Tunniit/Tattoos: The Complicated History of Photographing Inuit Tattoos

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Heather Campbell

Last year my colleague Beth Greenhorn and I were chatting about a photograph she had come across of two Inuit women and a child. They were wearing elaborate atigii (inner parkas) with a cloth background behind them. One of the women was wearing odd mittens—one black and one with a distinctive knitted diamond pattern. I was sure I had seen this woman before. I have been researching Inuit tattoos for over ten years, as part of my own art practice. At first, I just collected images and did not take note of the source of the material, something I have been kicking myself for ever since! A few years ago, I started creating a more detailed collection, saving the original image identification numbers. When I began working at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), in 2018, I started searching through our collection for more images and created a list for future reference. In that list, I found “Hattie.”

Black-and-white photograph of two women and a child wearing parkas, sitting in front of a fabric background.
[Two Inuuk women and a child]. The woman on the left is Ooktook (Niviaqsarjuk, also called Uuttuq), who is Qairnirmiut. Her name means “lying on the ice.” She was called “Hattie” by photographers Geraldine and Douglas Moodie. The boy is Harry Unainuk Gibbons. The woman on the right is Taptaqut, Harry’s mom. Photo credit: George Comer, 1905. (e011310102) These names were provided by Hassan Bosta via Project Naming on Facebook.

At least four different people have photographed “Hattie”: George Comer, Geraldine Moodie, Albert Peter Low, and J.E. Bernier. In some photos, I think she has been misidentified. In others, a different woman is also called “Hattie,” “Ooktook,” and “Niviaqsarjuk.” This is perhaps because the women had similar-sounding names, or they were thought to look alike, or the photographer simply got confused after returning to the south and having the photographs processed.

Another institution instrumental to my work that informed my findings is the Glenbow Museum. This museum houses the Geraldine Moodie collection, which also includes photographs of women from the same region and time period. In the Glenbow descriptions, and in a comment on our Project Naming Facebook page, this woman was identified as Ooktook. Through Project Naming, people are identified by community members. For this reason, I consider it to be the most reliable source.

A black-and-white photograph of six women with facial tattoos wearing parkas, before a cloth backdrop.
[Photograph of six women with facial tattoos wearing parkas, before a cloth backdrop. Niviaqsarjuk is seated in the centre in the first row] [Left to right—back row: [unknown], Atunuck, Uckonuck; front row: Aka “Pikey” Niviaqsajuk/Shoofly?, Taptaqut], March 8, 1905. Credit: J.E. Bernier         (C-001499)

In the image above, one can see the woman seated at front and centre is the same person Ooktook/Niviaqsarjuk/Hattie. She is wearing the exact same outfit as in the photo by Comer right down to the patterned mitten on her left hand, except that, in this photo, she has facial tattoos. In the original photo Beth shared with me, her face is bare! What does this mean? Is it the same woman? Are the tattoos draw on? Were they tracing pre-existing tattoos, or were they completely fabricating these designs?

Recently, I came across an interesting article about the photographic work of Michael Bradley and his project Puaki, which featured photographs of Maori people of New Zealand, well-known for their facial tattoos called Tā moko. The process Bradley uses is wet plate collodion, popular in the 1800s. When Maori people with tattoos were photographed by means of this process, their Tā moko disappeared! The collodion process could not properly capture colours in the blue/green spectrum. Is this what happened with the tattoos of Inuit women from the early 1900s?

With the guidance of Joanne Rycaj Guillemette, the Indigenous Portfolio archivist for Private Archives here at LAC, we did some digging to see exactly which photographic process was used in this photograph of Niviaqsarjuk. Mikan (LAC’s internal archival catalogue) did not have the answer; neither did the former paper-based filing system. The Comer collection of photos are actually copies, and it turned out the originals are held at the Mystic Seaport Museum, in Connecticut. Going through my personal collection of photos, I found an image that looked familiar, and then searched the Mystic Seaport Museum for the ID number. I found the woman referred to by Comer as “Jumbo.” In the description, I found what I was looking for. It states:

Glass negative by Capt. George Comer, taken at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay, on February 16, 1904. Comer identified this image as a young girl known as Jumbo, showing the tattooing of the Southampton Natives. This is one of a group of photos taken by Comer to record facial tattooing of various Inuit groups of Hudson Bay. He had Aivilik women paint their faces to simulate the tattooing styles of various other groups. Information from original envelope identifies this as Photo 55, # 33. The number 30 is etched into emulsion on plate. Lantern slide 1966.339.15 was made from this negative. Identical to 1963.1767.112. 1963.339.58 shows the same young woman in a similar pose.

