Story by Emilee Gilpin
Years ago, Nisga'a artist Nakkita Trimble started having recurring dreams of tattooing her grandmother’s portrait onto a bear hide. She said she felt her ancestors were sending her a message, calling her deeper into the work of Indigenous tattoo revitalization.
Daunted by the task and wanting to go about it in a good way, she organized a meeting with her community's Council of Elders — chiefs and matriarchs from the four Nisga’a villages near of the northwestern city of Terrace, B.C.. Trimble told them how serious she was about the work and showed them her credentials, which include professional certification and formal education in traditional northwest coast formline, carving and tool-making.
More importantly, Trimble asked them about their vision for the future of tattoo work in the community.
“When we started to talk about revitalizing cultural tattooing, elders started sharing oral stories. We talked about building the practice from the language — up," she said during a panel discussion at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Vancouver on June 8.
Before colonialism spread like smallpox across North America, traditional tattooing and body modification was used by different nations to express family lineage, clan crest, social rank, relationship to territory, hunting and fishing rights and more.
The new exhibition at Bill Reid gallery, called Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest, offers visitors a glimpse into the history of tattooing, piercing and personal adornment on the northwest coast.
Trimble's work will be featured there until January 2019, alongside four other contemporary Indigenous tattoo practitioners: Dion Kaszas of the Nlaka'pamux Nation, Dean Hunt of the Heiltsuk First Nation, Corey Bulpitt from the Haida Nation and Nahaan of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.
“My dream is that our tattoos are so normalized for my daughter, that she’ll just see them and know it once again," said Trimble.
In the Nisga'a language, Trimble's name means 'Speaking Through Art.'
“The Nisga’a have been on the Nass River since time immemorial,” she told guests at the June Stitching Ourselves Back Together symposium, where she joined her fellow tattoo artists in discussing challenges in the field of revitalization, such as cultural tattoo appropriation.
“What is now known in the art world as 'northwest art' and 'northwest coast formline' has always been a visual language for the Nisga’a — a language that informs belonging, territory, community and place,” she explained.
Formline is prominent design element of northwest coast art marked by continuous flowing lines, including ovoids, u-shapes, s-shapes.
The four Nisga'a villages today are Gingolx, Gitwinksihlkw, Laxgalts'ap and Gitlaxt'aamiks (formerly New Aiyansh), which all lie within 200 kilometers of Terrace. Time of contact for the Nisga’a was roughly in the 1850s, said Trimble. Gradually, as settlers seized control, they silenced Indigenous cultural practices.
The potlatch ban, which lasted between 1884 and 1951, was identified by Trimble and the other tattoo artists as among the most damaging colonial rules. The word 'potlatch' is a Chinook word used to generalize a ceremony central to political, cultural and spiritual governance. The ceremonies are used to redistribute wealth, affirm and recognize status, rank individuals, kin groups and clans, and establish claims to names, powers, and rights, among other things.
Tattooing and piercing forbidden
“Tattooing and piercing were among several ceremonies silenced,” Trimble added. “They knew it was our title to the land and they wanted to break that.”
When body-marking and modification was made illegal by outsiders, the Nisga’a hid their tattoos with metal, carving their crests onto their jewelry instead. Tattoos were traditionally used by her people to to express belonging and identity.
“It’s all written in the design,” she explained. “If you’re trained to read the language, you can see who someone is, who their chief is, what territory they come from, where their hunting, fishing and harvesting rights are and what it means to put it on a certain part of the body.”
Though tattooing and other ceremonial practices were forbidden, they were not forgotten.
The Nisg̱a’a word Ts'iksna'aks is used today to describe carved metal bracelets containing Nisg̱a’a crests, but was once the word for crests tattooed into the skin. Gihlee'e is a word used to describe embroidery today, Trimble learned, but the word roughly translates to sewing an image using a needle — skin-stich — one of the traditional tattoo methods she practices today.
Every tattoo has a story
At the Council of Elders meeting with her community, one of the elders told Trimble that her people used to make their ink from lava rock. More than 250 years ago, Trimble explained, there was a volcanic eruption in the Nass River, and the Nisga’a lost around 14,000 people to the disaster. She believes the spirit of her ancestors live on in those rocks.
