A Lovely Freedom We Have…

The following is an excerpted version of a Q&A between TAG ED Miko Lee and Teaching Artist Holly Mititquq Nordlum. To listen to the full audio, use the player below.


A headshot photo of Holly Nordlum Naniq
Holly Nordlum Naniq. Photo by Michael Conti photography.

Miko: We do this monthly blog called “Insight/Incite” with both vision and let’s make a ruckus. This idea that teaching artists are transformational. What we do is to make change. So with that in mind, do you personally identify as a teaching artist?

Holly: I guess with that in mind, I do.

Miko: Our definition of teaching artists is really broad and absolutely includes cultural practitioners and people that are about passing on their knowledge.

Holly: Yeah, I guess the word teaching is just intimidating, but I guess if you asked anyone I work with, they would say that. Yeah, I teach.

Miko: So much of your work is about passing your knowledge on. I know you do so many different art forms.  You’re a printmaker, a painter, an activist, a filmmaker, traditional tattoo artist and sculptor. Can you talk about how those art forms intersect with each other?

Holly: I think as a native, indigenous artist, it’s more the idea that drives lots of us. Like it isn’t necessarily the medium or what we’re trained to do. I’m working with ideas like racism or women’s rights or healing. A lot of my work has to do with healing.  In that case, It’s what drives what I use. So the medium is secondary to what I’m trying to do.  I think as native artists and indigenous artists, we’re lucky that way. Cause Western tradition in arts was more of a master of the medium, and we don’t have to worry about that so much. And I think that’s a lovely freedom we have.

Miko: I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit more about how your culture guides your artistic practice.

Holly: I would say it’s everything in my life really. Although I live in the city and I have kids and they go to school, what’s most important to me is helping my community and that’s being indigenous, right?  That’s just being a good indigenous person is thinking about community before you’re thinking about how you benefit. Sometimes I do force myself to think if the impact made in these situations going to benefit me as well as the people I’m trying to help, like I want it to be equal, and I think lots of us indigenous artists do this. We give more than we’re getting. And that’s just being a good person. My culture really determines everything in how I approach the world with arts with life.

Miko: With that in mind, how do you look about passing the knowledge on, whether it’s to the next generation or to people that are not Inuit? What are your thoughts around just passing on the knowledge that you have with your artistry?

Holly: It’s so interesting.  So now I’m thinking about teaching and that’s really all we do all day, right? Like even in the line at the coffee shop, whether it’s a native or non-native person. If they’re curious and respectful. That’s what I do is teach. And even if they don’t ask me, they can look online like I’ve made sure that they can Google it and find information about my markings or about our culture. With tattooing, that’s such a, in their face kind of a reminder that we’re here. It’s so interesting. Cause, we’re in the midst of the elections, the local elections as well. I just have such a hard time up here in Alaska. It’s a Republican state, which is so against what indigenous people believe. it’s so frustrating to me. All the advertisements I hear are to the people who are really opportunists here. You understand you’re in Hawaii. It’s the same.

A photo of Jody Potts talking during a presentation in Hawaii. Sarah Whalen-Lunn, and Holly Nordlum Naniq are shown sitting to the right of Jody, listening.
(Left to Right) Jody Potts, Sarah Whalen-Lunn, and Holly Nordlum Naniq presenting in Hawaii. Photo by Michael Conti photography.

Miko Yep.

Holly: I just find it unbelievably frustrating and arrogant of an opportunist, which is what I’m calling the other now “opportunist”. Cause they only come up here for opportunity, to take our resources. They’re not invested in our future

Miko: Let’s talk a little bit about cultural appropriation. Has there been a time that somebody came up and asked you a question or to you about your tattoos or about your artistic self that you thought was offensive?

Holly: Ah, yes.

Miko: Before you said a person can respectfully ask and then, you could choose to teach about that. Talk to me about the difference between a respectful way and a disrespectful way.

Holly: I’m a friendly person and I want to be nice to people, but I can tell, and I think the markings have helped me with that. I can tell when somebody is coming at it with an open heart and wants to know, or if they’re judging just by the way they approach me, like even the way they phrase the question. “So what’s this all about?” I don’t answer those or if I do, I say something very short, “Yeah, they’re my tribal markings.” That’s all I say. I don’t give them any in depth knowledge or if they’re really rude, I say, “Google it” and I walk away. I can always tell by the demeanor of the person, if I really want to answer or not.

