Many Stitches For Life

Published: 09 January, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 138, October, 2006

Traditional Tattooing in the Arctic


The history of St. Lawrence Island (Sivuqaq) Yupik tattoo spans some 2,000 years and one-hundred miles of volcanic island rock in the frigid north Bering Sea. Around 500 B.C., ancient maritime peoples lured by vast herds of ivory-bearing walrus, bowhead whales and other sea mammals began permanently colonizing this forbidding treeless outpost. Bringing with them new advances in hunting technology, material culture, and warfare, they quickly adapted to their newly discovered environment on the edge of the world. As the forces of nature were quite often difficult to master, they developed an intricate religion based on animism – the belief that all objects have life and spirits separable from their physical bodies. Appeasing the gods through much sacrifice and ritual, these mariners attempted to harness their world by satisfying the spiritual entities that controlled it. Not surprisingly, tattoo became a powerful tool in these efforts, for once the pigment was stitched into the skin, the indelible mark served as both protective shield and sacrifice to the supernatural.

Some tattoos were believed to have had lives of their own, others were medicinal in nature, while still more (individual, family, and community designs) defined social and spiritual forces that shaped perceptions of existence.  Regardless of their multiple meanings, Anna Aghtuqaayak (Yupik name, Qayaghhaq), the last fully tattooed woman on St. Lawrence Island, said it was easy: “We did it to be beautiful, so we would not look like men. We wanted precious pictures for the afterlife.” Of course, the hardest part was lying motionless on the floor while her older sister, Alice Yaavgaghsiq (Aghwalngiiq), stitched the tattoos into her quivering skin! 

Sadly, however, tattoo on St. Lawrence Island, and more generally the Arctic, has been a dying, if not already dead, traditional practice. In Canada, only one Inuit woman living on King William Island retains her traditional skin-stitched facial tattoos. And to date, all of the tattooed St. Lawrence Island Yupik women I interviewed in 1997 and 2003 have died, including Anna, her sister Alice (the last tattoo artist and designer), and eight other women  who wore skin-stitched tattoos.



Archaeological evidence in the form of a carved human figurine demonstrates that tattooing was practiced as early as 3,500 years ago in the Arctic. Moreover, the remains of several mummies discovered in Bering Strait and Greenland indicate that tattooing was an element basic to ancient traditions. This is corroborated in mythology since the origin of tattooing is clearly associated with the creation of the sun and moon. The naturalist Lucien M. Turner, speaking of the Fort-Chimo Inuit of Quebec, wrote in 1887:  The sun is supposed to be a woman. The moon is a man and the brother of the woman who is the sun. She was accustomed to lie on her bed in the house of her parents and was finally visited during the night by a man whom she could never discover the identity. She determined to ascertain who it was and in order to do so blackened her nipples with a mixture of oil and lampblack. She was visited again and when the man applied his lips to her breast they became black. The next morning she discovered to her horror that her own brother had the mark on his lips. Her emoternation knew no bounds and her parents discovered her agitation and made her reveal the cause. The parents were so indignant that they upbraided them and the girl in her shame fled from the village at night. As she ran past the fire she seized an ember and fled beyond the earth. Her brother pursued her and so the sparks fell from the torch and they became the stars in the sky. The brother pursued her but is able to overtake her except on rare occasions. These occasions are eclipses. When the moon wanes from sight the brother is supposed to be hiding for the approach of his sister.

At Point Hope (Tikigaq), Alaska, several thousand miles to the northwest of Fort-Chimo, a similar myth is told. Here old women (aana) used to tattoo three stripes on a girl’s chin because the tattoos and bleeding tied her to the “celestial sister.” Tattooing was believed to be “soot smears, fire-sparks, and the sun’s streaking.”  