“We would grind up the lava rock, mix it with liquid and tattoo into our skin,” said Trimble. “You’re open to that spirit world when you’re being tattooed.”
Following the symposium, Trimble and her fellow artists, Hunt, Bulpitt and Nahaan, returned to the Bill Reid gallery on June 9 to conduct a live tattooing session. Trimble received a salmonberry tattoo for her and her daughter, done in the hand-poke traditional style by Nahaan. Guests bore witness to the event as Nahaan and other Indigenous attendees sang songs, becoming a permanent part of Trimble's tattoo and story.
Throughout her research, relations and work, Trimble has been informed of strict protocol she must respect in her practice. The council of the elders did approve her revitalization work, but under certain conditions meant to protect and honour the tradition.
Trimble has tattooed a handful of her community members, including a man’s legs, so that when he dances, he doesn't need to wear his leggings. The tattoos became his permanent regalia.
"Right now we’re all learning, healing and working on different parts of what it really means to get these tattoos,” Trimble said. “But my dream is that our tattoos are so normalized for my daughter that she'll know who she is within that."
Nahaan's Indigenous lineage is of the Tlingit, Inupiaq of Alaska and Paiute of California. He practices ceremonial tattooing, wood carving, copper jewelry-making and painting, and designs custom regalia and tattoos.
During the tattoo symposium, Nahaan, who's based in Seattle, explained that in his culture, traditionally, only high-cast people — clan leaders and house masters — could receive tattoos, signifying specific lineages of leadership.
"We don't use the word 'chief' to address hereditary leaders as much as we use the words 'house master,'" Nahaan said. "In Łingít, the word for 'house master' is hít saatí. We had different leaders for different parts of our house and all of that relationality go into creating the experience of the tattoo."
Nahaan researched the traditional forms of tattooing in his culture and saw that his people practiced various methods of body modification that pre-date machine work.
“In the north, we practiced skin-stitch tattooing,” he said. “To the central areas, we have a blade on the end of a stick with a brush, and to the south, we have hand-poke tattoos.”
Nahaan asked some of his mentors and relatives from the coast if they could remember a time when crest and cultural tattooing was practiced ceremonially before the machine age. None of the people he spoke to recollected such a story.
“It’s wild to see how fragile these important parts of our culture are,” Nahaan said during the symposium's morning panel discussion, “and to know what it means to help bring it back.”
An act of activism
Nahaan has been a tattoo practitioner since 2009 — the same amount of time he has been learning his Tlingit language. He started with machine work, but does stick-poke and skin-stitch as well. Since he started, he has strictly done cultural tattoos, never “a next-ex husband’s name or an American flag,” he said.
One of the most important tattoos Nahaan completed was done for his late father.
His dad had a full-back tattoo of a "badass double-headed eagle," he explained, a tattoo that in many ways, inspired his own work. Later in his career, Nahaan got to tattoo his father’s chest with a Haida frog crest design that showed his Kaigani Haida father's lineage.
Nahaan has been a mentor for other Indigenous tattoo artists who want to offer cultural tattoos in their home communities. He wants to empower other Indigenous people to be proud of who they are and where they're from, and to "wear their cultural tattoos as if it were permanent regalia."
He said wearing traditional tattoos as permanent regalia is an act of activism as well as healing.
Corey Bulpitt always loved tattoos, so when he went home to Haida Gwaii in 1998, one of the first things he did was get a chest piece.
Bulpitt was adopted and separated from his parents when he was young, he shared during the symposium, but he always knew he was Haida. When he started to look through old photos of his Haida relatives, he found former high-ranking chiefs who wore intricate chest tattoos that marked their status and rank. Bulpitt's first tattoo, on his chest, was one of his own crests and was done by a friend on the island.
After his first tattoo, he apprenticed with renowned Haida carver Christian White for four years. In his training, he learned about what Haida pieces, designs and practices really mean, in their traditional use and identity. Bulpitt learned about tattooing practices as a regular part of the potlatch system and how some Haida tattooed entire bodies with their crests.
