Katie Manomie’s hands are etched with thin black lines in simple, angled patterns. Traditional Inuit tattoos like this, often seen on hands and faces, are called tunniit. They are more than beatification or a desire to be different; they are a way of reclaiming the Inuit identity after the tattoos were banned by European settlers in the 20th century.
Manomie’s fingers work deftly, threading delicate, coloured beads along cuts of seal skin shipped down from Nunavut. She’s practising a traditional Indigenous artform called beading, which uses small beads, a needle and thread to create jewelry or decorate clothing.
Manomie wasn’t always so in tune with Inuit culture.
“As a kid, I always just told my classmates I was Hawaiian,” she says.
It was easier than telling the truth: that she was an Inuk girl given to a non-Inuit family as part of the tail-end of the ’60s Scoop.
The ‘60s Scoop refers to a government-led initiative to “scoop” Indigenous children from their cultures by removing them from their families and entering them into the country’s welfare system. A majority of the time, this meant placing the children in foster care or adopting them out to non-Indigenous families, often without consent or knowledge from the parents. While a majority of this happened in the 1960s, it ran in some form or another between 1951 to the early 1990s.
Manomie was born in 1987 in what is now Iqaluit. Her mother was very young and was strongly encouraged to partake in a custom of “gifting” her child to a family who could raise her.
A couple consisting of a Caucasian woman and an Inuk man who were living in the community at the time took Manomie. Soon afterwards, the couple split and the woman took Manomie – who was the youngest of six other “adopted” children – to the community of Sooke, the traditional territory of the T’Sou-ke First Nation.
“I wasn’t raised knowing any of my culture,” Manomie says. “My adoptive mom would say I’m Inuk, but I didn’t know what that meant. She didn’t even know my biological mom’s name.”
Regardless, Manmoie was called upon during social studies classes to speak on behalf of Inuit issues. She was called racialized slurs and felt ashamed of her heritage.
“I think I’m still trying to let go of that internalized racism,” she says.
When she was 17, Manomie’s adoptive mother abandoned her family to move to Russia, leaving Manomie homeless. She slept on friends’ couches for two years and got a job in the hospitality industry.
A reliance on alcohol she’d had since she was 13 soon formed into a full-fledged addiction that would last for over a decade.
It wasn’t until Manomie was in her late 20s that she first made contact with her biological family; one of her older adopted sisters who had moved back to Nunavut knew who Manomie’s mother, brother and maternal grandmother were.
“We formed a relationship over the phone. It was a little difficult because they don’t know much English, but it was still comforting to hear the Inuktitut language.”
Going north to visit simply wasn’t possible, since flights to the remote town were nearly $10,000.
In 2018, Manomie’s grandmother passed away, so she was granted bereavement travel from the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.
When she arrived in Kinngait (previously Cape Dorset), Manomie remembers hundreds of people waiting at the airport to welcome her and show her around.
“It was all a big blur,” she says. “My little cousin, who was four, looked at me and asked ‘why can’t she understand us? She looks like us.’”
A few years later, when the 2020 lockdowns closed down her workplaces, Manomie enrolled in the Indigenous Studies Program at Camosun College and found a safe space to learn about who she was and where she came from.
“Studying at Camosun made me want to reconnect with my Inuk identity … I didn’t even know how to introduce myself before I attended,” she says. “In our cohort, there were Indigenous people from so many different places, and we all were disconnected from our identity.”
One of the classes through the program was Indigenous arts, where Manomie was introduced to beading.
Picking up the needle and thread came so naturally, that soon Manomie began creating and selling jewelry.
“I would sometimes look at what I made and think ‘how am I doing this? I don’t even know what I’m doing.’”
Manomie’s grandmother was also a beader, and she believes the practice of beading is a way to connect to her.
“It’s like blood memory … I feel like my grandma is with me every time I bead, and that’s why I like it so much.”
Manomie has been sober for more than four years. She was voted the Indigenous director for the Camosun College Student Society, and this summer she graduated from Camosun College with a certificate in Indigenous Family Support and a diploma in Indigenous Studies. This fall she started at the University of Victoria in the Indigenous Studies degree program, with a goal of enrolling in UVic’s Indigenous Law Program.
“I don’t want to see Indigenous children treated the way I was while growing up … I just dream of a world where everybody can be kind to each other because there’s been so much in my life that hasn’t been so kind.”
Reconnecting with her Inuit identity has been a slow process. Much like beading, it took time, patience and some help from her ancestors. It’s an identity that’s still growing, slowly revealing something beautiful — one bead at a time.