BLOG Ancestral Ink: Honoring Indigenous Tattoo Traditions

BLOG Ancestral Ink / Honoring Indigenous Tattoo Traditions


by Ginger Dunnill

Indigenous traditional tattooing has once again become a living culture and is playing a role in the re-indigenizing of native peoples throughout the world. The decision to wear a marking of the ancestors is a very personal one and comes with responsibility that requires proper guidance.

We believe the ink becomes the beginning of time. Before there was any light, there was darkness. The black ink can represent our own past and all the knowledge that past contains in a symbol. By displaying this on our body, we give life to our ancestors and the knowledge they have, so it becomes our guidelines in life, helping us to navigate towards our goals.”Ancestral Ink participating cultural practitioner Te Rangitu Netana (Nagpuhi, Ngati Wai & Te Arawa tribes of Aotearoa)

There are only a few indigenous masters left who carry the knowledge of their tattoo tradition. However, there are a number of young Indigenous tattoo practitioners who are committed in seeking out and researching knowledge from their elders and cultural bearers to relearn the practice of their tattoo tradition. Because of geographic distance and the small numbers of individuals working on the revitalization of their tattoo traditions, we believe it is time to provide a space for practitioners to come together and to share their cultural knowledge of tattooing with the community.

On Sunday, August 18th from 10am-4pm we are humbled to present the first ever Ancestral Ink: A Symposium Honoring Indigenous Tattoo Traditions. Co-produced by Kua’aina Associates and Broken Boxes Podcast, this symposium brings together Indigenous tattoo practitioners and culture bearers from the Pacific and North America who are the forerunners in the revival of traditional cultural practices. Ancestral Ink will provide an informative, engaging and inspiring forum to celebrate the resurgence and resilience of Indigenous peoples’ tattoo practices.

When I tattoo people, it gives them a sense of identity and strength. I am helping to revitalize the ancient tradition of Inuit tattooing,” says Ancestral Ink presenter Marjorie Tahbone (Inupiaq from Nome, Alaska) who is at the forefront of reawakening her culture’s ancient art form of tattooing using the traditional techniques of her people, “All of my tattoos have meaning that is deep to me and to my family. And that’s how all tattoos that I give are. Even though we’ve had tattooing since time immemorial, thousands and thousands of years, revitalizing it and bringing it back is still new. When the missionaries came and colonization started to happen, tattooing stopped. It’s been put to sleep for thousands of years.”

For thousands of years, Inuit people have marked themselves with tattoos. But a century ago, the tradition was nearly lost when missionaries came to Inuit communities and began colonizing. Marjorie reflects that “Coming in as a young Inupiaq woman, who am I to think that, I could do something that my ancestors did so many years ago. And when I asked the elders if it was okay to do this, they said ‘yes, but you need to be strong’. And now it’s reawakening this revitalization effort and I’ve dedicated my life to learning and perpetuating our culture for the betterment of our people and our youth and the next generation.

Ancestral Ink: A Symposium Honoring Indigenous Tattoo Traditions will provide the symposium participants with the opportunity to gain a better understanding of what traditional Indigenous tattooing is and the responsibility that it carries within a culture. The symposium also allows Indigenous tattoo practitioners and culture bearers a rare opportunity to share knowledge and to discover and experience the interconnections they have, resulting in a supportive and unifying bond to carry their practices forward into the future. In line with unifying Indigenous peoples and traditions, we would like to extend a special acknowledgement and gratitude to the Tewa people for welcoming Ancestral Ink onto their beautiful ancestral land.

Ancestral Ink programming will touch on topics such as the different regional tattooing traditions, methods and designs, cultural protocols associated with tattooing, personal responsibility in receiving a tattoo, issues around cultural appropriation, and the importance of safe tattooing practices.

I never set out to become a tattooist,” says Ancestral Ink presenter and master tattoo practitioner Keone Nunes (Native Hawaiian), “I want to perpetuate a cultural practice. This is my kuleana.” For Nunes, tattooing is not simply a surface adornment, it is an act of sovereignty.”We have gone too far and too long without hearing the sounds of the hahau hitting the moli, of that tapping. That sound has been void in our valleys and our beaches and in our lands for too long and I would never want that to happen again, because it is beautiful. That song of the tattoo is a song of our ancestors, that song of the tattoo is the whispers of our ancestors that come through the wind that you don’t really understand until you’ve actually seen and heard it.” For Nunes, like other practitioners of traditional Indigenous tattooing, the act of giving a tattoo is a physical and spiritual connection to their culture, to their people, to their land and to each other. Nunes proclaims, “Part of the reason why I feel it’s necessary to pass on this tattoo tradition is because when you undergo that process, there are very few things in this world that you can say ‘this is exactly how my ancestors felt hundreds or thousands of years ago’. I can honestly say that once you lay down on the mat and the tapping starts, you are transformed into someone else. You are transported to another time and you meet your ancestors who are happy that you now know what is real.”

Ancestral Ink: A Symposium Honoring Indigenous Tattoo Traditions will begin in the morning featuring ‘Tap Talk’ presentations by master tattoo practitioner Keone Nunes (Native Hawaiian), Te Rangitu Netanan (Nagpuhi, Ngati Wai & Te Arawa tribes of Aotearoa) and Marjorie Tahbone, (Inupiaq from Nome, Alaska), along with the co-founders of the EarthLine Tattoo School on the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus situated on the territory of the Syilz Okanagan Nation: Amy Malbeauf (Métis), Jorden Bennett (Mi`kmaq) and Dion Kaszas (Nlaka`pamux).

Following the presentations will be a panel discussion titled ‘Rediscovery/Reawakening: The CA Indian Story,’ featuring Native California culture bearers who have been part of the renewal and re-awakening of their tattoo traditions. Panelists include Loren Bommelyn (Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation), Lena Bommelyn (Karuk), L Frank Manriquez (Tongva-Acjachemen) and Sage La Peña (NomtipomWintu), and will be moderated by Broken Boxes Podcast founder Ginger Dunnill.

In the afternoon we will host an open-studio experience to provide attendees the opportunity to interact with the practioners and panelists, and witness traditional tattoo demonstrations.

Throughout the program we will showcase various clips from the documentary series Skindigenous, which explores Indigenous tattoo traditions around the world.

Ancestral Ink: A Symposium Honoring Indigenous Tattoo Traditions is a full-day event taking place Sunday, August 18th, 10am-4pm at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Doors open at 9am, the symposium begins promptly at 10am. Onsite lunch options available for purchase.
Learn more and pre-register at sfai.org/ancestral-ink.

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