This was the confirmation I needed that the designs were in fact painted on and that the designs were from other regions! I do not know how often this happened, but finding similar images from other collections has me concerned about the authenticity of tattoo designs in photographs from this period and into the 1950s. I searched the Comer collection further and found more than one woman photographed with and without tattoos, including the woman called “Shoofly,” Comer’s “companion,” whose real name was Nivisanaaq.

A black-and-white photograph of five Inuit women with facial tattoos standing in front of a white cloth backdrop
Aivilliq Women, 1903–1904. Credit: Albert Peter Low (a038271). Nivisanaaq (nicknamed “Shoofly) at centre in a beaded atigii with painted tattoos. Note the woman to her right, whom we also see in the image below.
A black-and-white photo of 15 women and two babies, posed in three rows.
Aivillik women and children on the “Era” Credit: Albert Peter Low 1888–1909, location unknown. (a053565) Nivisanaaq is present again, to the right of centre, second row, in this photograph, wearing her beaded atigii with boot motifs. Note that the woman at her left in the image above is now in front of her at centre; both are without tattoos in this photo.

In the Donald Benjamin Marsh fonds, also held at LAC, we see another example of painted tattoos. The unidentified women from Arviat in these two photographs by Donald Benjamin Marsh are most likely the same person, as one can tell from comparing their facial features, especially the broken or missing tooth on the left side of her mouth. On the right side of her face, she has no tattoos; on the left side, however, the tattoos are quite prominent. The lines are very dark and wide. When one compares these images to photographs of women with authentic tattoos, one can see the difference. Here, the lines are quite fine and faint, but still visible.

Left: A colour photo of an Inuk woman with facial tattoos wearing a white parka with red straps looking at the camera. Right: A black-and-white photo of an Inuk woman wearing a decorated parka standing in snow.
Left: Inuit woman with facial tattoos and braids. Donald Benjamin Marsh fonds, Arviat, date unknown. (e007914459) Right: [Smiling Inuk woman in a beaded amauti]. Original title: Smiling Inuit woman in a decorated amauti, Donald Benjamin Marsh fonds, Unknown Location, N.W.T. [Nunavut]: c. 1926–1943. (e004922736)
A black-and-white photograph of an Inuk woman with tattoos on her face and arms smiling while braiding her hair. Right: A black-and-white photograph of an Inuk woman in a fur parka.
Left: Mary Edetoak, a patient, who still has traditional Inuit tattoos, 1958. (e011176882) Right: Elderly Inuit woman with her hair down [graphic material], 1929. Inscription reads, “Old native woman Eskimo, heavily tattooed but does not photograph.” Credit: G.H. Blanchet (e004665345),

This discovery reminds me of the actions of well-known photographer Edward S. Curtis, who travelled through North America photographing Native American peoples. (Note: We use the term “First Nations” in Canada, but “Native American” is used in the United States of America). Curtis often manipulated scenes by dressing sitters in clothing from an earlier era, removed contemporary elements, and added props that created a romanticized and inauthentic representation of them. Not only is this type of manipulation dehumanizing, it leaves behind a legacy of misinformation.

As a reaction to colonialization and assimilation policies, Indigenous Peoples are going through a period of cultural resurgence. When those of us who are looking to reclaim elements of our culture, such as tattooing, come across these images and assume the designs originate in the region the people are living in. Someone in Arviat, seeing a photo of her great-grandmother, for example, might want to reclaim the markings of her relative and mistakenly get the same markings, not knowing the design is from a completely different family and region. One can only imagine how distressing this would be.

A main goal of We Are Here Sharing Stories is to update descriptions to make them culturally sensitive and accurate. To this end, we are updating descriptions for the above-mentioned collections, to add the women’s correct names if known and a note explaining the significance of the tattoos. This note also addresses the practices of some photographers of the time that may result in tattoo designs that are not authentic to the women or their region. Although we cannot change the past, it is my hope that these actions will help inform researchers and community members alike from this point on. Nakurmiik (thank you).

A black-and-white photograph of a smiling Inuk woman with facial tattoos.
Kila, a tattooed Inuit woman, from the Dolphin and Union Strait area, Coronation Gulf, N.W.T. [Nunavut], 1916. (a165665)

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.

