds that many Inuit are still recovering from the loss of their culture, traditions and language. The traditional tattoos act as a lifeline reconnecting Inuit to their roots.

"You're connected with your ancestors. It's like all the Inuit women are uniting," says Hovak Johnston.

Millie Angulalik at a tattoo workshop. 'It’s really important for the women it’s a wonderful part of healing,' says Howak Johnston. (Cora DeVos/Little Inuk Photography)

"We're getting stronger, we're supporting each other and we have such a sense of pride."

For Inuit women, the practice of tattooing traditional symbols is a sacred tradition shared among each other. Hovak Johnston asks men and non-Inuit women to refrain from getting these tattoos.

If the project is selected as one of the winners of the Arctic Inspiration Prize, it will use the funds to travel to the various remote Inuit regions and hold tattoo workshops with Inuit women across Canada.

For now by applying for piecemeal grants and financial support, Hovak Johnston and her team have only been able to travel from Yellowknife to Kugluktuk last spring to help women in that community get tattoos and learn the craft.

Qaggiavuut accepts the Arctic Inspiration Prize last January. (submitted by AIP)

The other finalists

Arctic Inspiration Prize's executive director Kevin Kablutsiak says this year's nominees are diverse and for the first time in the history of the prize, the finalists come from every region within the Canadian Arctic.

"It's very exciting to see that people in the Arctic are very active in all sorts of things that affect them," says Kablutsiak.

The other seven projects include

  • Jeunes Karibus — an eight-month healthy living, environmental awareness and leadership program that culminates in a five-day cross-country ski expedition in Nunavik.
  • NEXTT: Northern Excellence Today and Tomorrow — the project brings together a team of secondary and post-secondary educators, youth organization leaders and youth ambassadors from Nunavut, N.W.T and Yukon to develop a network and tools to encourage youth to graduate high school and transition to careers and higher education.

  • Old Crow solar project — the project aims to assist Yukon's most northern community transition from diesel to clean energy solutions by installing a solar photovoltaic array.

  • Qarmaapik House — a safe house located in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Que., wants to help a multidisciplinary team of community health and social service providers, elders, parents and educators to address the underlying causes of poor parenting and give families the tools they need to tackle a crisis.

  • Singletrack to Success — a pan-territorial project that wants to engage Indigenous youth and communities in planning and developing a world-class trail network that will help generate tourism, promote community wellness and create youth jobs.

  • te(a)ch — a team of technical experts, curriculum producers, mental health workers and youth ambassadors in Nunavut who have developed an online infrastructure with a 52 week curriculum that teaches programming, game design, engineering and computer science from a beginner to an advanced level.
A snowmobiler drags a 'smart komatik,' the tool that uses electromagnetic fields to capture SmartICE data. (Meet The North 2016)

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.