As a general rule, expert tattoo artists were respected elderly women. Their extensive training as skin seamstresses (parkas, pants, boots, boat covers, etc.) facilitated the need for precision when “stitching the human skin” with tattoos. Tattoo designs were usually made freehand but in some instances a rough outline was first sketched upon the area of application.Whatever the outcome, the process in which the physical body became transformed through such tattooing corresponded, in part, to the nature of the pigments used, as well as to the social precepts circumscribing them. Among the Siberian Chukchi and St. Lawrence Island Yupiget, lampblack was considered to be highly efficacious against evil as shamans utilized it in drawing magic circles around houses to ward off spirits. Graphite had similar powers as the Russian anthropologist Voblov stated in the 1930’s, “[t]he stone spirit – graphite – guards [humankind] from evil spirits and from the sickness brought by them.” Urine, on the other hand, was an element that malevolent entities abhorred. Waldemar Bogoras, the eminent ethnographer of the Chukchi and Asiatic Eskimo, stated that urine, when poured over a spirit’s head, froze upon contact immediately repelling the spiritual entity. In this connection, it is not surprising that several St. Lawrence Islanders told me that urine (tequq) was poured around the outside of houses to insure the same effect. In regards to tattooing, however, the ammonia content in urine probably helped cleanse and control the scabbing that resulted from the ritual itself. 

Inuit (or Eskimos generally) and St. Lawrence Island Yupiget, in particular, like many other circumpolar peoples, regarded living bodies as inhabited by multiple souls, each soul residing in a particular joint. The anthropologist Robert Petersen has noted that the soul is the element that gives the body life processes, breath, warmth, feelings, and the ability to think and speak. Accordingly, the Eskimologist Edward Weyer stated in his tome, The Eskimos, that, “[a]ll disease is nothing but the loss of a soul; in every part of the human body there resides a little soul, and if part of the man’s body is sick, it is because the little soul had abandoned that part, [namely, the joints].”

Paul Silook, a native of St. Lawrence Island, explained that these tattoos protected a pallbearer from spiritual attack. Death was characterized as a dangerous time in which the living could become possessed by the “shade” or malevolent spirit of the deceased. A spirit of the dead was believed to linger for some time in the vicinity of its former village. Though not visible to all, the “shade” was conceived as an absolute material double of the corpse. And because pallbearers were in direct contact with this spiritual entity, they were ritualistically tattooed to repel it. Their joints became the locus of tattoo because it was believed that the evil spirit entered the body at these points, as they were the seats of the soul(s). Urine and tattoo pigments, as the nexus of dynamic and apotropaic power, prevented the evil spirit from penetrating the pallbearer’s body.

Similarly, nearly every attribute of the human dead was also believed to be equally characteristic of the animal dead, as the spirit of every animal was believed to possess semi-human form. Men, and more rarely women, were tattooed on St. Lawrence Island when they killed seal, polar bear, or harpooned a bowhead whale (aghveq) for the first time. Like the tattoo of the pallbearer, “first-kill” tattoos (kakileq) consisted of small dots at the convergence of various joints: shoulders, elbows, hip, wrist, knee, ankle, neck, and waist. Again, the application of these tattoos impeded the future instances of spirit possession at these vulnerable points.

However, kakileq were also important to other aspects of the hunt. One of the old hunters in Gambell village told me that “one reason for [the tattoos] is to hit the target, sometimes they don’t [and] I think these are for that purpose, to hit the target.” This is not surprising, since the anthropologist Robert Spencer remarked that tattoos on the North Slope of Alaska and other forms of adornment doubled as whaling charms, “serving to bring the whale closer to the boat, to make the animal more tractable and amenable to the harpooner.” 