The Art of Dene Handgames / Stick Gambling / ᐅᐨᘛ / oodzi

By Angela Code

The Dene are a group of Indigenous People who are part of the Na-Dene language family. The Dene are also commonly referred to as Athabaskans or Athapaskans. We are one of the largest Indigenous groups in North America. Our land covers over 4,000,000 square kilometres, spanning from across northern North America to the American Southwest. There are three distinct Dene groups: Northern, Pacific Coast and Southern/Apachean. There are approximately 50 distinct languages within the Na-Dene language family, and various dialects.

There is a game that the Northern Dene have been playing for many years called Dene Handgame, also called Stick Gambling, or simply referred to as handgames. Dënesųłiné yatiyé, also known as Chipewyan Dene, is one of the more widely spoken languages from within the Na-Dene language family. In the Sayisi Dënesųłiné dialect, Dene Handgame is called  ᐅᐨᘛ (oodzi).

There are different rules and various hand signals of the game across the north; however, the object of the game and how it is played is essentially the same. Basically, Dene Handgame is an elaborate guessing game. It is a fun pastime that requires a good sense of “reading people” and concealment. The players who compete with high energy, humour, good sportsmanship and performative gestures are often the most fun to play with and to observe.

How to play Dene Handgame

There must be an even number of players on each team. Tournaments will specify how many people per team will play—the number varies from region to region, and it often ranges from 4, 6, 8, 10 or 12 per team. Two teams play against each other at a time. Each player must have a personal token—a small object that can be easily hidden in one hand (a stone, a coin, a button, a .22 shell, etc.).

When players are not personally competing in the game, they, as well as some onlookers, will hit individual caribou-skin hand drums with handmade wooden drumsticks in a fast-paced, rhythmic beat. The music of the drums, whoops, cheers, chants and songs fuel the high energy of the game. Drummers who are not personally playing in the game will often drum behind the team that they support. They drum when their “side” is hiding their tokens, to encourage them and protect them from being guessed out.

A black-and-white photograph of about 20 men and boys, some standing and some kneeling on the ground. One man near the centre of the photo is wearing a white buttoned-up shirt and dark pants with a wooden tobacco pipe in his mouth. He is hitting a caribou-skin hand drum with a wooden drumstick. There is a white canvas wall tent set up in the background, and fresh meat hanging to dry on a wooden rack.

Gwichya Gwich’in men and boys playing Dene Handgame while a man drums, Tsiigehtchic (Tsiigehtshik, formerly Arctic Red River), Northwest Territories (a102486)

Each team has a captain. To begin the game, the two opposing team captains will play against each other. They will each hide their token in one of their hands, and then they will simultaneously indicate which hand they think their opponents’ token is in.

A colour photograph of eight men and one child. The men are playing Dene Handgame. Three of the men are hitting individual caribou-skin hand drums with wooden drumsticks. Two men are gesturing with Dene Handgame hand signals.

Men playing Dene Handgame, photographs from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples visit to Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, the community of the Sayisi Dene (Denesuline), 1992–1993. Back (left to right): Brandon Cheekie, Peter Cheekie, Jimmy Clipping, Fred Duck, Ernie Bussidor, Tony Duck. Front (left to right): Unknown, Evan Yassie, Thomas Cutlip, Ray Ellis. (e011300424)

Once one of the captains correctly guesses where the opponent’s token is, then their respective teammates will join the game. The winning captain’s team becomes the first team to have the opportunity to win points.

Each member of a team will line up side by side, kneeling on the floor or on the ground, facing the opposing team. Because handgames can often go on for long periods of time, players will kneel on something soft like a mat or a bed of spruce bough.

It is not necessary, but often one or two designated, unbiased scorekeepers/referees will keep a keen eye on every player to ensure that scores are tallied correctly, no one cheats and any disputes are settled fairly. They sit close by on the sidelines between the two opposing teams so that they have the best vantage points to view the players and have access to move the winning handgame sticks.

The sticks are placed between the two teams and are used to keep score of the game. The number of sticks correlate with the number of players. For example, when 4 people are playing per team then 12 sticks are used, when 6 are playing per team then 14 sticks are used, when 8 are playing per team then 21 sticks are used, when 10 are playing per team then 24 or 25 sticks are used, and when 12 are playing per team then 28 or 29 sticks are used.

A colour photograph of the back of an elderly man wearing a “Sayisi Dene Traditional Handgame Club” jacket, watching a Dene Handgame match.

An Elder (Charlie Learjaw) observes a Dene Handgame match, Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, 1992–1993 (e011300421)

The team whose turn it is to hide their tokens will place their hands under a cloth covering (like a blanket or spare coats). They will move their token from hand to hand until they decide which hand to hide it in. Then, when they have chosen their hiding hand, they will take their fists out from under the cloth covering and face their opponents. Commonly, players keep their arms straight in front of them or they cross them over their chests; however, players also develop their own elaborate and unique positioning of their hands. Players will use facial gestures, body movements and sounds to try and confuse or “psyche out” the opposing captain, who is the one who will guess and signal to where they think each token is hidden.

