In last week's post I mentioned that one of the Inuit who sojourned in Europe in the 1560s had facial tattoos, which were quite common among 16th-century Eskimo men and women. Such tattoos fell out of fashion by the early 20th century, but appear to be making a partial comeback, according to a story in the September 17, 2006 issue of the Anchorage Daily News. Author Alex Demarban reports that several women from the Inupiat community of Barrow, Alaska are reviving the practice of tattooing their chins (usually with blue stripes or circular patterns of dots), as a way of honoring their ancestors and cultural heritage. One man, a whaler, is planning to tattoo a whale-tail necklace on his chest to record his kills.
"Tattoos were common throughout Alaska for hundreds of years," Demarban reports. "Some elder seamstresses used bird-bone needles...sinew, thread, and soot to decorate human canvasses, said Lars Krutak, an anthropologist who studied the custom in Alaska and elsewhere. For women who bore elaborate designs across faces and necks to enhance beauty or fertility, it was a painful rite of passage...For hunters, the etchings - usually dark blue - boosted bravery and could ward off evil spirits."
According to Demarban and Krutak, Christian missionaries and boarding schools were responsible for "stamping out" Inuit facial and chest tattoos, though the Eskimos of St. Lawrence Island continued the practice into the 1920s. It remains to be seen whether the current revival of facial tattoos is just a quirky decision by a few isolated people, or whether it becomes a larger cultural trend. If the latter is the case, we will at last be able to use the words "major cultural trend" and "Barrow, Alaska" in the same sentence.