The Cultural Impact of Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos
I must first begin by making a point to acknowledge that I am writing this essay as a French-Canadian woman living on the unceded and traditional Indigenous land of Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). Considering my cultural background as a descendant of settlers, I recognize that my understandings of Indigenous histories and lived experiences are limited. Although I have sought to further my awareness of Indigenous matters notably through informed University courses, I do not claim to be able to justly articulate the complexities of such knowledge. In writing this essay, I seek only to respectfully amplify and commend the work, wisdom and courage of Indigenous voices such as Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s.
I construct my arguments in parallel to the teachings from the film and from those I have received in a University setting. I in no way seek to culturally appropriate or misconstrue the knowledge shared. I encourage readers to deepen their learning – no matter at what level it may be – by listening to Indigenous voices directly.
[Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s website: https://www.unikkaat.com/projects/tunniit-retracing-the-lines-of-inuit-tattoos/]
An underdog, as its conventional definition suggests, is an individual or a team that has little chance of overcoming the odds in a competition awaiting them. In cinema terms however, an underdog character or narrative rather implies the rewarding rise to glory of a protagonist, who gives an aspiration their all. In film, underdogs push beliefs, opening minds to what was otherwise thought of as impossible and unattainable. They refuse to succumb to restrictive, conformist, or skeptical mindsets that limit progress. Their self-belief is weakened by the restraining hegemony, yet they continually rise at the face of inevitable adversity. An underdog breaks the cycle, and rather invites re-shaping, re-thinking and recovery. They tackle what others deem as unattainable. Or in some instances, taboo.
The latter is the case in Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s momentous documentary Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos. The filmmaker embarks on a challenging but necessary journey to reconnect with forgotten Inuit customs. It is through her film, through this recorded quest, that Arnaquq-Baril initiated the revival of her culture’s tattooing tradition across the Arctic, despite her community’s initial resistance and even dismissal. This film, in my humble view, speaks to the true essence of an underdog story: having the courage to persevere and to inspire others through your efforts.
Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos recounts Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s travel across Nunavut seeking to learn about the silenced tradition of Inuit women’s face and body tattoos from the knowledge of elders. Assisted by her long-time friend and activist Aaju Peter throughout, the two women aspire to receive tattoos of their own, despite strong resistance from family and community members.
Inuit tattoos, or Tunniit, were once considered widespread, sacred, and empowering to women. They are recounted as holding many meanings and representations. They are said to bring beauty, purification, and decoration to the body. Tattoos were often received around important moments in a lifetime, and thus constituted a rite of passage for women. They were equally acquired when mastering important skills, acting as an indication of capability, knowledge, and strength. An interviewed elder shared a common saying of his youth, that “you weren’t a real woman until you had your tattoos.” Some communities also recall that tattoos were considered vital in ensuring safe passage into the afterlife.
With such sacred and symbolic meanings associated to the tradition of Inuit tattooing, how had they become disregarded? Why was there only one traditionally tattooed Inuk left in the world, that the filmmaker knew about? Alethea Arnaquq-Baril elucidates in the documentary that it is with histories of cultural erasure and oppression that the tattoos had been forbidden. As time went on, they became a past custom that was looked down upon, almost forgotten, or even performed underground. That is, until she sought out to deepen her knowledge about them.
It is valuable to note that this journey began as a research project from the filmmaker’s own interest. It is from personal fascination that the endeavour grew to become one of communal and cultural significance. In a Q&A after the first time Tunniit was screened to a largely non-native audience at Cinema Politica in Montreal, 6 years after the completion of the film, Arnaquq-Baril expressed that; “As Indigenous people across the country, and across the world, no matter where you are from, we have this sense of loss. And we are recovering from it. When I started making this film, I didn’t realize all that. I just thought the tattoos were pretty and I wanted to know more. And when I started asking questions about them and realized that there was this resistance, […] it just became even more intriguing to me. And the more I found out, there more resistance there was. Eventually, I realized; you know what, no. This resistance is not right. It is not coming from a good place. It is not coming from a loving place. And I don’t agree with it.”
A significant part of Arnaquq-Baril’s journey was thus one of finding the courage to go against the status quo, believing in changing what one recognizes as amiss. It was one of examining, questioning, and objecting the resistance which was “not coming from a loving place”. Conversely, there was also inner strength to be called upon when reconciling where this experienced resistance stemmed from. Recognizing what had been taken was recovering from a sense of profound loss. Reconnecting with the traditions thus became innately linked to experiencing a grieving and healing process.
It is important to understand that part of the resistance that Arnaquq-Baril faced in her community stemmed from belief systems brought by colonizing forces, which still have lasting effects on the culture. She remarks about the Indigenous population that, “we had an entire government system designed to crush our culture.” A historian interviewed in the documentary confirms that the government, for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, entered Indigenous communities with “a job of acculturation”.
