The Meaning of My Tattoos

“Can I ask you a question? What do your tattoos mean?”

It’s a solid question but I haven’t found the solid answer yet. My answers change depending on the context. I have something new to say about them every time I’m asked this question. It changes depending on the race and gender of the person asking me. It changes if I know them well. It’s different if they have their own tattoos. It’s altered when I know them from social media and I know they’re openly Christian. It’s not the same if I have to yell over the loud background noise of a bar. It’s a new experience if I’m alone in a dark room with someone. It shifts internally all the time, just like the ocean. Just like the moon.

My tattoos mean that I’m alive on this Earth. They are proof of my flesh, my body and my existence.

They are a communication vessel into the spirit world, a place I will someday return to. A place I once came from.

Let’s talk about the spirituality of these tattoos. First and foremost, it is a system developed and intended for the Inuit of the Circumpolar Arctic. The tradition belongs to the historical lineage of these people who span from Chukotka and Alaska to Canada and Greenland. Its return is to be reclaimed by the descendants. They deserve the space and the respect when they take it up. Secondly, it belongs to women.

Inuit women have bodies that hold a lot of history. They are spiritual beings from their Ancestral past right down to their bones, blood and atoms. It was believed that the spirit world, our Ancestors, can only see them through their markings. They were accessible this way. My perspective of this is that women received this tattoo tradition because they created humans in their body. We all know babies come from the spirit world. We believe they’re developed by our Ancestral past. The spirits have to communicate with women but cannot come down to Earth. Sassuma Arna only saw us through our tattoos. She accepted us by them. There are spirits for our birthing tattoos. They can see us, too. They plan for us. We arrive to them this way. Give Inuit women their space to reclaim their tattoos. Do not confuse the spirits with your Earthy selfishness.

Could you imagine the anger if they’re trying to communicate with a specific Earthy energy? Could you imagine it being taken out on you? If you are not a vessel… If you confuse the spirit world… Could you imagine?

I didn’t fully know what I was getting myself into when I first received my Sassuma Arna markings. I didn’t know what was coming when I had my first birthing tattoo session. Each session was an experience of its own. And when strung together, they tell a story. A story that I will always carry with me. A story that comes with the meaning of my tattoos. There are many reasons I cannot find the solid answer yet and the main one is that behind the details of what I know about them, comes a depth likened to the foundation of an iceberg. You couldn’t possibly understand the full context from initial sighting.

This was true for me, too. I couldn’t have found the depth if I only looked at and admired it on other people. I could only know the meaning once I experienced the deeper context, the deeper experience, deeper connection to where I come from.

The next important consideration to take in is the reason the tradition stopped being practiced. Inuit were told to stop by outsiders who came in to dominate the lands. The lands were accessible through its gatekeepers, thus the spiritual, emotional and mental wellbeing of these people had to be put under attack to then be vulnerable. Once they surrendered to weakness, it became easier to have control both over them and the land they kept.  With this mission, along with some attack on the physical wellbeing, Inuit were dominated by a system foreign to their lands. It was a traumatic experience across many regions, across many families and across many women. It lingered, it dripped into the next generation. No one was taught how to heal. No one was welcomed into the depths of the truths of both where they came from and where they were going. They couldn’t experience their heritage or their traditions anymore. They were brand new to this kind of exposure.

Because of this and the way our bodies work, it is hard to reclaim a spiritual practice once it’s been forced away. The granddaughters of this trauma have bodies that remember, though their minds may have forgotten. Their blood can boil at the trigger of the heart, from the brain of the past.

For me, there was a little extra ease to my journey of receiving traditional tattoos, because I already knew that I was a part of the reclamation generation. I know now that I was always meant to rediscover the spirituality for my maternal lineage. I hold this responsibility and capability with pride.

I don’t know anyone within my heritage that spent a lifetime traditional dancing the way I have, besides my auntie, who’s six years older than me. To me, it was as natural as learning how to walk or ride a bike. It’s just something I learned within the timeline of coming into my world. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I put much thought into the significance of my position. It wasn’t until I left home that I learned to appreciate the depth of this knowledge I hold. Shit, I was half way across the world from my home every time I recognized and cherished this awareness.

When my auntie was a young kid, she started dancing with her younger brother and my older one. The three of them had some age on me. They might remember learning how to dance a lot more than I do. Although, I do remember making the choice. What I remember is that I was only around the drums because I was with my older brother. He took care of me. He let me follow him around. And he was a talented dancer. He was a loud singer. He used his entire body when he danced. He used his entire voice when he sang. He had girl friends that sat with me as I watched him from behind the drummers. They were the ones who got me to dance. I saw the respect he had for them and I knew it meant my participation mattered, too. I learned to dance because of the respect of my big brother. It didn’t come from anywhere else. I cannot name an ascendent of mine that danced. And I know a lot about my family tree. I know a lot about where I come from. I don’t know who our dances connect with. But, I know that it connected the four of us alive right now. I know that feeling. I know that depth that comes from dancing with an older brother, an auntie and uncle.

I know what healing feels like.

When I received the tattoos, I had to learn what pain felt like. Before receiving them, I hardly paid attention to the ache that lingers behind joy. This background just barely covers the meaning behind my tattoos. These details can barely come to surface when I am asked about them. The easiest answer is that they mean I’m alive. They represent my time on earth. They mean that I’m returning to somewhere else someday. They represent my spirit. They represent my intention of healing.




  1. Powerful description! You are an amazing link to our way of storytelling. I hope you encourage others to open their hearts and voices like you. Absolutely LOVED this!!

  2. Thank you for your article. I have always wanted to get my tattoos since I met my Great Aunt with her chin and cheek tattoos when I was a teenager and meeting my Yupik family. My mom was adopted by Swedish Missionaries after her parents died from TB. She was not allowed to speak the language or learn her culture. I am trying to research the family tattoos as my dad told my mom and I that if we were to get any tattoos it will be only the traditional Yupik tattoos. I love that you don’t have the same answer for a one size fits all .

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