From the preceding remarks, it seems that the issue of death, whether human or animal, cast into symbolic tattooed relief important cultural values by which circumpolar peoples lived their lives and evaluated their experiences. As noted, physical contact with the dead, human or animal, was met with apprehension. This was because the spirits of great animals (e.g., polar bears, whales) or humans were believed to be imbued with a personhood that was considered to be equivalent or superior to that of the living. As an individual matured, his or her education revolved around the increasing awareness of the natural and supernatural worlds, and the prescriptions and proscriptions for proper behavior within them. The supernatural was met everywhere in the landscape and places along hunting or travel routes became sacred because they embodied local spirits or manifested the presence of higher divinities including animals and deceased ancestors. Therefore, it was here, within the landscape of sea, ice, and frozen tundra, that the everyday, elusive and unobservable experiences, rituals and rites of passage took place circumscribing the identity of the people by linking them to a collectively shared and experienced sense of place. Indeed, humans, animals and everything in the natural world of the Arctic shared the same fundamental spiritual essence, and in this sense “persons” were constituted of multiple personal attributes extending beyond the human domain. 

The tattooing process involved iconographic manifestation of the “other side,” acknowledgment of the manifestation’s power, and harnessing that power within the corporeal envelope of human skin. On St. Lawrence Island, men and women tattooed anthropomorphic spirit-helpers onto their foreheads and limbs. These stick-like figures, sometimes appropriately named “guardians” or “assistants,” were believed to protect individuals from evil spirits, disasters at sea, unknown areas where one traveled, strangers, and even in the case of new mothers, the loss of their children. In Chukotka, murderers inscribed these types of markings onto their shoulders in hopes of appropriating the soul of their victim, thus transforming it into an “assistant,” or even into a part of himself.Apart from such concepts, there seems to have been some relationship between labrets and tattoos, at least in the Bering Strait region. Adelbert von Chamisso, a naturalist with Kotzebue’s expedition around-the world of 1815-1818, noted that labrets were rare among St. Lawrence Island men and often replaced by a tattooed spot. Edward W. Nelson, a naturalist working for the U.S. Army Signal Service in the late 19th century, also suggested that these circular tattoos were a relic of wearing a lip-plug or labret. Bogoras believed that this was probably true, though their position did not quite “correspond to the usual position of the labret. These marks are now intended only as charms against the spirits.” Dewey Anderson and Walter Eells, two sociologists from Stanford University in the United States who visited St. Lawrence Island in the 1930’s, recorded that “a small circle on the lower lip under the corners of the mouth [was tattooed] to prevent a man who has repeatedly fallen into the sea from drowning.” Similarly, a Diomede Islander from Bering Strait was seen at the turn of the century with a mark tattooed at each corner of the mouth. He explained it as a preventive prescribed by his mother against the fate that had befallen his father – death by drowning.

Henry B. Collins, a Smithsonian archaeologist who worked on St. Lawrence Island in the 1930s, didn’t necessarily believe that drowning was the danger. After interviewing Paul Silook, he was told that orphaned walrus (angeyeghaq) were the problem:  

Walrus are believed to eat seals, and even humans, in addition to their usual food of seaweeds and molluscs. Paul Silook’s father tells of two times he was chased by walrus. It is believed that walrus that thus depart from their customary diet were left motherless when very young and so did not learn the proper method of eating.

Maybe then, Bering Strait people designed labret-like tattoos to repel aggressive orphan walrus? Aspects of St. Lawrence Island folklore suggest that labret-like tattoos recalled in symbolic form the killer whale (mesungesak):  Killer whales are said to have a white spot at each side of the mouth like the labrets of the mainland Siberian natives. [Killers] are said to have a white strip, ring, running obliquely from around the neck to beneath the flipper. Like the St. Lawrence Island leather strip with charms [uyaghqutat] worn by men. 

Therefore, if the concept of labrets, or labret-like tattoos, represented the killer whale, then the man that wore this tattoo might have believed he would become transformed into one, extending his safe passage through dangerous waters. On the other hand, the art historian Ralph Coe believes labrets, and by extension labret-like tattoos, mimicked walrus’s tusks, especially since many labrets were carved from walrus ivory:The ivory seems to stand for the interchangeability of the animal or human, his soul[s], and the recipient, just as the Eskimo himself thought of wood as a symbol of strength: ‘to the Eskimo, dwarf willow is a symbol of strength and suppleness against an overwhelming Arctic background, where survival depends upon a man’s ability to contend with the forces of nature, while at the same time yielding to them and conforming with them.’

