Hovak Johnston is breathing new life into her ancestral culture, one tattooed woman at a time.
The Inuk artist grew up in the remote community of Umingmaktok, Nunavut, in northern Canada. As a child, she was intrigued by an elder woman with traditional Inuit tattoos – the only member of the community to have them. The memory never left her. Years later, she decided to research the sacred practice, which by then had become almost extinct.
Johnston was a guest at the Adäka festival, the Whitehorse cultural event now in its eighth edition. Those very themes – oppression followed by resurgence and revival– were weaved through the programing, reminding visitors that no matter how impossible the fight against oppression can be, art remains a beacon of hope, a cornerstone of the resistance.
Johnston has now tattooed dozens of Inuit women – including some in their 70s and beyond. The markings, often made using a stick and poke method, are highly personal and usually emblematic of defining life events, as well as family connections. They adorn women’s fingers, arms, thighs and – perhaps more strikingly – their faces.
For a century, the markings were expressly forbidden by missionaries, who denounced the practice as shamanistic and contrary to the Christian beliefs imposed on the Inuit population. Consequently, those who dared to get the ornaments were shunned. It took enormous efforts by the younger generation to reclaim it – including archival and on the ground research by artists like Johnston and artists like Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, whose documentary Tunniit retraces her quest to get markings on her forehead, cheeks and forearms.
Adäka’s programming was bursting with similar stories of revitalisation. In the space of a week, more than 100 artists – visual artists, dancers, throat singers, musicians and fashion designers – took the stage, taught workshops and gave talks about topics as varied as herbalism, dog ownership in the Arctic or moose hide tanning at a “fish camp” set on the bank of the Yukon river.
The festival welcomed everyone – from members of the Yukon’s 14 indigenous First Nations to locals and international visitors – and the joyous mood embodied this generosity of spirit: young children took part in special activities, tourists admired and purchased art in the gallery and artists mingled with the crowd, imparting their knowledge as they weaved, sculpted or carved in front of the crowd.
Ashley Cummings, 20, from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, was tattooed by Johnston during the festival. Through tears, she explained that no one in her family could remember a member sporting the markings, so effective was the ban. To be able to finally reclaim the practice felt like “a huge relief” and an honor.
The tide is finally turning – but it was a close call, and the blame can be squarely put at the feet of Canada’s residential school system.
‘Our identity is coming back to us’
Starting in the 1840s until the last school closed in 1996, more than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their family, and forced to assimilate. Gone was their right to see their family, to speak their ancestral language, to dance, to play the drums – to exist.
The system’s aim was to “kill the Indian in the child”. Physical and sexual abuse was endemic, and ignoble “nutritional experiments” were conducted. More than 6,000 children have died at the hands of missionaries.
In less than 100 years, a cultural genocide had effectively been committed.
Dennis Shorty, 60, was also a guest artist at the festival. He was just five years old when a float plane landed in his remote community of Ross River and took him away to a residential school 400 kilometres away. Separated from his family and Kaska community, he found himself in a system which, he says, “stripped away his spirit and his dignity”. He was beaten if he tried to speak his ancestral language, and endured unspeakable abuse.
In adulthood, to make sense of his trauma, Shorty found solace and meaning in his art, which was on display at Adäka. His work – intricate wood and antler carving, sculptures and paintings – has been purchased to sit in the Yukon’s permanent collection. He never forgot his Kaska language, and remains a fluent speaker. (He taught his German wife, Jennifer Froehling, who impressively speaks it, too.)
The idea of transmission also occupies the mind of the Selkirk artist Carmen Baker. When she moved to Pelly Crossing (population 354), Baker was struck by the lack of music. There were no drumming, no singing. Her Northern Tutchone culture had been erased by the residential schools’ legacy. The world was quiet
In 2004, Baker started a drumming and dancing group with only six young girls enrolled. Today, she has more than 30 dancers (the youngest is nine months old and performed at Adäka in his mother’s arms).
As she introduced dancers to the stage, she said she believed that “our identity is coming back to us. Our young people are catching on – this is part of who they are, it’s in their bloodline.”
From Ross River to the Eiffel Tower
Sho Sho Esquiro, 38, grew up in Ross River, a community of only 350 people – “but thousands if you count the dogs”, she says, laughing. The Kaska Dene and Cree designer showcased her work at the festival’s eagerly anticipated fashion show. Her exquisite one-of-a-kind creations have been displayed in many galleries, including the Smithsonian.
In 2014, when she was contacted to showcase eight pieces in Paris, Esquiro decided to be bold: her collection would be dedicated to the 4,000 murdered and missing indigenous women of Canada. At the time, the prime minister, Stephen Harper, had denied indigenous people an inquiry into the matter, and Esquiro saw it as her chance to bring both awareness and honor to the families affected.
Her latest work, titled No Apology Necessary, is a reference to the Catholic church’s steadfast refusal to apologise for running two-thirds of residential schools. (The cornerstone of her collection is a jacket with the picture of the pope printed upside down; another is a fur coat with the slogan “no apology necessary” printed on the back – the crowd cheered as the model walked down the runway wearing it).
Esquiro’s father, grandparents, aunts and uncles were all survivors of the school system, and when it was recently announced than any acknowledgement would be denied to them, she says she saw firsthand how hurt her community was by this. She understood the reaction, but she says it also “made her angry – that we sit around waiting for an apology that may or may not come … We need to be accountable for our own healing.”
Shorty, the antler and wood carving artist who survived residential school, agrees. He says he doesn’t care that the Catholic church never apologised. “I want to move forward, teach my craft, teach people how to move forward regardless of they apologise or not.”
So what, then, helps to right this monumental wrong?
Shorty doesn’t hesitate. “Hard work, being back on the land, using our language and sharing our culture with other cultures.”
Adäka, then, is entirely part of the solution.
To learn more about First Nations cultures while visiting the Yukon
- The Long Ago Peoples Place (Open year-round)
An hour’s drive from Whitehorse, Harold Johnson, a member of the Crow Clan, welcomes you to his camp, where he recreated a traditional First Nations village with living structures, tools and hunting recreations. His interpretive walk will introduce you to trapping, hunting and shelter building techniques, and if you are lucky you will meet Nessi, his loyal dog who once fought a grizzly bear.
- Teslin Tlingit Heritage Center (Open 1 June – 1 September)
Nestled between a lake and a mountain range, the center offers guided tours, demonstrations and story-telling, as well as a gallery showcasing Tlingit art.
- Moosehide Gathering festival (From 26-29 July)
A biennial celebration of indigenous culture open to all – includes performances, demonstrations, tastings and a craft market.