As Bulpitt did his own research, he learned that tattooing wasn’t just done by the previous generations, but dates back to the supernatural myth time of his people.
“Tattooing is an important part of identity,” Bulpitt said. “It's a way to wear our crests permanently and a link to our ancestors and community through the tattoos themselves.”
Inspiration from overseas
In 2004, Bulpitt travelled to New Zealand where the Maori Indigenous peoples have been revitalizing their traditional cultural tattoos for more than 25 years. The Maori, well-known for their moko (traditional face tattoos) have inspired Indigenous tattoo artists across the world, including Bulpitt.
In New Zealand, he learned about Maori tapping techniques, and soon after, he learned how to do hand-poke tattoos from one of his mentors, Nahaan.
“I got a tattoo from one of their artists,” he said. “It didn’t make any sense for me to get a Maori tattoo. I got one of my Haida crests, but in the Maori style.”
Tattooing is just one of many elements of his Haida culture that Bulpitt is working on bringing back, he said — so much was taken through residential schools, the potlatch ban and the intentional spread of smallpox, which decimated their population. Despite the attempt to eradicate traditional tattoo practices, even when they were forced to hide them, Bulpitt said the Haida honoured their markings with pride.
While other sacred pieces of art and culture were stolen, he explained, tattoos could never be taken. It's not that people didn't try or still don't try, he added — cultural appropriation is alive and well in societies not grounded in protocol that might prevent it.
At the opening night of the Body Language exhibition on Thurs. June 7, for example, a woman told Bulpitt she had one of his designs tattooed on her arm. Though he didn't say anything at the time, Bulpitt reflected on how the experience made him feel during the symposium.
"I don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable in their own skin," Bulpitt said, "But at the same time, it's like, you're coming to tell me this, but you didn't ask permission. I don't get a cent from it. You didn't approach me to ask my thoughts, you're just telling me you had it."
In his culture, Bulpitt said, you just don't do something like that.
The group spoke about cultural appropriation of Indigenous art, design and tattoos, and the harm that is often caused in cultures with differing protocol, values and traditions. They hope that their work in revitalization might serve as a form of education.
Dean Hunt is from the Eagle Clan of the Heiltsuk Nation in Waglisla (Bella Bella), in northwestern British Columbia. He's a visual artist, traditional tattoo practitioner and music producer.
Hunt, who identifies as “mainly a carver,” dove into the "tattoo world" when he was 28 years old, after receiving a few tattoos of his own, he said during the symposium.
His step-grandfather, a tattoo artist at home in Waglisla in the 50s and 60s, tattooed many of Hunt’s family members, and inspired Hunt to ask questions about what it would mean to revitalize traditional tattooing himself.
Hunt took the plunge in 2016, and enrolled at the Earthline Tattoo Collective in Kelowna, B.C., which supports traditional Indigenous tattoo artists through research, design development, awareness building and formal training programs.
After completing his training, Hunt said he became hyper-aware of the kinds of tattoos he put on his body, deciding from then on only to get designs that respectfully reflect his Heiltsuk culture.
Through research, Hunt learned that the Heiltsuk have a several words to describe tattoos and the process and tools used for creating them. He went to the Royal British Columbia Museum, and learned that the Heiltsuk not only tattooed, but practiced certain styles of scarification through the burning of the skin, he explained.
"Just to know that we had the word, we know we did the work," Hunt explained.
Hunt said he felt overwhelmed by how much there was to learn about the history and practice, and is still learning today.
Patience is a virtue
Traditional Heiltsuk tattoos have been sleeping for so long because of the potlatch ban and the spread of Christianity, said Hunt.
It is essential, he added, to be patient and take time to make sure he’s going about the work in a good way.
Part of Hunt's process meant going home to spend time with his family and community in Waglisla — a trip he made shortly after the symposium. On the northwest coast, Hunt got out on the water, fished and visited ancestral pictographs that date back over 14,000 years.
He's not the only artist to emerge from the Heiltsuk First Nation either. Others include Kc Riley, who has designed many cultural tattoos for community members, and whose work continues to gain more attention, as well as his cousin, Ian Reid, an artist who has done extensive research around cultural design work, he said.