A colour photograph of six men and one small child. The men are playing Dene Handgame. Three of the men are hitting individual caribou-skin hand drums with wooden drumsticks and singing.

Men drumming and playing Dene Handgame, Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, 1992–1993. Left to right: Brandon Cheekie, Peter Cheekie, Fred Duck, Jimmy Clipping, Ernie Bussidor, Tony Duck and Ray Ellis. (e011300426)

Before the captain makes the hand signal indicating where they think the tokens are hidden, they make a loud sound—a big clap, or they hit the floor with their hand—to let everyone know that they are ready to call. There are many different signals that can be used; however, there are four main ones that the Arctic Winter Games follow.

Once the captain reveals their hand signal, all the opposing players must then open the hand that the captain has indicated so everyone can see if the token is there. If the token is not there, meaning that the captain was wrong in their guess, the opposition player(s) must then show the other hand containing the object. Each time the captain is wrong in their guess, a stick is awarded to the opposing team. For example, if the captain guesses and makes one correct guess and three wrong guesses, the opposition will receive three sticks. The player who was guessed correctly is eliminated from the round, and now there are only three players remaining. This will continue until the captain has correctly guessed all of the players remaining, or until the opposing team wins all of the sticks. If the captain guesses all of the opposition players correctly, it is their team’s turn to hide their tokens and for the other team captain to try and guess which hands the tokens are in. The team to win all of the sticks wins the game.

A black-and-white composite photograph of about 16 boys, some standing, some kneeling on the ground. They are playing Dene Handgame. One young man is standing and hitting a caribou-skin hand drum with a wooden drumstick.

Gwichya Gwich’in men and boys playing Dene Handgame, Tsiigehtchic (Tsiigehtshik, formerly Arctic Red River), Northwest Territories, ca. 1930 (a102488)

Handgame tournaments

There are many small Dene Handgame tournaments happening all across the north all the time. My home community of Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, aims to play every Friday evening. There are also some very big Dene Handgame tournaments that happen a few times a year in various regions. Some of the prizes for winning teams are in the thousands of dollars!

Historically, there have been stories told about when people would play handgame—they would gamble goods such as firearms, bullets, axes, etc. I have even heard about men losing their wives to a game and having to win her back at another game!

Gender controversy in handgames

Children, both boys and girls, are taught how to play Dene Handgame at home and at handgame tournaments. In some regions, they are taught how to play at school as a part of physical education.

A colour photograph of a man, a teenage boy and a small child watching a Dene Handgame match. The man is hitting a caribou-skin hand drum with a wooden drumstick. The small child is mimicking the drumbeat with his own small hand drum.

A man (Peter Cheekie) hits a caribou-skin hand drum with a wooden drumstick while a teenage boy (Christopher Yassie) and a small child (Brandon Cheekie) watch a Dene Handgame match, Tadoule Lake, Manitoba, 1992–1993 (e011300426)

However, for adults, the sport is predominantly played by men. This is because some regions, particularly in the Northwest Territories, do not allow adult women to play. However, in the Yukon and in some northern Prairie provinces, women are not only allowed to play, they are encouraged and widely supported. This inclusion of women makes the games much larger and more fun to participate in and to observe. Tournaments will state whether they allow men’s teams only or mixed teams. There has only been one women’s handgame tournament (that I know of), which was held in Whitehorse, Yukon, in 2016. The inclusion of women to play handgames is a hot topic in the north. Some say that it is not “traditional” to allow women to play and that women “have too much power—so they would just win all the time.” Some communities do not even allow women to drum.

Others say that women played a long time ago, but that this changed with the imposition of Christianity. Some Christian missionaries actually banned the drum and playing Dene Handgames altogether. The drum in Dene culture is very important. It is spiritual and some Christian missionaries saw it as heathen and therefore unacceptable. They actually burned drums in some communities. Some people continued to play handgames in secret, but in other communities it only came back into practice in recent years. In one community in particular, I heard that handgames were not played for a long time, and it was the women who brought it back, encouraging the men and others to play again.

I think that in this day and age, it is not fair to exclude women from playing Dene Handgame, or to prevent them from drumming, for that matter. Gender dynamics change and shift within all cultures. I believe that more gender inclusion to compete in this fun pastime is a good, positive change for everyone.

