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.

A.P. Low and the Many Words of Love in Inuit Culture

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

Albert Peter Low was a geologist and explorer, whose expeditions to Quebec and Labrador from 1893 to 1895 assisted in the creation of their borders. Low mapped the interior of Labrador and discovered large iron deposits, which later lead to the development of the iron mine at what is now Labrador City. His mapping of Labrador influenced expeditions after him including that of Mina Hubbard in 1905.

Black-and-white portrait of a man standing in a photo studio.

Portrait of Albert Peter Low by William Topley, 1897. (a214276)

In 1903 and 1904, Low commanded two expeditions on the steamer Neptune up the west coast of Hudson Bay where he formally claimed possession of Southampton, Ellesmere, and adjacent islands for Canada. Low detailed his travels in Cruise of the Neptune (Report on the Dominion Government Expedition to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Islands on Board the D.G.S. Neptune 1903-1904). Much of his research was invaluable in the recording of Inuit culture in Quebec, Nunavut, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Albert Peter Low fonds includes photographs, proclamations, and journals, two from a prospecting trip along the east coast of Hudson Bay, now known as the Inuit region of Nunavik, Quebec and one notebook written between 1901 and 1907. The notebook records 40 pages of the many tenses and corresponding suffixes of the verb “to love” in Inuktitut. In the photo below, we see a notebook page starting with the basic form “him, her or it loves.” He moves on to record, in lesser detail, the variations of the verb “to teach.” At the end he lists other transitive verbs, passive verbs, and adverbs, many related to Christianity.

A handwritten page of a notebook, recording Inuktitut vocabulary for the word “love.”

A page from the notebook kept by Low during his expeditions along the coast of Hudson Bay. (e011304604)

In 1886, Low married Isabella Cunningham and they had three children. Sadly, their first son died as an infant in 1898, and their second son died at age 19 during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Only their daughter Estelle, born in 1901, survived to adulthood and looked after her ailing father until his death in 1942. In 1943, she donated his collection to the Public Archives of Canada, which included Inuit art, mainly hunting scenes rendered in ivory. The collection was transferred to the Museum of Man (Canadian Museum of History) in 1962. Most of the works are miniature ivories created by Harry Teseuke, leader of the Aivilingmiut and Captain Comer’s mate. Comer’s ship, Era, wintered in Fullerton Harbour (near Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut) in 1903–1904. Low likely consulted with Teseuke who may have enlisted others to assist with Low’s research.

Although this journal is an extensive study of the sentence structure and grammar of Inuktitut, it also sheds light on Inuit culture. You’ll notice that verbs have no masculine or feminine forms or gender pronouns. This relates to the practice of naming children, as traditional Inuit names are unisex. And this is tied to the somewhat intricate practice of creating sauniq (namesake) relationships. For example, if a boy was named after a deceased woman with children, those children would address the boy as “my mother” or “my little mother” to acknowledge that special relationship. Bonds are often formed between people who are not related. It’s a lovely way of creating a strong sense of belonging and strengthening interconnectedness within a community. Inuit believe some of the unique characteristics of someone who has passed can live on in their namesake. Of course, love is the tie that binds these concepts.

Black-and-white photo of a ship surrounded by snow and ice, with people next to it building a snow shelter.

The expedition ship Neptune in its winter quarters at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay, Northwest Territories. (a053569)

I can’t help but wonder what Low’s fascination was with this particular word. With varied interests including geology, botany, photography, and hockey, he leaves the impression of an educated man with a curious mind. Was it curiosity alone that fed his hunger to know the nature of Inuit love? Despite the study of Inuktitut words related to Christianity, he was familiar with the Inuit traditional practice of polygamy. In Cruise of the Neptune, Low defends the custom, calling it a mistake for missionaries to attempt to abolish the practice. All of this paints a picture of a liberal-minded man and an early ally of Inuit. No personal writing or correspondence by Low has survived. Therefore, we will never truly know what inspired his fascination with Inuit culture and its many expressions of love.

Black-and-white photo of a woman sewing skin boots, while a child plays with her braids.

Rosie Iggi, also called Niakrok (left), and Kablu (right). Kablu is sewing kamiks (boots), and Niakrok is playing with Kablu’s braids. Photograph by Richard Harrington, 1950. (a147246)

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 content and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Heather Campbell is a researcher for the We Are Here: Sharing Stories project at Library and Archives Canada.

Inuit women and seals: a relationship like no other

By Julie Dobbin

Seals are a central part of life and an essential source of locally-harvested food for Inuit peoples. Many traditions, customs, beliefs and oral histories revolve around the seal. Inuit peoples were and still are in an important and direct relationship with this animal. Inuit hunters have great respect for the spirit of the seal, an animal that is so heavily relied upon. Every single part of the seal is used, as the harvesting must be sustainable, humane and respectful. Most importantly, cold and harsh arctic climates demand that people have the right shelter and clothing to keep warm and dry, and seals help meet this need through their skins, fur and oil.

Black-and-white photograph of an Inuit woman inside an igloo wearing a floral print parka and tending a seal oil lamp, with a young Inuit child wearing a fur parka.

Woman tending a seal-oil lamp inside an igloo, Western Arctic, probably Nunavut, 1949 (MIKAN 3202745)

Inuit women developed highly skilled techniques in order to treat and use seal in various ways throughout the seasons. They scraped the skins clean of blubber with an ulu (a traditional, women’s knife with a crescent-shaped blade) then stretched and dried them, as seen in this photograph of Taktu.

A colour photograph of an Inuit woman wearing a red cloth jacket, crouching on a rocky coastline and scraping fat from a seal skin with an ulu (a woman’s knife).

Taktu cleaning fat from a seal skin, Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut, summer 1960 (MIKAN 4324316)

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