When Hovak Johnston was a young girl in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, there was an elderly woman in the small Arctic community with traditional Inuit tattoos.
Johnston only saw her a few times but was always fascinated by the markings on the older woman’s face.
“She didn’t even have to say anything, I just felt her power in her presence and how interesting and beautiful she looked and just being beside her made a big impact on me,” says Johnston.
Johnston made a promise that when she was older not only would she learn more about the tattoos, but she would get them herself.
“In everything I do, I try to include the culture and to live it and to feel it and to breathe your culture. It’s so important because traditions can disappear so quickly.”
At one time the tattoos were a common part of Inuit culture, with girls receiving their first marks as children and adding to them as they experienced significant life events.
But missionaries and residential schools taught that the markings were shameful, explains Johnston, and soon the practice faded.
When Johnston heard the last woman with the traditional marks was dying, she had a visceral reaction.
“It hit me hard, kind of like a stab, because I didn’t want it to be something you just read about in books, or in photographs that you just see,” she says.
That’s when Johnston got the idea for the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project, which earned her a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General in June.
She researched the markings, learned how to tattoo and found a young artist she trusted to create the permanent lines on her own face.
After eight years of preparation she was finally ready to start offering the tattoos to others.
She gathered a group of women, including elders, who could support them through what she called a “powerful experience.”
“There were a couple times I just had to stop and take in the moment and think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening,’” she says. “It’s how I envisioned it and it’s how it should be.”
So far more than 80 women have received tattoos through the project and more than 50 have been done by Johnston.
For her, the tattoos are a representation of what it means to be an Indigenous woman.
“In everything I do, I try to include the culture and to live it and to feel it and to breathe your culture,” says Johnston. “It’s so important because traditions can disappear so quickly.”
Anticipating Canada 150 events, Johnston is pleased to see a variety of Indigenous groups are being invited to take part. For too long, she says, Canadians put everyone together and called them all First Nations.
Her hope is that the anniversary celebrations will help people appreciate the rich diversity of all Indigenous cultures.
“We’re all different groups and we all have different practices. People think we’re all similar but we have very different traditions.”