Living on the Sunshine Coast, Hunt said, has started to feel like a process of gathering tools in preparation of going home for good. He wants to share his learnings with his ever-expanding community, he said, and always check-in on how to best proceed.
Dion Kaszas is a tattoo artist, cultural tattoo practitioner, painter, teacher, and scholar of Hungarian, Métis and Nlaka'pamux (Interior Salish) heritage.
Co-curator of the Body Language exhibit and co-founder of the Earthline Tattoo Collective, he said he has always loved tattoos, but is especially interested in Indigenous tattoo revival.
At the symposium, Kaszas said he remembered sitting in the waiting area of a tattoo parlour going through magazines full of “random pictures and designs,” when he found a booklet titled, Tattooing face and body painting of the Thompson Indians.
He said his head just about popped off upon learning that his ancestors had their own tattooing traditions, like the Maori and other Indigenous groups more known for their body markings. Thompson Indian is another description for the Nlaka’pamux, Kaszas explained.
In 2009, Kaszas began his professional tattoo apprenticeship. Shortly after, he started a master's degree in Indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia in the Okanagan. His research focuses on Indigenous tattoo revitalization. As he investigated the world of cultural tattoos, he said he was asked to reflect on how his work might contribute to the success and vitality of future generations.
He looked at the ways in which different cultures’ tattooing practices dealt with identity, pushed back against hegemonic beauty standards and provided a sense of place and purpose. Kaszas started to ask: What’s wrong with our identity? Why are we struggling so hard to find a sense of balance, in terms of who we are and where we’re from?
One of the foundational problems he found, Kaszas said, was the Doctrine of Discovery — when a Christian European country 'discovers' a land that contains non-Christian people, they claim sovereignty and rights over that land.
“That’s the first problem as to why some of us are struggling to figure out who we are in this land,” he said.
He noted the genocidal spread of diseases in Indigenous communities, the sexist Indian Act as a form of legislative violence, the residential school system and the potlatch ban. It’s important, Kaszas said, to recognize why Indigenous peoples are in the position to be reviving, rather than just living their cultural practices.
We want to be excited about breathing life into old ways, he said, but we need to understand why we're in the position to have to do so in the first place.
Kaszas quickly recognized the intimate link between cultural practices, including the significance of traditional tattoos, and a strong sense of place and identity. Without this, the youth of today struggle, he said. The answer to Kaszas' initial question of what he would do for the generations to come, arrived when his young friend decided to end his own life.
At the funeral, Kaszas saw the connection clearly.
“Anchoring our youth and our people in their identity is why we’re here," Kaszas said at the symposium. "My answer to the question about what I will do for the people to be is: the revival of Nlaka’pamux tattooing.”
Healing through ink
According to Kaszas, tattoo revitalization is medicine.
“We’re using the revival of Indigenous tattooing to not only gain a sense of our identity, but also to gain a sense of our right to fight for the rights we have under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people and in the Canadian constitution,” he said.
Kaszas co-founded the Earthline Tattoo Collective to support other artists with similar visions for the future of their practices, cultures and communities, and today, practices as a professional tattoo artist at Vertigo Tattoos and Body Piercing in Salmon Arm, B.C. in addition to completing his degree.
He was featured in APTN's Skindigenous — a TV show that features the artists on the frontline of traditional Indigenous tattoo revitalization.
During his Skindigenous interview, Kaszas spoke of his experience doing a hand-poke and skin-stitch tattoo for the first time, saying it felt like he had slipped through time and space, and come out with the knowledge his ancestors would have had in their own practices long ago.
Kaszas, Hunt, Bulpitt, Nahaan and Trimble have committed endless hours and energy into researching traditional art designs and practices, in order to bring them back to life. They have met with elders, collaborated with community members and checked in along the way, to make sure they uphold their cultural responsibilities, and have helped heal, strengthen and returned a sense of identity to other Indigenous people today. A glimpse into their work can be seen at the Body Language exhibit, but the spirit of what they do will be remembered for generations to come.