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Indigenous Tattoo Gathering unites tradition, revitalization and reclamation

The Longhouse property of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory was the site of an Indigenous Tattoo Gathering August 21 – 24, 2021. Every day of the Gathering included all-day tattooing, while evening events included a social dance, a traditional fireball game, and a feast. The gathering ended the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 24, with an Indigenous hip hop concert at the Regent Theatre in Picton.

The gathering took place under a brilliant sky at the Longhouse property, where people were encouraged to camp rough and share in communal chores. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

The event was open to Indigenous Peoples from across Turtle Island and featured a number of skilled tattoo artists who use traditional techniques. Event organizer, Kanenhariyo Seth LeFort, in a video on the event website, explained, “We all have a culture that was lost because of colonization and residential schools and genocide. And so this is an opportunity for us to have a cultural exchange, and to learn from one another, and then to be able to embrace it and talk about that, about embracing symbols, identifying symbols with meaning and also developing new symbols, new practices, and analyzing old ones.”

There is the resurgence of Indigenous traditional tattooing that is vital to the revitalization, restoration and reclamation of Indigenous land, people and communities. It is a form of self-expression, and healing through expression and some tattoos are seen as medicine, according to those in attendance. The practice became severely diminished in the wake of colonization when it was treated with scorn, but for thousands of years, Indigenous Peoples and Nations practiced the traditional art of tattooing.

Attendees were encouraged to plan ahead for the meaning or purpose of the tattoo they intended to have done, to discuss it with the practitioner, and find a good fit between subject and artist. Stick and poke tattooing is non-electric. Instead, ink is applied to the skin by hand. Most of the artists first drew the design and then traced it with the tattoo pen.

Historically, according to Jesuit documents, Iroquois and Mahican tattoo designs were stencilled and poked with little bones until the blood flowed. Then, crushed charcoal or red cinnabar was rubbed into the open wounds. And nearly all designs were singular to the individual tattooed.

Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, or Brant, a Mohawk war chief with musket in hand. His belt is decorated with black, red, and white dyed moose hair or porcupine quills. His moccasins are decorated with red and tan quills and tied with red ribbons. He has downy white feathers by each ear, red ribbons hanging from his right ear, and has a powderhorn on a red cord. Behind him is a bear representing his clan. Painting by John Verelst, 1710 (public domain).

On the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 22, tattooing was ongoing, with many people from across North America gathering at the Longhouse property. Some were getting stick-and-poke tattoos, while others joined the gathering for social and community support and exchange. 

Chelsea Dowan, who identifies as Cree, travelled from Peterborough for tattooing. She planned to get a tulip-style flower tattoo because, “My mom does a lot of beadwork in that kind of style. So I kind of like that and then we’re looking at getting some Cree syllabics with it as well.”

Uthlxanica7, of the Sylix Nation in BC’s interior, played his drum and sang traditional songs while the artists worked. He talked with Kingstonist while another group of singers and drummers took over, explaining why he felt compelled to come.“I find myself at a time in my life where I am considered an elder, and so it is my job to share the knowledge I have obtained in my life,” he said explaining that travelling to gatherings such as this helps him and others “socially and to deal with intergenerational trauma.”

“I’m part of the ones that were taken underground in the 40s and 50s, my grandparents took me in. They told me I was born in the fall time of 1953.” Growing up, Uthlxanica7 said, he studied, “linguistics and how languages, including English, developed.”

Much of his education was self-directed. “In one way it was good, and in another way, it was very challenging, with contemporary society conflicting the majority of times,” he explained, “But I see a positive movement in the people exploring mental health and the state of the people.”

Uthlxanica7 relayed that it was his place at such gatherings to share knowledge of history, but also of learned wisdom. “As a Sylix of the Okanagan, I am aware of what is the problem. The problem is that the Earth is very sick. This is why the people are misbehaving,” he expressed.

Elder and knowledge sharer, Uthlxanica7, of the Sylix Nation, sharing his thoughts at the Indigenous Tattoo Gathering in Tyendinaga. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

“What we need to concern ourselves with, is to turn our thoughts toward the water. We seem to have forgotten that it was our first home inside our mother. It was there you signed a contract with the Creator being. So that’s what I have come to share and this is what I see people are looking for,” he said, noting that this knowledge pertains to all of us.

The gathering encompassed many social, spiritual, and healing practises, not least of which was the fact that there was no entry fee or charge for tattooing.  Kanehiryo explained, “Those people that are seeking to get healing and get medicine and get tattoos and want to learn and want to embrace that, what we’re telling everybody is the same thing: come here. Come here to this place, and pitch in, come and help. There’s no cost to come.”

An artist administers a stick-and-poke tattoo. Photos by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

“If you’re asking a traditional tattoo practitioner for medicine, you need to be respectful to them and you need to ask them if they’re willing, and if they have the time for what it is that you want from them in terms of tattoo. And then you need to come up with a plan and how you’re going to offer to them. And we need to not be cheap, there have been people for too long who have been taking advantage of our own people and they expect they’re going to give them everything,” he expressed. “We don’t do that to our people. We need to offer generosity to them. And you need to give him a little bit of money because we live with money, but our custom is the one who is buying is the one who’s setting the price.”

“Having a Tattoo Gathering is itself an act of cultural revitalization. Someone called me and said, ‘You should have put an entry fee on tattoos, there’s going to be so many people that will help pay for it.’ And that makes sense if you were trying to just mimic or mirror the mainstream way of doing things, but this is an Indigenous event. It’s not grant money. There’s no Indian Affairs money,” Kanehiryo explained. “So, we follow our custom, encouraging people to show their gratitude. Because what we were taught in our teachings was our responsibility here as human beings is to be thankful and to be grateful for everything that is here on Earth, and also amongst each other.”

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