Adopting the anatomical characteristic of the walrus (tusks) through tattoo may have captured the essence of its aggressive behavior or transformed the hunter into this creature. This would not be surprising since the concept of transformation – men into men, men into animals, animals into men, and animals into animals – permeates all aspects of life in the Arctic and is expressed through all kinds of objects including carved ivory sculpture. No doubt this deceptive “tattoo foil” subverted the attention of the foe and safeguarded the hunter from malicious attack.

There seems to have been no widely distributed tattoo design among Eskimo women, although chin patterns or “stripes” were more commonly found than any other. Chin stripes served multiple purposes in social contexts. Most notably, they were tattooed on the chin as part of the ritual of social maturity, a signal to men that a woman had reached puberty. Chin patterns also served to protect women during enemy raids. For example, fighting among the Siberian Yupiit and St. Lawrence Islanders took place in close quarters, namely in various forms of semi-subterranean dwellings called nenglu. Raiding parties usually attacked in the early morning hours, at or before first light, hoping to catch their enemies while asleep. Women, valued as important “commodities” during these times, were highly prized for their many abilities. Not being distinguishable from the men by their clothing in the dim light of the nenglu, their chin patterns made them more recognizable as females and their lives would be spared. Once captured, however, they were bartered off as slaves.

More generally, the chin stripe aesthetic was important to the Diomede Islanders living in Bering Strait. Ideally, thin lines tattooed onto the chin were valuable indicators for choosing a wife, according to anthropologist Sergei Bogojavlensky:

It was believed that a girl who smiled and laughed too much would cause the lines to spread and get thick. A girl with a full set of lines on the chin, all of them thin, was considered to be a good prospect as a wife, for she was clearly serious and hard working.

A full set of lines was not only a powerful physical statement of the ability to endure great pain, but also an attestation to a woman’s powers of “animal” attraction. For example, in the St. Lawrence and Siberian Yupik area of the early 20th century, women painted and tattooed their faces in ritual ceremonies in order to imitate, venerate, honor, and/or attract those animals that “will bring good fortune” to the family. Waldemar Bogoras added, “[i]t is a mistake to think that women are weaker than men in hunting-pursuits,” since as a man wanders in vain about the wilderness, searching, women “that sit by the lamp are really strong, for they know how to call the game to the shore.” Moreover, it was through the performance of domestic activities – butchering, cooking (turning hunted meat into edible “food”) and sewing (creating sturdy and beautiful clothing that attracted game) – that a woman’s ritual position as “wife the hunter” became solidified in Arctic culture.  

In this connection, it seems that a woman’s facial tattoos assured a kind of spiritual permanency: they lured into the house a part of the land or sea, and along with that, part of its animal and spiritual life. Not surprisingly, an unusual event, such as the capture of a whale by a young woman’s father, was sometimes commemorated on her cheek(s) by tattooed fluke tails, which advertised her father’s prowess to members of Yupik society.

Tattoos also marked the thighs of young St. Lawrence Island women when they reached puberty. In Igloolik, Canada, some 2,500 miles east of St. Lawrence Island, the tattooing of women’s thighs ensured that the first thing a newborn infant saw would be something of beauty. 

Intricate scrollwork found on the cheeks, and tattoos on the arms of women possibly form elements of a genealogical puzzle. Most women of St. Lawrence  Island say  these   tattoos   are  simply “make-up,” beautifying their bodies. Dr. Neuman verified that this was the case, but he also believed that “[e]ach tribe adhered to their own design but with a slight modification for their own individual members. The designs on the hands and arms often combined tribal and family designs and formed, so to speak, a family tree.” On the arms of one of my female informants, rows of fluke tails extend from her wrists to the middle of her forearms. These symbols represent her clan (Aymaramket), an honored lineage of great whale hunters.