Elders often brough up memories of the interference of Christian missionaries when interviewed. They pointed out the disdain and discouragement that the evangelists expressed toward many Inuit customs. An elder spoke of a specific missionary who “caused everyone on Baffin Island to forget about their cultural practices […] [and] was instrumental in forcing Inuit to relinquish their culture.” There are said to be exceptions, but for the most part, “missionaries did not understand the Inuit way of life at all, so they labelled it all as worthless. […] Because of this, our beautiful traditions were lost on our youth.” Inuit practices such as throat singing, drum dancing, and shamanism, as discussed in the film, had been prohibited or strongly opposed by the church and government policies. This incited repression and shame about practicing such traditions for many generations. This forced education created, as the filmmaker puts it: “a generational rift still present today.” Therefore, addressing the taboo surrounding the tradition has not been easy, nor has been the widespread acceptance of it, which has yet to be unanimously attained.
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril explains that a large part of the reason why her community was able to eventually accept her research and receiving of the tattoos, was because of the strong support she received by the elders she interviewed. The reactions toward her tattoos, as she formulates in the Q&A, “has been almost entirely positive. I think that is because the knowledge that I shared in this film comes from the elders. And for them to stand up and say, ‘those who wanted us to stop this should be ashamed, and I am going to speak without shame’. And that is our elders saying this. So, it’s no longer just coming from me, it is coming from them.” After viewing her documentary, people recognized and respected the wisdom passed down from the elders. For many, hearing the trust from older generation invited a more accepting gaze upon the filmmaker’s efforts.
In fact, numerous Inuit women have been inspired by the vigour of the documentary, or perhaps of Arnaquq-Baril herself, and show interest in receiving tattoos of their own. The filmmaker noted that: “there are a number of Inuit who have learned how to do tattoos. […] It’s spreading like wildfire.” The influence that Arnaquq-Baril had on the reclaiming of her culture is precisely what her companion throughout the film, Aaju Peter, highlighted. She notably states during their last night as untattooed women: “I am so glad you went on this journey because it is so important. […] You had the courage, and you’re going to need more courage, especially after. But it was very important, not only for you, but for everyone in Nunavut.” The changes that the film has prompted regarding the views on traditional tattoos is undeniable.
While this wave of liberation might have been astonishing to watch unfold, it is certainly in line with what the filmmaker had hoped. She states in the last moments of the documentary, “I love that my children will grow up thinking my tattoos are natural. That they are just part of my face. They’ll know who they are, and where they came from.” We can see how she aspires for future generations to see tattoos for all the beauty they represent. Researcher Tyler Zoanni upholds this notion, further suggesting that the film “portray[s] indigenous youth as creative agents in the rearticulation of Inuit […] practices, movements, and aspirations” (74) Thus, the filmmaker’s personal documentation of her commitment to learning and de-stigmatizing a complex history established a significant invitation to others to connect with this “rearticulation” of their culture. Arnaquq-Baril expresses in the Q&A that she “will always be proud of the cultural work we were able to accomplish with this film, in documenting and preserving a tradition that I think is beautiful and has wisdom, not just beauty, but wisdom, to pass on through the tradition.”
It is with genuine fascination and fondness for her culture that Alethea Arnaquq-Baril chose to embark on this journey that admittedly created controversy among her community. It is with the support and willingly shared wisdom received by the interviewed elders that she was able to continue it. But it is through her own strength and cited “unshakable confidence” gained along the way that led her to complete it. Choosing to tackle the suppressed, Arnaquq-Baril breaches through the bounds of colonial fixity. She brings into the light ongoing issues stemming from forced acculturation, erasure of Indigeneity by settler education and institutions, and the loss of a long history through addressing the then-vanishing tradition of face tattoos. And no less, in her first film.
This is why, in my view, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril in Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos must be recognized as a brave force of change. Her tumultuous journey, starting from an individual interest, growing into a constructive project to bring knowledge to a greater group and eventually expanding to the point of touching and empowering countless viewers, is to me, a remarkable representation of the valour of an underdog story.
Arnaquq-Baril, Alethea. “Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos.” Unikkaat Studios, 2010.
Cinema Politica, “Q&A with Alethea Arnaquq-Baril – TUNNIIT: RETRACING THE LINES OF INUIT TATTOOS.” Youtube, Jan 12, 2017. https://youtu.be/W1cXIe4IR7w
Zoanni, Tyler. “Review of the 36th Annual Margaret Mead Film Festival (November 29- December 2, 2012).” Visual Anthropology Review, vol. 29, no. 1, 2013, pp. 72–75.