Notable Quotable: Sarah Whalen-Lunn on the Healing Power of Indigenous Tattooing

By Carolyn Coons
Portrait of woman with short dark hair, her hand to her face, wearing a nose ring and earings, with facial tattoos near her eyes and chin and down her neck.

Tattoo artist Sarah Whalen-Lunn. Photo courtesy of the artist

I don’t think I know any Indigenous woman who has not been hurt, traumatized, abused, endured some massive form of trauma, either directly perpetuated against them or close family members. We all know someone in our immediate community, and there’s been a lot of shame. Throughout the past couple hundred years since colonization, there’s been a lot of shame in being an Indigenous woman and being an Indigenous person in general. I don’t mean to negate the men from that, and not to say that there weren’t men’s tattoos either, because as we go along, we’re finding more and more men’s tattoos as well, but not for the same meanings.

What we’ve found is the amount of pride and healing that wearing your traditional markings can do for you. When you’re out in the world and you don’t feel like you fit in, and you’re at the grocery store just trying to pick out some oranges and people are looking at you weird. Then you look over and you see another woman with her tavluġun. You don’t even have to say anything. You just look and smile at each other. Immediately you are sisters. It has helped so much with rebuilding that strength of self, and I like to say it throws a steel rod down the center of who you are. You really have to be sure of that to walk around the world wearing your traditional markings.

Traditional tattoo artist Sarah Whalen-Lunn (Iñupiaq) is very clear that while practicing her art form, she is acting as a vehicle for her ancestorsFor Whalen-Lunn, whose own mother was removed from her community at birth, the process of learning Inuit tattooing began a healing and reconnecting process that continues to this day. Funded in part by an Arts Endowment grant, she will travel to the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island for two weeks of events, including workshops on traditional, ceremonial tattoos in summer of 2022. Read our full interview with her in the American Artscape issue, Contemporary Culture: Equity and Access in the Arts for Native American Communities.