Though Nordlum works in several media, she is well known as a traditional tattoo artist. In 2015 she connected with and began learning from Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, a Greenlandic Inuk based in Copenhagen who works in traditional Inuit tattooing and trained as a Western tattoo artist. Jacobsen specializes in historical research and traditional tools. Nordlum worked with traditional healer and medical doctor Allison Kelliher to learn about Indigenous healing techniques, and she worked with Jake Scrivner, a professional Alaska tattoo artist, to train in health and safety procedures.
With funding support from the Anchorage Museum and Alaska Native Heritage Center, Nordlum created a program on an Inuit tattoo traditions and techniques named Tupik Mi to provide instruction to a small group of Inuit women from Jacobsen, Scrivner and Dr. Kelliher. Her hope was that participants would carry forward and rekindle Alaska Native tattoo traditions that were nearly lost: the program trained them to provide traditional markings and to find apprentices for making the work self-sustaining. During the program, Jacobsen gave Nordlum her first chin tattoo and made it similar to the design Nordlum’s great-grandmother had. Public events included lectures and a tattoo demonstration to educate visitors about the Inuit traditional technique of needle-poking by hand. Project documentation online includes Tupik Mi: Inuit Traditional Markings on Facebook, two short films by Michael Conti and a public presentation at the Anchorage Museum.
Over years of work, Nordlum has experienced how Inuit tattooing is a way to heal from generations of colonization by supporting cultural reclamation and Indigenous pride. “Our ancestors are a part of us, and they guide us,” Nordlum shared. “There is a connection to something bigger. I am made up of energy created by the people that came before me. That’s why I make the decisions I make, and I do what I do. When I am making art, I am always looking at where I am, and being an Iñupiaq person on Dena’ina land, and how I balance that.”
Nordlum pays close attention to the processes and communications generated from tattooing Indigenous women. “We are in this wonderful time when Native peoples are talking about the past,” Nordlum said. “People recently are openly talking about their past experiences—honestly and not sugar coating it. Talking about the trauma and recapturing our Native ways like tattooing and storytelling is an effective way to heal.” Self-care is important to Nordlum, making sure that who she works with is in the right space. “I bring the people I tattoo into my home and invite them as a part of my family,” she said. “We are reconnecting. We work together on where they are at in their lives, and this is very special.”
When giving people Inuit tattoos, Nordlum helps them understand the symbolism, cultural meanings and family connections within the line art. “When I am tattooing someone, I let them know that when it comes to sharing the stories and meaning behind the Inuit tattoos, it is up to them to teach their kids and grandkids about the stories and tattoos, to impart the knowledge about our traditions that had been nearly lost.”
And her work connects families. “I’ve had grandmothers with their kids come in for tattoos,” she says. “Now, I’ve seen even grandkids come in. There is something so powerful in that—to see healing now span generations.”
Richard Perry from Anchorage, Alaska, is Yup’ik and Gwich’in. He is a writer, journalist and photographer with a BA in Philosophy, Applied Ethics. He has regularly published articles and photos in Indian Country Today, First Alaskans magazine, and Alaska Business Monthly. In 2016, Perry completed a month-long artist residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. More recently, he has written a graphic novel called The Wildmen of Denali, which is currently in the process of being illustrated.
This article was funded in part by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
This story is part of the Alaska Spotlight. View more content from the Spotlight here.