North·Point of View

Shared Lines: Why one Inuvialuk woman decided to get facial tattoos

'When I began to imagine that thick black line on my face, from lip to chin, I had more questions than answers as to why I wanted it,' writes Reneltta Arluk.

Reneltta Arluk writes about her great-grandmother and her journey to reconnect with her ancestors

Alice Simon, left, and her great-granddaughter Reneltta Arluk. Arluk writes about why she decided to get the same facial tattoo as her great-grandmother. (Submitted by Reneltta Arluk)

My great-grandmother, Alice Simon, had facial tattoos. 

In the pictures we have of her, there are visible markings all up her cheeks but what always struck me was the thick black line that connected her bottom lip to her chin.

So when I began to imagine that thick black line on my face, from lip to chin, I had more questions than answers as to why I wanted it.

I'm not fully Inuk. My mother is Denesuline and Cree from the Fort Chipewyan region. My father was Inuvialuit but he was also Dene with Gwich'in roots.

The woman who gave me this tattoo is a well known tattooer, Maya Sialuk Jacobsen of Greenland. She is an Inuk that studies the historical markings of Inuit women across the circumpolar North. 

She said, "I don't study land, I study patterns."

Her tattoo methods are traditional stick and poke or skin stitching ink with needle and thread. When I first contacted her, I sent an image of my great-grandmother, and Maya knew exactly where Alice Simon was from. 

Arluk's great-grandmother, Alice Simon, pictured on the left. Arluk writes that she wasn't able to grow up with her great-grandmother and Simon died when she was a little girl. (Submitted by Reneltta Arluk)

My great-grandmother spoke very little English; she was a fluent Inuvialuktun speaker. I did not get to grow up with her unfortunately. She died when I was just a young one, but when I was born, she came down to Fort Smith, N.W.T., from Inuvik to meet me. I was five months old. 

She took care of me one night while my parents went to the movies. It was winter. In what was then an Inuvialuit practice, my great-grandmother took me outside, bare, and put me in the snow.

I am not sure how long I was out there for. I am sure I cried. But even now I know her doing that to me was an act of love. 

I asked myself, why get this now?- Reneltta Arluk

Through this winter custom, I was given the gift of resilience — a teaching that remains with me still. 

She lived during a time when survival was the only way. She was a respected elder, cherished for her knowledge of preserving berries in the winter using techniques that are no longer practised. 

Today Inuvialuktun is spoken by only a handful of Inuvialuit — mostly my great-grandmother's relatives, and likely because of her. 

'Alice was a matriarch. She gave the younger generations their Inuit names when they were born. Mine is Akpik,' writes Arluk. (Submitted by Reneltta Arluk)

Alice was a matriarch. She gave the younger generations their Inuit names when they were born. Mine is Akpik. 

It is the cloudberry that grows in the barren land — not too sweet but makes the best jam. Often Inuit are named after relatives who have passed or people in the community that have lived good lives. It's a way to instil positive traits in the young ones.  So when I learned my Inuk name was Akpik, I was confused. Why a berry? 

I have a wonderful great aunt, Lillian Elias. Alice was her grandmother. Lillian is the matriarch now, and also a fluent Inuvialuktun speaker. 

In one of our visits I asked her why great-grandmother Alice named me after a berry and not a relative. Auntie Lillian thought for a moment and said, "maybe because they were her favourite."

Why now?

It was clear to me getting tattooed would be a journey of reconnection, not only to my great-grandmother, but to the community of Inuit women wearing their ancestors' lines in celebration of who we are.

I asked myself, why get this now? Easy, because it is time. 

So much of our cultural teachings have been lost or taken away by colonialism. We know this, but most importantly we still feel this.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of facial tattoos among Inuit women across the circumpolar north. 

I received my thick black line so recently that in reflection of writing this, I am still unsure of the teachings it will offer me.

I am fine with it, though. 

This was not done to resolve any doubts or insecurities. 

It was done to keep asking myself the questions about who I am at a time when we are needing to know who we are.

We need to reconnect to our ancestral truths and I am grateful that my great-grandmother had the courage to wear hers at a time where many had started being denied theirs.

About the Author

Reneltta Arluk is an Inuvialuit, Dene and Cree woman from the Northwest Territories. She has been a professional theatre maker for two decades and is currently Director of Indigenous Arts at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Reneltta is a mom, daughter, grand-daughter, and a great grand-daughter who feels the love.