Although it seems as though a woman’s tattoo designs were individualistic, those tattoos found on the back of the hand (igaq) were not; possibly suggesting that these motifs marked the identities of women belonging to a cohort. For example, the last group of St. Lawrence Island women to have retained igaq had identical tattoo patterns and it is these women who were the last age group to be tattooed on St. Lawrence Island, ca. 1920.

In the previous sections, the apotropaic aspect of tattoo has been discussed, specifically as a remedy against supernatural possession. In light of the indigenous theory of disease causation – dangerous spirits – it is not surprising that tattoo was considered as a form of medicine against a variety of ills. This medicine was believed to act as a curative or as a preventative one.

Paramount to these concepts was the role of the preventive function. Circumpolar peoples were socialized and trained from their earliest days to build their bodies into pillars of strength through running, weightlifting, wading into frigid waters, etc. Therefore, when a biological disorder rose to  life threatening levels, where  “preventive” medicinal  practice had  failed  the  cure,  it   then  became    the    responsibility of  the shaman to  summon his or her spiritual powers to safeguard and restore health. Disorders, as well as other inexplicable misfortunes, were attributed to supernatural agency and were believed to be curable through the use of tattoo. Oftentimes, shamans applied these types of medicinal tattoos, though not always.

Tattoo, as a curative agent, was often disorder-specific. Some maladies were cured with the application of small lines or marks on or near afflicted areas. Some examples from St. Lawrence Island are as follows:

1 A mark over the sternum, which is the shaman’s cure for heart trouble.

2 A small straight mark over each eye, the cure for eye trouble.

3 Various other small marks on the body used as remedies from time to time by the shaman.

Thus, two lines placed near the eye of a man from St. Lawrence Island observed by the Smithsonian ethnologist Nelson in the 1880s represented one of these types of medicinal marking. Such markings are even seen on ancient Okvik/Old Bering Sea (500 B.C. – 750 A.D.) and Punuk (750 – 1050 A.D.) culture ivory carvings from St. Lawrence Island. In the Bering Strait region, the ethnologist George B. Gordon observed a Diomede Island man with tattooed marks on either cheek, close to the mouth, others on the temple and two more on the forehead. These three sets of marks on his face were explained as “medicine” and their presence was said to have directly benefited the wearer. 

But tattoo medicine was not only confined to the simple placement of the markings themselves, since traditional practices of tattoo and ritually induced bleeding were oftentimes interrelated and may have even overlapped to some extent. Around Bering Strait, shamans commonly performed bloodletting to relieve aching or inflamed parts of the body. Nelson watched a shaman “lancing the scalp of his little girl’s head, the long, thin iron point of the instrument being thrust twelve to fifteen times between the scalp and skull.” Similarly, the Alaskan Aleuts performed bloodletting as remedies for numerous ailments attributed to “bad blood.” On St. Lawrence Island, bleeding was resorted to in cases of severe migraine headache or as one elder said, “to release anything with a high blood pressure…the [ancestors] know that.” The Chugach Eskimo treated sore eyes by bleeding at the root of the nose or at the temples. Then the patient was made to swallow the blood, which affected the cure. 