I personally love to watch people play, but I much prefer to compete in the game myself, and I would love to see more women participate and have fun playing handgames as well.

Visit the Flickr Album for images of the Dene.


Angela Code is an archivist with the Listen, Hear Our Voices project at Library and Archives Canada.

The Inuit Ulu – Diverse, Strong, Spiritual

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.By Ellen Bond

A colour photo of an Inuk woman using an ulu to cut meat

Rynee Flaherty cleaning an animal skin with an “ulu” (a short knife with a crescent-shaped blade used by Inuit women) on a stony landscape, Ausuittuq, Nunavut ( e002394465)

The ulu is a knife with a semi-circular shaped blade which translates as “women’s knife” in the Inuit language of Inuttut. Ulus date back 4,519 years ago (2500 BCE). Ulus from 1880 discovered on Baffin Island were found with the blade adhered to the handle by an adhesive made from clay, dog hair and seal blood. In the 1890s, some ulus created by Western Inuit had holes through the handle and the blade. The two pieces were joined together using rawhide, whalebone and pine root. The Copper Inuit of Victoria Island (the eighth largest island in the world and part of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories) used copper they mined to make ulu blades. When slate and copper were scarce, some Inuit turned to whale baleen or ivory for the blades. The crescent-shaped blade was originally made of slate, but today it is made of steel. Steel was available after 1719, through the Hudson’s Bay Company. Blades could be semi-circular or triangular and were attached to the handle with a single post or with the post having a piece in the centre taken out. The handle of the ulu might include ornate drawings and engravings specific to the woman who owned the knife. Handles are usually made of wood but can also be made of bone, antler or ivory.

A black-and-white photo of an Inuk woman using an ulu.

Taktu cleaning fat from sealskin with an ulu, Kinngait, Nunavut (e010836269)

The size of an ulu depends on the personal preference of its owner or the region where it was made. A husband or other male relative sometimes presents an ulu to a woman or they are passed down from one generation to the next.

A black-and-white photo of an Inuk woman using her ulu

Sheouak Petaulassie using an ulu, Kinngait, Nunavut (e010868997)

The cutting and slicing power of the ulu blade comes from the handle, allowing the force of the blade to be directed over the object to be cut. This allows the woman to cut through strong, dense objects, such as bone. The design of the ulu makes it easy to use with one hand. Ulus are multi-faceted tools that vary in design to suit diverse needs. Larger ulus cut game or fish and a smaller ulu removes blubber and shaves skin. Even smaller ulus cut skins or trim small pieces. Tiny ulus help sew or cut ornate pieces used as inlays in sealskin clothing.

A black-and-white photo of an Inuk woman using her ulu to cut meat

Noanighok, mother of William Kakolak, Kugluktuk, Nunavut (a143915)

Looking at most tools designed by humans, the ulu holds a special place. It is one of the only tools that is female-centric and has become an important cultural symbol. Its likeness serves as an award medal in events such as the Arctic Winter Games and is a prominent design element in contemporary Inuit art, crafts, and fashion design. They are often displayed prominently in the home as works of art in and of themselves.  Used for thousands of years across the northern regions of North America, the ulu continues to be functional, powerful, and diverse.


Ellen Bond is a Project Assistant with the Online Content Team at Library and Archives Canada.

Images for the Northwest Territories now on Flickr

The Northwest Territories is one of three territories in northern Canada, bordered by Yukon to the west, Nunavut to the east, and Alberta, Saskatchewan and a portion of British Columbia to the south. The northern section of the territory makes up part of the Arctic Archipelago, which is usually covered in ice. Many Inuit and First Nations people lived in the area when explorers and European settlers arrived beginning in the late 16th century. European trade developed in the 18th century, dominated by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company.

A black-and-white photo of six men. Three men are mounted on horses, and three are unmounted standing next to two horses.

Buffalo patrol near cabin south of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories (MIKAN 3362561)

The Northwest Territories entered into confederation in 1870 after Canada purchased the land from the Hudson’s Bay Company. However, Britain did not transfer the Arctic Archipelago to Canada until 1880. The boundaries of the Northwest Territories fluctuated over the next century as different provinces and territories were created or grew in size; it finally settled to its current boundaries in 1999, when Nunavut was formed from the Northwest Territories.

Did you know?

  • The name “Northwest Territories” originates from the colonial period, when the British used the term to describe all the land to the northwest of Rupert’s Land.
  • The Northwest Territories has eleven official languages, including English, French, Cree, Chipewyan, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey, and Tłįchǫ.

Visit the Flickr album now!