Traditional tattooing offered by Kwanlin Dün citizen part of cultural revival

Anne Spice taps into tradition with hand-poked tattoos

A drop of ink on the end of needle at a time, stories are told, identity is forged and perhaps wounds are healed just as the skin is broken. These are some of the goals as Anne Spice, a Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) citizen now living in Toronto, is in Whitehorse for the next month hand-poking tattoos for about 24 KDFN citizens.

Spice says that the tattoos she does without the assistance of the machinery found in most tattoo parlours are in the Tlingit style, but there is a similar form practiced along much of the Northwest coast of North America.

The tattoos, which Spice bears herself and inks onto others, include lines on the chin and temples, bands on wrists and forearms and a variety marks on fingers among other patterns.

She explained that traditional tattooing of this style is in a state of recovery. It was once outlawed by colonial authorities and Spice said the practice is being reconstructed based on what information not tainted by that colonial prejudice is available.

“There's not a lot of people who have living memory of tattooing and have seen tattoos before colonization, but it likely would have been used as a way to mark life transitions, things like coming of age, having children, becoming a warrior, the status of being a chief,” Spice said.

She said that Tlingit chiefs would have often had their clan crests inked on their chests, that women would have had clan markings on their hands and marks on their chins as a coming of age ritual.

“I think there was a lot of shame around a lot of our cultural practices, and especially forms of body modification that people saw as being backwards or sort of like part of sort of old ways,” Spice said of the suppression of traditional tattooing.

She added that the church cracked down on practices seen as pagan and that the banning of tattooing came alongside the suppression of other cultural practices like the potlatch.

“I think that there is still some lingering fear around these kinds of markings. They identify us as Indigenous people, and identify us in relation to other people, which is part of their function in the first place. But if that identification and that connection has been a source of violence, I can see why it would cause some discomfort, and I think that part of my work, and other tattoo practitioners that are trying to bring this practice back, part of our work is to help revive it as a healing practice. Help people find pride in that connection and not fear,” Spice said.

She says the pain that comes with the tattooing is part of the healing as it can help surface other pain that people may be trying to work with and through.

Spice said that before steel was available through trade to the area, tattooing tools would have been made of bone. In the past, inks would have been made from plant matter such as ash and devil’s club.

“It was either poked in, sort of rubbed into cuts made with like a blade, or sewn in. So there's skin stitch as well, which is something I don't practice, but other people in the area practice, which is sinew and bone needle, and then the sinew is dipped in ink and pulled through the skin,” Spice explained.

Spice pokes tattoos for people by hand with a needle fixed to a grip. She described the process of learning the method as “a lot of trial and error” which she began while at an Indigenous land occupation six years ago with refinements since.

Hand-poke tattooing is a slower process than tattooing with the aid of a machine. Spice compared it to the repetitive work of beading and weaving. For this reason, designs must be simpler.

“I talk to people about that first, and then we talk about sort of symbols and other things that have been calling to them. Some people see the tattoo on themselves right away. They can describe to me clearly what it is they're looking for. Some people have a dream or something that symbol comes up in or they see themselves with a tattoo,” she said.

Spice, who works as an anthropology professor in Toronto, situated the revival of Indigenous tattooing in the Yukon and surrounding areas among similar rediscovery by Indigenous peoples around the world. She said Maori people and Pacific Islanders were at the forefront of this.

“There's more and more conversations that are happening amongst different nations that have these practices about what it's meant to revive it, and so, yeah, some places are a little bit further along that path than others, and I think that we're getting there here, but there's other people that have done a lot of that work already over the last few decades.”

Among those receiving a tattoo from Spice was Olivia Gatensby.

Gatensby described hearing of the opportunity and being struck by the description Spice wrote and the descriptions of the tattooing as a chance to connect with traditions.

Spice and Gatensby settled on bands and circles for both of Gatensby’s hands.

Ahead of the tattooing, Gatensby described feeling nervous, with only one machine-poked tattoo already and nothing on her hands. Once the session began, she described it as less painful than the “rapid-fire machine” she had been tattooed by previously.

Contact Jim Elliot at [email protected]

Jim Elliot

About the Author: Jim Elliot

I’m a B.C. transplant here in Whitehorse at The News telling stories about the Yukon's people, environment, and culture.
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