Miko: Do most people come up and ask respectfully to talk with you about it?

Holly: No, I would say, it’s getting better, here in Alaska, we’re doing a lot of educating. I’m on the news all the time here and I’ve done promotional stuff.  We do a lot of work to get the knowledge out there. So it’s getting better here. But initially it was, I would say it was 50/50, and now it’s getting better.  Before COVID we were tattooing, five to 15 people a month. There are facial tattoos, so it’s become more prominent.  They do have to just get used to it.

Miko: This brings up your upcoming documentary, which is really focused on the ancient tattoo thread art form. Can you share with us a bit more about the film?

Holly: We’re finished filming, but we need to edit.

Miko: Can you just talk with our folks about what the film is about and why you thought it was important to make it?

Holly: We got an NPR interview that went national. And then, we got all these Inuit women from all over the United States, like Nashville and Texas, and who are displaced and, We got so much and all of the same questions: What do they mean?  How do I get them?  I just had an epiphany one night and thought, I’ve done some film, let’s do a documentary so we can educate people so we’re not answering the same questions over and over. So it was just my filmmaker friend, and me and we were just going to do it. Just a silly little thing, but then, I met with the local funder here, Siri foundation, who funds artwork for native people. And, she referred me to Sundance and got me in touch with Bird Running Water. I got a Time Warner fellowship in 2016 and it took my little film idea and then funded it. 

We’ve been working on this film to educate. We’ve been all over Greenland, Canada, Hawaii, New Zealand, spreading education, but also learning. We filmed all of it.  The idea is to bring indigenous people together in something we all share in – tattooing. And then the struggles, like in the beginning, how I was constantly getting negative feedback. How is society’s reaction? We’ve recorded it. Now what that end film is going to look like is of course another, another big project that’s a little intimidating and which is why we haven’t done anything over this COVID time.

A photo of 8 tattoo artists seated onstage during a presentation.
A group of tattoo artists presenting in Kohala, November 2019. Photo by Michael Conti photography.

 Miko: Talk to me about the film that you were a producer on – ADA Blackjack?  How did you get connected with that?

Holly: I was working on Heart of the Land, a suicide prevention video, I’m very proud of it, but some of my frustrations in working with, DC money. It was for SAMSHA, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Some of my frustrations in that process determined and is determining how I look at film making now. During that project, the Anna Blackjack story, which a lot of us know here in Alaska, and I had read about her early, in my twenties, is a story that filmmakers here were interested in.  I committed to helping produce that when I was working with those same guys, on the suicide prevention video.  I helped cast it. In the beginning I did almost everything, trying to get it together.

I’m glad we tried it out. It’s pretty, I don’t think it tells the entire amazing story and I think there could be a lot more done. If I were to do it again, I would want it with an indigenous crew and an indigenous point of view, because I just don’t think there are things like when you watch the, suicide prevention video, I fought for things that I knew were right and would connect to my people because I’m trying to save lives, but I fear, and this is filmmaking in general, not necessarily who I work with. 

That filmmaking for a lot of people is about money and funding. And it isn’t for me; it’s really about saving my family, my loved ones, and my community’s lives. And when you watch that video, I had to fight for months for a lot of the little details. And I don’t think I want to do that anymore with filmmaking. I want indigenous crews. I want things that are written by indigenous people. I will, I just don’t want to waste my time anymore, hearing it from a different point of view. That’s why I appreciate when, When, it’s an indigenous filmmaker because it’s from our own point of view and whether they know it or not, the rest of the film industry, they don’t see it.  They’ll never see it and they’ll never be able to portray it for sure. But, that’s something I’ve learned just working in film.

Miko: Do you feel like right now with the movement that’s happening around black lives matter and around rethinking curriculum and recognizing indigenous people more; do you feel like that is changing right now? Are we in a time that is changing or do you think it’s lip service and we’re just, it’s a little bump in the road?

