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With 3 bold marks, Indigenous women helped revive a once-banned tradition

Grete Bergman, left, and Sarah Whalen-Lunn at their StoryCorps recording in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2018.
Camila Kerwin
Grete Bergman, left, and Sarah Whalen-Lunn at their StoryCorps recording in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2018.

Grete Bergman had long wanted to get traditional facial markings, a practice for Indigenous women in Alaska that European settlers tried to extinguish.

But in 2016, Bergman became one of the first among the Gwich'in Nation — First Nations peoples whose homelands stretch from northeast Alaska to northwest Canada — to get tattooed, in a return to a centuries-old tradition.

"My dad would have hated it," Bergman said. "He would have looked at me and he would have said, 'What the hell you do that for?' "

Her Alaska Native father, she said, was beaten in school for speaking the Gwich'in language, "because being Native was the worst possible thing you could be."

"I didn't know anyone who had their traditional markings," Bergman said, "and every time I brought it up, I always got the same sort of 'This is taboo. We don't do this.' "

The practice is at least 10,000 years old, but — as with language, food and other Indigenous customs — the practice fell out of use following bans and taboos set by European colonizers in the 1900s.

So, when Bergman saw a design that she was drawn to, it felt like a calling from her ancestors to reconnect.

"They are strong lines, bold lines — no-fooling-around lines," Bergman, now 46, said.

Bergman went to see Inupiaq artist Sarah Whalen-Lunn, who she'd heard had just completed a yearlong training to learn the art of facial markings.

Traditional Alaskan Indigenous markings look like three lines — starting from below the bottom lip, drawn down the chin. The meanings and designs vary from one group to another and are specific to the traditions of each group, and the practice is often tied to a rite of passage or significant event.

Bergman was the first person Whalen-Lunn tattooed with the facial markings.

"When I came over to do your markings, I was nervous," said Whalen-Lunn, 43.

During the process, Bergman held hands with her daughter, who was 7 at the time.

"That moment was a changer for me," Whalen-Lunn said.

Bergman inspired her to get her own markings inked the following year.

"A lot of people are still scared," said Whalen-Lunn. "You all of a sudden became this pillar of strength to me."

The two women are carrying on the skin stitching tradition for their daughters — to show them it's OK to take pride in who you are, said Whalen-Lunn, who is a mother to three daughters.

"It's more than just your appearance. It changes the way that you carry yourself. And we're doing it so that our girls can," she said.

Bergman has two young girls of her own.

"I feel like I've given them something that my grandmother had taken away from her," she said.

Since Bergman got her Alaska Native markings, more and more women have come forward to participate in the practice.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jey Born and Aisha Turner.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jey Born
Aisha Turner

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