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'I will accept it for all the women'
Hovak Johnston honoured with national Meritorious Service medal for Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project

Robin Grant
Northern News Services
Wednesday, July 26, 2017

When tattoo artist Hovak Johnston was in Ottawa to accept a Meritorious Service medal from the Governor General last month, she said she wasn't thinking about the achievement.

NNSL photograph

Hovak Johnston stands with Governor-General David Johnston during a special presentation on June 19 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. - photo courtesy of the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General

Instead, Johnston was thinking about the Indigenous women who would benefit from bringing back what is considered a lost symbol of Inuit women's heritage. The feat she was honoured for - the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project - does just that.

"It's really important that the women see us as being honoured at that high a level because the project is so important to them," she said. "For them to see that one person can make a difference with so much help from others."

Governor-General David Johnston pinned the Meritorious Service medal on Johnston during a special presentation on June 19 at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. She received the award alongside other several other notable Canadians, including Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, who was inducted to the Order of Canada.

She recalled her reaction when the Governor General's office called.

"At first, I was like, 'Is this a real person?'" she said. "(They) asked if I would accept the award. I was like, 'Yes of course.' . It was a great feeling. I was like, 'I will accept it for the women.'"

In total, 28 people were honoured for their work in raising awareness of indigenous issues, something she called an "amazing honour." She told Yellowknifer she made sure to sport a sealskin outfit for the occasion.

Since she was young, Johnston said she wanted to pursue the lost art of Inuit tattooing. It took her nine years before she said she felt comfortable enough to practise on other Inuit women and establish her project.

Last year, she brought the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project to Kugluktuk and in April, Johnston travelled to Ulukhaktok to tattoo women.

"We've tattooed over 80 Inuit women and done about 23 facial tattoos," she said. "The support and the trust that we got from the community members and also from the women was pretty amazing."

She said it wasn't long before the elders' pride in their facial tattoos became infectious.

"Every day that I was in the community you'd see a different young girl walking around with makeup with markings on themselves," she said. "The pride in their eyes even if it was just temporary, they had the same kind of pride in their eyes that you would see in the women that were being tattooed."

The effort to revive the tradition has been challenging. Johnston said she had to quit her job to focus on the project full-time, something she doesn't regret.

"It is so worth it to revive something that was so close to being lost," she said.

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