Savoonga artist to explore traditional Native tattoos

April 2, 2011 

Yaari Kingeekuk's face, hands and arms make a direct connection with her Siberian Yupik ancestors, and not just through DNA. Kingeekuk is a walking canvas of traditional tattoos that follow designs reaching back for centuries or more.

"You don't know how far the designs date back," she says. "It's like you're looking at a piece of history -- but it's on my skin."

On Thursday Kingeekuk will present a free public lecture at the Anchorage Museum, explaining some of that history and the meanings of the images that she wears.

Kingeekuk was born in 1968 and brought up in Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island, by her grandparents Jimmy and Mable Toolie.

"I was raised very traditionally," she says. "My professors were my elders."

She moved to Anchorage 13 years ago and has since worked in a variety of fields using traditional knowledge, in schools, with therapists, at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and on her own time. "I teach singing and dancing and how to butcher a seal," she says.

This week the topic will be those tattoos. Until the early 20th century, most Alaska Native women bore tattoos. The intricate designs of St. Lawrence Island, where the practice continued longer than on the mainland, were considered to be particularly complex and artistic.

"Tattoo artists were only women," Kingeekuk says, "because they took the precise time and they were very graceful with their hands. That's why they didn't allow men to do tattoos."

Historically the designs were sewn into the skin using a needle with sooted thread. But for her tattoos, Kingeekuk went to a parlor. It was a necessary concession to life in the big city in modern times. But she balked at referring to the electric tattoo gun-wielding technician as an artist.

"To my mind, he wasn't a professional professional," she says. "The art was already planned." Planned long before she was born. The tattoos present a kind of landscape involving culture, nature, time, family, community, personal accomplishments and world view.

"I have chin stripes, clan tattoos, tribal tattoos. They tell a lot of stories."

Those chin stripes, for example. "They mean I'm a mature woman. I have children." The single mom has six children of her own, in fact, plus one whom she's adopted.

The seven fluke shapes on her arms count the number of whales that her father caught during his lifetime.

"My hands tell you my clan, elders, meetings, storytellers, dancers, Native games, how the houses were arranged. They're almost like a village lifestyle story."

For Kingeekuk, it's a story that continues to be told and to grow. Having previously helped start a St. Lawrence Island dance group, she recently formed a new Native dance ensemble, Ikaghvik.

"The name means 'Cross over a Bridge,' " she says. "We all come from different backgrounds and learn from each other. I wanted other groups to join with us, especially teenagers. One of my goals is to help teenagers."

At a Yup'ik potluck held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center last month, Ikaghvik performed upwards of 20 different songs for the crowd, an impressive number of dances for a group that came together only recently. Kingeekuk drummed, danced or sang in every one of them.

Such hands-on involvement is the only way to pass on what she knows, she says. "You can't go to school to learn about how to learn life skills using traditional Native values. They just don't teach that. Not even in Alaska."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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