COVER IMAGE: Michael Galban (Washoe-Mono Lake Paiute) tattooing Kanentokon Hemlock (Mohawk). Photo courtesy of the artist.
*Article originally published in First American Art Magazine 13:31-37. Winter Issue 2016/17. Revised May 2018.
THE SENECA ART AND CULTURE CENTER AT GANONDAGAN State Historical Site is the location of a 17th-century Indigenous town near Victor, New York. In its heyday, this Haudenosaunee community was a large one by local standards, with a population of some 4,000 people living in approximately 150 bark longhouses.
In summer 2009, a small group of historical reenactors led by Ganondagan public historian and curator Michael Galban (Washoe-Mono Lake Paiute) recreated the 1669 visit to the settlement by French explorer René-Robert Cavalier, sieur de La Salle. Dressed in authentic 17th-century clothing, reenactors representing Haudenosaunee villagers and colonial settlers, Jesuit priests, and Dutch traders converged on the site to present the most historically accurate reenactment ever attempted of the visitation.
Two special visitors attended the event. One was Isaac Walters of Wisconsin. For nearly a decade, Walters has been creating tattooing tools based on Indigenous implements located in museum collections from the Great Lakes region. With his tattooing kit in hand, he applies tattoos for clients who are especially interested in experiencing traditional methods, like hand-poking. Another attendee was Alan White. White is Cayuga and a member of the Bear Clan, a medicine clan. He is descended from a long line of healers.
At one point during the reenactment, Galban began speaking with White about Haudenosaunee tattooing. He explained that Iroquoian people hand-poked tattoos on specific points on the body for the relief of arthritic pain, headaches, and toothaches. After hearing this, White became very interested in acquiring his own therapeutic tattoo because of the severe migraine headaches that plagued him.
By this time, daylight had faded to dusk and a heavy darkness fell upon Ganondagan. Galban summoned Walters and asked him if he would tattoo a Thunderbird figure on White’s forehead. He agreed, and the small party retreated to the confines of the replica barkhouse located at the site. “The mood was very spirited,” Galban says, “and people just couldn’t believe what was happening.” Under candlelight, Walters carefully hand-poked the figure into White’s glowing flesh. Walters worked quickly, and White remained still throughout the entire process. Galban recollected the scene: “Once the tattoo was completed, everyone lit their pipes. There was a real density to the moment that is hard to describe. I felt like all the ancestors who lived at Ganondagan were there. It was a powerful moment for me, and I know it was profound for everyone who witnessed it. It was the first tattoo done on a Cayuga in the traditional technique for medicinal purposes in over 300 years. And Alan said he has not suffered a migraine since receiving the tattoo at Ganondagan.”
Therapeutic tattooing was once practiced across much of Native North America. From Canada to California to the Arctic and beyond, these indelible treatments were believed to remedy a variety of complaints, including infertility, spiritual possession, neuralgia, joint pain, vision problems, paralysis, heart trouble, weak limbs, and lack of breast milk.1
But Native North American tattoos had other functions. They reflected social status, documented martial achievement, channeled or directed supernatural forces, communicated lineage and group affiliation, and celebrated cultural pride and ancestral heritage, among other things.
“Indeed, tattooing was practiced by almost every Indigenous nation across Canada and the United States for these and other reasons,” says Nlaka’pamux tattoo artist Dion Kaszas of Salmon Arm, British Columbia. “And the revival of cultural tattooing here has become a medium of reclaiming our Indigenous identities and even our bodies from the colonial machinery which sought to divide us, control us, and wipe us out,” he says.
For Kaszas, a personal tragedy inspired him to start tattooing in the old way. In 2010 he was working as a kickboxing instructor in British Columbia and mentoring a promising young man. “I suspected he had Indigenous heritage and asked him about it, to which he replied, ‘No.’ But I knew he had Cree roots. A short time after this conversation, he tragically took his own life. This weighed heavily on my heart, and as I sat at his funeral I decided I needed to find a way to help Indigenous people become proud of who they are…an anchor to reconnect them to their ancestors and cultural heritage. And this is when my tattoo revival movement was born.”
At first, Kaszas looked toward the tattoo cultures of the Polynesia for guidance. “Inspiration and courage came from the voices, practices, and journeys of the many Pacific Island tattoo artists and cultural practitioners. Even though I had not met many of the people I considered my mentors and teachers in person, it was their work and their courage that lead me to my revival efforts. And I was particularly drawn to something one Maori tattoo bearer said: ‘Moko [tattoo] inscribes your soul, it uplifts your senses, and it changes you forever. It is the ultimate engagement of oneself with one’s body, because it cannot be removed.’”