Holly: I have a tendency to be, both positive, but then really careful. I think this is an opportunity.  Everything that’s happening now is an opportunity, which I’m willing to voice my opinion now, it’s giving me the opportunity to voice what I really think hasn’t really happened before. And I think that’s important.  I think that can change things because we all have that opportunity, as indigenous people and people of color, to hold people accountable for how they’ve treated us, this is how we were treated. This wasn’t 500 years ago. This is right now.  To be able to say that, which we haven’t been able to say, we’ve been just surviving in this crazy. Even before the pandemic, it was crazy, right? Like the politics of the United States, it’s fricking nuts. Like how is this happening to us? So I’ve looked at it carefully because I do think it’s going to take a lot more fighting.  In my optimistic view this is our time to speak about these issues.  I don’t have to work with non-native filmmakers if I don’t want to, I can say “no”.  I have said “no”. The ADA project will be my last project. I will be willing to compromise.

Miko: I would love to see your version of the story

Holly: I would so love that, I would love to get six female indigenous filmmakers to make portions of the story and link them up.

Miko: Do it!

Holly: I would love that because there’s so much to tell. There’s so much to tell with her story.

Miko: for the audience that may not know her amazing story, what does she represent to you? What do you want to pass on to other people about her?

Holly: So she was a woman from 1921. Alaska didn’t become a state until 1950.So this is way before statehood, right? We’re talking, Nome is a gold town back then and that’s where she was. And almost Juana is next to the village. I grew up in, very far above the, near the Arctic Circle. She was married and had a child.  Then, her husband left her. He was native and he didn’t make a lot of money. Her son ended up with tuberculosis, but she had to take a job and leave her son. She was trying to figure out a way to survive and she took this job with the sailors who were going to Wrangell Island, which is above Russia, just out in the middle of the ocean. The expedition was funded by a guy who seemed legit at first. He got them all up there, dropped them off and they were supposed to come back in six months and pick them up. He lost funding for the ship for the crew and he left him there for two years.  By the time they went back, she was the last survivor, everybody, the four white men that she was sent with died for different reasons, but parts of the story are really disturbing. Those are the things that fascinate me about that story.

She got a lot of press on the way back. She was indigenous, but grew up in the town of Nome. So really didn’t know, she learned and part of the story that fascinates me is that it was in her DNA. It was in her genes, how to survive in that climate. She was living in the town. She wasn’t out on the Tundra trying to survive. Wrangell Island was way out there. There’s nothing on the Island, there’s no contact. So she had to figure out how to pull a bear hunts and she maybe weighed a hundred pounds. Like it was just an impressive story of survival.

Miko: Okay. I really want the indigenous women’s version of that story told in five parts of different perspectives.

Holly: I so want to do that. What would be really cool too is everything’s different. Every filmmaker cast their own. So you really get a point of view of that filmmaker, and what it looked like in their eyes. I just think that would be the coolest kind of film.

Miko: Love that. So much that you’re talking about is the importance for each of us to tell our own stories, instead of having other people tell our stories for us.

Holly: Exactly. Because the subtlety is lost. It’s just like academia, right? I’m going to get you started like I did with politics, but academia is the same. They take something vast like culture and they. They simplify it for the masses, right? Like they simplify. So then what’s taught to the average person, is this little snippet of. What used to be our culture and what if that person they’re teaching is somebody who had to go, was adopted out or had to go through boarding schools. So they’re learning their culture from that dumbed down version of culture. It’s heartbreaking. And it is why we need to tell our own stories and write our own stories and tell about our own struggles.

Miko: given what you just said? What do you think is a common misconception about your culture?

Holly: Oh, I love that question. I think the thing that I’m fighting against almost every day is the E word, the Eskimo word.  It’s so interesting to me because that’s what people around the U S call us. And it’s not who we are. It was a name given to us. We’re into it. We’re in you back. We are, we had a name for ourselves and although, it’s become like the N word right where, like my mom’s generation, that’s what they use. They were all raised at boarding school, so I don’t fault them for saying they can call us whatever they want, but it’s when the outsider calls us the word that I can. I have to correct.  Then I have to do the little spiel about why that’s not who we are. We’re not raw meat eaters. That isn’t the whole totality of our culture. We have a beautiful complex culture. That, again, you’ve dumbed down to this “E” word.

Miko: Thank you for that. I love your passionate response. So does your artistry counteract that misconception of the “e” word?

Holly: I’m hoping with everything that I do. I’m talking about issues in our community, but I’m also talking about this beautiful stuff, like traditional tattooing. That was the accomplishment of the person getting the tattoo in their family in their group is part of the culture. That’s in direct opposition to this “e” word idea, right? Owning who we are and then representing it as we walk forward. I feel like all my work, even the stuff that’s just pretty is showing a complexity of who I am as a person. I’m not this simple dumbed down version. I’m complex, like you are, like everybody is. I think that, the opportunists, they think of us, the other as the other, and think of us as simple people, but we’re not simple people. We’re complex and we’re just like them.