Surprisingly, the Arctic shaman’s prophetic role in medicinal practice was closely paralleled by that of the Chinese acupuncturist. Both were consulted to identify the causes of disease, by differentiation of symptoms and signs, to provide suitable treatments. In acupuncture, pathogenic forces are thought to invade the human body from the exterior via the mouth, nose or body surfaces and the resultant diseases are called exogenous disease. In circumpolar cultures, and especially on St. Lawrence Island, the primary factor determining sickness was the intrusion of an evil spirit from outside the body into one of the souls of the afflicted individual. These types of malevolent actions of the spirit upon the body were traced to disordered behavior, possession, illness (rheumatism), and sometimes death. Consequently, and as a form of spiritual/medicinal practice, St. Lawrence Islanders tattooed specific joints. As mentioned earlier, joints served as the vehicular “highways” which evil entities traveled to enter the human body and injure it. Thus, joint-tattoos protected individuals by closing down these pathways, since the substances utilized to produce tattoo pigment – urine, soot, and sometimes graphite – were the nexus of dynamic and apotropaic power, preventing an evil spirit from penetrating the human body.

In both Chinese acupuncture theory and St. Lawrence Island medicinal theory, it is believed that all ailments of the body, whether internal of external, are reflected at specific points either on the surface of the skin or just beneath it. In acupuncture, many of these points occur at the articulation of major joints and lie along specific pathways called “meridians”. Meridians connect the internal organs with specific points that are located either on or in the epidermis, often in close proximity to nerves and blood vessels. 

Of course, this type of remedy is quite ancient. The earliest known reference to acupuncture analgesia of this kind is in a legend about Hua To (110-207 A.D.), the first-known Chinese surgeon, who used acupuncture for headache.

The Aleuts who lived some 1,000 miles to the south of St. Lawrence Island also utilized acupuncture in medical therapy. Acupuncture was resorted to in cases of headache, eye disorders, colic, and lumbago. Like the St. Lawrence Islanders, the Aleuts “tattoo-punctured” to relieve aching joints. The anthropologist Margaret Lantis observed that Aleut Atka Islanders, “moistened thread covered with gunpowder (probably soot in former times) sew[ing] through the pinched-up skin near an aching joint or across the back over a region of pain.”

Apparently, the efficacy of this potent medical technology was very great, because it was not only confined to the North Pacific Rim. For example, archaeological evidence in the form of tattooed mummies indicates that tattoo-puncture reached Greenland in the distant past. Radiocarbon dated to the 15th century A.D., the mummies of Qilakitsoq have revealed that a conscious, exacting attempt was made to place dot-motif tattoos at important facial points. Being that these dot-motif tattoos are suggestive of acupuncture points, and coupled with the fact that each actually designates a classical acupuncture point, cultural affinity must be suggested. Besides, Danish ethnologist Gustav Holm reported that Greenlanders “now and then…resort to tattooing in cases of sickness.” Although we are not entirely sure if Holm was specifically referring to “tattoo-puncture” in his statement, several intriguing 1,500 year-old ivory “doll-heads” excavated from St. Lawrence Island illustrate ancient continuity spanning thousands of miles and hundreds of years.

However, there are other similarities in the tattoo cultures of St. Lawrence Island and Greenland. In the early 1970s, beach erosion exposed the heavily tattooed, mummified body of an Okvik/Old Bering Sea woman radiocarbon dated to 1,600 years ago at Cape Kiyalighaq, St. Lawrence Island. Her forearm tattoos were very reminiscent of those seen in late 19th century photographs of East Greenlanders at Ammassalik. 

Other Ammassalimniut women displayed breast and arm tattoos similar to engraved female ivory figurines from the Punuk culture of St. Lawrence Island, suggesting that these practices not only persisted remarkably over the centuries, but stressed cultural unity for tattooing in the Eskimo area as a whole and, more specifically, of material culture from Greenland to ancient maritime cultures of St. Lawrence Island.

Considering the vast expanse of the Arctic culture area, the largest in the world, this may seem surprising. However, as circumpolar peoples were unified by environment, language, custom, and belief, the distinction is quite clear: as tattoo became part of the skin, the body became a permanent part of Arctic culture. Tattooing was a graphic image of social beliefs and values expressing the many ways in which circumpolar peoples attempted to control their bodies, lives, and experiences. As such, tattoos provided a nexus between individual, family, and communally defined forces that shaped perceptions of existence.