Kaszas has relearned the tattooing techniques of his Nlaka’pamux ancestors – hand-poking and skin-stitching. One of his recent clients is Nêhiyawahk (Cree) educator Carla Wells-Listener of Maskwacis, Alberta. For 20 years she was drawn to a historical portrait of a Cree woman with traditional facial tattoos, and when she found Kaszas she wanted to bring these tattoos to life. “I wanted an Indigenous person from Canada to make this tattoo. It has strengthened my tie to the ancestors and brought groundedness in my thoughts and energy. I send him many blessings for helping me to revive this ancient symbol of womanhood. And I’d love to see other Cree women sport the iskwew-asasow [women’s tattoo].”
Kaszas’ tattoo revival project has made great headway, and he says most of the response and interest has been from people of his generation. This past summer (2016), he developed and directed a four-week, residency style training program at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, to help fulfill the need for trained cultural tattoo artists who can serve their communities and nations. The training program included coursework in traditional tattoo techniques and tool manufacture, cultural and spiritual safety, and a certificate program in blood borne pathogens. It also provided a platform from which to inform participants in the meanings and functions of Indigenous tattoos.2 Graduates included visual artists Dean Hunt (Heiltsuk), Amy Malbeuf (Métis), Jordan Bennett (Mi’kmaw), and Jeneen Frei Njootli (Vuntut Gwitchin).
Up North in Alaska, former Miss Indian World Marjorie Tahbone (Iñupiaq-Kiowa) embarked on her own journey to reawaken the tattooing traditions of her Iñupiaq ancestors. “Skin stitching hasn’t been regularly practiced in Alaska for nearly one hundred years,” Tahbone reveals. “When tattooing was still a strong tradition, it was the most skilled seamstresses that performed the tattooing, because they would have the straightest lines with the most detail. I figured since I had been sewing since I was four, I would naturally pick up the ability to tattoo, and it turns out I did.”
Based in Nome, Alaska, Tahbone is one of only a very few Native Alaskan artists who has remastered the art of skin-stitching. In 2015, Filipino-American tattooist Elle Festin approached her after he had seen pictures of her facial tattoos on Facebook, tattoos that are hallmarks of womanhood and that signify a person is ready to start a family and be a working member of the community.
“Elle told me, ‘You need to become a traditional tattoo artist so you can revitalize something that’s been asleep far too long.’ So I jumped at the opportunity and flew down to his studio Spiritual Journey near Los Angeles and learned. At first I was scared to tattoo, because it is permanent and I would be delivering pain to that person. But I realized that this tradition has a purpose, and pain in our culture is part of life. In fact, tattooing helped prepare women for childbirth and other painful experiences in the harsh environment that we lived in.”
“Bringing back practices like skin-stitching helps us heal individually and as whole.” – Moriah Sallafie (Yup’ik)
During Tahbone’s visit with Festin, she also received her “birthing tattoos.” These are placed on the thighs, and meant for the next generation. “When the child enters this world, we want to ensure that the first thing they see is a thing of beauty, and they know they are entering a world full of love,” Tahbone explains.
After Tahbone received instruction, she practiced on her family members. She has completed many more tattoos at cultural events and conferences in Alaska and Nunavut (Canada),3 and also back at home in Nome.
In a recent tattooing session with Tahbone, Moriah Sallafie (Yup’ik) revealed that reviving Indigenous tattooing practices among Native Alaskans is significant, not only because it bolsters a sense of cultural pride but also for the reason that it is healing deep wounds inflicted upon Native Alaskan communities by outsiders. “We have suffered so many traumas as a result of colonization and assimilation,” says Sallafie. “The government and missionaries left absolutely no stone unturned when it came to dismantling our cultures and communities. We have lost so much, and in that sense we have so much left to learn. It’s both heartbreaking and exciting at the same time. Bringing back practices like skin-stitching helps us heal individually and as a whole.”
Technically speaking, plying human skin with needle and thread is a tedious undertaking and requires much skill and patience. When asked what the hardest part of being a traditional tattooist was, Tahbone replied: “I learned patience from skin-sewing and worked hard to create tight, perfect stitches. I knew if I made a mistake, though, I could take the stitch out and redo it. But with tattooing I am unable to do that. As a result, I have to put extra energy and patience into each stitch to make sure my lines are straight, and that makes it difficult. I also find it hard to design the tattoos because I believe in doing original work, but I also need to honor the unique patterns and designs our ancestors left for us. Inuit have been tattooing for thousands of years, and it is difficult to learn and understand all of the meanings and patterns. So I try to build from what I know and what knowledge I gather from elders and through study.”