Miko: is “opportunist” your word? Is that a word used by others?

Holly: It’s just me, but it’s gonna catch on

Miko: you do so many different art forms and earlier you’re talking about how they intersected with each other?  I’m just wondering if you feel like each of those art forms reach people in a different way.

Holly: I think about that all the time, because, I always wonder, what am I trying to do? Why am I doing this piece and what am I trying to do if I’m really trying to educate other people and us? We have to re educate ourselves as well.  Is this an artwork in some gallery that a small group of people is going to see going to do it? And I think not. And that’s why I got into filmmaking is because I wanted to reach more of our own people, but also other people.  Even YouTube videos, there’s some great movements going on with those kind of short format, film, video music, things that I just love. And I think that’s the way to reach our next generation, their attention span is like I’m nanosecond. So that’s how we’re going to teach the next generation in this time of social media. And. one-minute videos and memes.

Miko: You’ve got to create some “E” word means. That would be interesting.

Holly: I know I was to, Yes. I’m always thinking about T-shirts. I do graphic design, for regular pay and I’m like, I gotta do t-shirts and we can do signage. I have this idea that I really want to work on about “appropriators”, like multi-attacks on the indigenous side of appropriators.

Miko: Love that. Actually one of the other people that’s writing for this episode is doing a whole thing about museum cultural appropriation of native experiences.

Holly: Yeah, exactly.  It’s a constant thing. I could go on and on about museums too, because the way they’re set up is to appropriate. They want to profit from our cultures. And how do they do that? Except to appropriate and misrepresent.

Miko: this is my last question.  I’m really curious about the audiences that you are interested in reaching because there’s the next generation of native folks that I imagine is in your immediate community.  Then there’s a broader “opportunist” community in terms of the people that might come up to you in a coffee shop, And ask questions and then the meme or YouTube community, which could be anywhere in any part of the world. Do you have a particular audience that’s most important, in your heart to reach.

Holly: Yes, I skip over teaching out outsiders because I need; I feel the need, to teach our own people. We’re the ones with the numbers that are atrocious, like suicide, incarceration.  Indigenous people are flailing.  It’s a hard time and it’s always been hard, our own community indigenous, so indigenous communities are my focus always. And when I have, opportunity, to do something in London versus Kotzebue or gal Barrow, I will do the Alaskan stuff because, that’s my focus that’s why I want to educate and change some of the reason we’re where the, we’re the victims to racism is because we allow it and, We can fight that and we can tell our kids to fight that. We can tell our generation the next generation and even elders. It’s so interesting. My mom was raised at a boarding school, Catholic boarding school.  With me doing all this work and speaking about it all the time, I’ve really seen a change in her.   That’s amazing met an elder, she’s 78 that she’s changing her worldviews as we’re going along. It’s for all of us. Sometimes, you get these offers to do something in New York and it sounds so exciting, but I have to step back and think, who, what am I doing? What is my goal here and it’s really to educate and help my own people.  I did take the New York trip, but I worked around and, service my own community first, I gave to my own community before I allowed myself to do something like that.

Miko: Thank you. That is so beautiful. Is there anything else you want to add about your teaching practice?

Holly: I love this. I love that we got to meet.

Miko I’m in awe of your work.  I’d love to see the suicide video and if that’s something that I

Holly: very Inupiat and very Alaska, and there are other cultures in it, Alaskan native cultures.  I think it really relates to everybody, but it’s you can tell it’s really Alaskan him.

Miko: Thank you, Holly, for the work that you’re doing, I really appreciate it learning about, and your website is beautiful with all of your information. I’m a big supporter of that. ADA black Jack story. You gotta make that film because we know that powerful women are the ones that survive.

Holly: It makes me think ADA, although an amazing story, there are thousands of stories like that, thousands of women, even contemporary women who are making it through times that other people can’t even fathom. I think there’s so much to tell there. To listen to the full conversation between Miko & Holly, use the player below.


A woman stands with visible tattoos on her arms, while another sits in the background getting tattooed.
Holly Nordlum Naniq tattoos her cousins in Greenland