For Tahbone, however, working as a tattoo artist also comes with certain cultural responsibilities. These obligations are self-imposed but she is committed to tattooing in the most respectful manner possible.
“Tattooing is so much more than lines on skin, because our tattoos have deep cultural meanings related to clans, families, spiritual beliefs, ceremonies, and legends,” she says. “My biggest challenge practicing tattooing today is trying to learn a tradition that is so very sacred in a respectful way that does no harm to our people. Cultural appropriation is something that is constantly on my mind, and I am trying to remain aware of our cultural values and our Inuit way of life as I tattoo.”
She continues, “Because it has been so long since tattooing was practiced, there is limited knowledge about it. That makes it challenging to learn and teach others about this tradition, especially in a way that is respectful to our culture and way of life. I have comfort knowing that my ancestors are with me and that I must always be aware of our cultural values so that I can stay on a path that is respectful, encouraging, and healing.”
Back in New York, I ask Galban why he believes it is important to educate all generations of Indigenous people about the meaning and history of Haudenosaunee tattoos through the programs at Ganondagan. He says, “I want to responsibly inform folks about what I have come to understand as the functions of these practices – not to drive the path of the practice, but to expose people to what we know about it, so that the future of the revival has a strong base to work from. For many, it’s simply about what looks cool, but the old designs aren’t simply about aesthetics. They are evocative of culture and worldview. In fact, the old tattoos were taboo for a long, long time.”
Indeed, many elder Haudenosaunee tribal members cautioned those who sought traditional symbols, because the patterns conveyed an ancestral tie or were highly personal or supernatural in nature. G. Peter Jemison (Heron Clan, Seneca), historic site manager of Ganondagan and Faithkeeper to the Cattaragus Seneca Nation, explains: “To reuse that, if you are not part that tradition, raises questions,” if not spiritual risks.4 But gradually over time, the reluctance to embrace these time-honored traditions faded. “It started with the very inquisitive Internet generation; questions about worldviews and the past were being asked and answered,” Galban explains. “Back in the 1990s, I began to ask some of the old folks about tattoos, and the answers I received were very conservative. I asked esteemed Onondaga elder Huron Miller about it. He was the one of the most informed Haudenosaunee I knew, and he flatly denied the tradition. For him, and his lifetime and even the lifetimes of his grandfathers, he was right. I had to reconcile this long absence of tradition with what I was discovering in the writings of the past.”
Then Galban began to collect his own Woodlands-style tattoos. And they raised awareness almost immediately.
“I remember getting stopped in my wife’s longhouse – she is Akwesasne Mohawk –during midwinter ceremonies mid-dance to talk about tattoo customs. People wanted to know. I began to have formal and informal discussions all around Haudenosaunee territory and even back in the late 1990s organized our Native American Dance and Music Festival around body modification! Some of our board members quit because they were opposed to the concept.”
Although Galban certainly did not discourage the tattoo revival, he refuses to take credit for jumpstarting it. But he is very interested what will happen to it in the near and distant future, especially since he handcrafts Haudenosaunee tattooing tools and uses them in his tattoo revival efforts.
“Originally, I just designed tattoos for people, and it takes a long time. I really spend a lot of time thinking of these people, what they do, what their role is in the local Haudenosaunee community, and how they see themselves. If I am going to tattoo someone I want it to feel right, Galban says.
“But yes,” he continues. “I think the more informed people are about the old practices, the better and more structured perhaps the practice will become. My hope is that the tattoo tradition returns to the rite of passage ceremonies, which exist in many Indigenous communities around the world today. If we can shift over the ‘warrior’ emblems of the past to our reality as modern Native people and return the power of distinction to them, I think it would extend the life of the revival and only bolster the already strong cultural identities that people have today.”
**To learn more about Dion, please watch this trailer for SKINDIGENOUS TV!
**To learn more about Marjorie, please watch this trailer for SKINDIGENOUS TV!
1 Lars Krutak, Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity (Arnhem: LM Publishers, 2014).
2 Kaszas posts regular updates about his various tattoo projects, research findings, and personal journey to help encourage other Indigenous peoples to reclaim their traditional tattooing practices via his websites www.indigenoustattooing.com and www.consumedbyink.com.
3 Tahbone was a 2016 participant at the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. For details about the project, please visit their Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/inuittattoorevitalization/).
4 Exhibition text panel from “Indian Ink: Iroquois and the Art of Tattoos,” Iroquois Museum, May 1 – November 30, 2013.