Stop Genocidal Artwork by nahaanTweet
ahaan áyá xhát. dakhl’aweidí naaxh xhát sítee. kéet gooshi hít daxh áyá xhát. tlákw.aan kháawu áyá xhát. paiute kha deikeenaa yadixh xhát sitee. xh’atas’aakh kha dléit kháa dachxhán áyá xhát. lukaaxh.ádi áyá axh daakanoox’u. see.atlínx’ yéi xhát khoowdzitee. kítchxaanx’ yéi xhát yatee.
i am nahaan. i am of the people of the upper sand bar. i am from the killerwhale dorsal fin house. i am from klukwan, alaska. i am a child of the paiute from fort bidwell, california, and a child of the kaigani haida. my grandfather was iñupiaq and swedish from nome, alaska. my precious outter shell are the sockeye people from haines, alaska. i was born in seattle, washington. i currently am in ketchikan, alaska.
in this writing i will focus on the cultural appropriation that often happens within the mainstream tattooing culture. i will talk bit about what the words sacred, honor, and indigenous mean, i will talk about assimilation and genocidal artwork. and i will talk about my personal conduct and approach to the subject of tattooing as a tlingit designer and tlingit language teacher.
you cannot look at our visual design work and not wonder further into our culture. if you take our northern form line style for face value, it is absolutely beautiful. but, only after research and investing time into learning about the stories and histories behind our designs, do you begin to understand what it means to use it, and to truly recognize the beauty and truth that resides in its essence.
before there were tattoo shops, television shows and magazines, there were indigenous people who practiced the sacred art of tattooing. the carver, painter and tattooer all used very similar forms, were highly valued individuals, and the work they did was deserving of great respect. this was a result of being a trained specialist in the relevance and relationship to the visual “written” language and its inseparable connection to the tlingit culture and its sense of time.
for our tlingit people, before european contact, there was never a concept of “art” as the western world sees it today. every one of our objects that had a design on it showed our peoples deep and intimate bond to the land, ocean, sky, and natural elements. our design work is the customary written language of our people. it serves as a public document, and a history keeper for our communities. it signifies our belonging, our responsibility, our timeless claim to our environment stretching form yakutat, alaska to atlin, british columbia, and to prince of whales, alaska.
our northern form line design work has helped to win land case settlements in united states courts. it has allowed our people to carry our past into our future unifying time as indigenous people. it is a gateway through which our people can enter back into the healing of our culture. it has allowed our people to participate in a traditional and creative practice and to make a living from it.
our design work can be viewed through the word and concept of “at.óow” which in our language means, a purchased item. a more thorough translation, this word means, a precious possession that was paid for with our lives. we hold our traditional crafts sacred and in very high regard. this concept of “at.óow” encompasses many aspects of our customary life habits, including our crest work, our stories, our songs, and our lands. needless to say the value of our at.óow cannot be measured in dollar amounts.
there is thorough knowledge that is required in order to ensure that each piece is the correct crest for the client to wear and that it is applied appropriately. you cannot just choose a crest and get it tattooed simply because you like how it looks. each crest goes back to a supernatural experience with that particular animal. this is one of the reasons why our coastal design work means nothing without knowledge of those particular stories, and a strong link with the lands and peoples from which the design originates.
because we place so much value on our at.óow, it would be appropriate to have it designed and tattooed only by our own indigenous people. taking and using designs that are not of your own culture is disrespectful, especially if you have zero interest in the work aside from making some money.
when the colonizers began taking our lands, resources, crafts, foods, and languages away from native people, they also made our ceremonies illegal. this includes the feasts or potlatches where many traditional tattoos have been conducted.
the meaning is changed when non educated tattoo artists use our written language. there are a series of elements forms and shapes that come together to make our messages clear. unless those principles are emphasized, with cultural understanding and a genuine relationship to the craft and people from which the design work is born, the work is a form of cultural appropriation. when this happens, there is no honor or recognition being attributed to the tribe or culture from which the design work originates.
now more and more colonizers are wanting to claim use of our designs and culture, and feel they are entitled to do so simply because they are artists and have a northwest coast design book laying around.
our culture is not a page of flash for you to take and use designs from.
some tattoo artists thankfully have standards and principles about what they tattoo. unfortunately for indigenous people, our design work has often been too comfortable in the hands of those whom it does not belong to.
this misuse of our artwork by outsiders goes directly back to how our tribes were dehumanized, by the colonizer culture. there were signs that read “no dogs or indians allowed” on store front windows in southeast alaska. in 1993 in the town of kake, alaska, a church had all of its native followers take their regalia and publicly burn it in order to accept a colonized concept of god more purely into their lives.
our tlingit people were abused physically, sexually, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to try to erase our great achievements of carving, social structure, weaving, language, worldview and existence. the settlers thought we worshiped our totem poles and were practitioners of magic and sorcery and witchcraft. this is how the word “diversity” came to our people. it was forced upon our lands and lives.
in 1899, a goodwill touring party from seattle, washington went up to the tlingit village of tongass and stole a totem pole, towed it back down to seattle and erected it in pioneer square as seattles very first piece of public art. this is just some of the history that pilgrims have with our artwork.
now, and quite possibly worst of all, the colonizers are claiming rights to use our design work as their own.
nearly every tattoo artist ive met has drawn and or tattooed coastal artwork or some interpretation of our designs in their career. they have done so without a second thought or any historical understanding of the design work itself.
im asking tattoo artists to hold themselves accountable to know more about what they are doing. to stop taking work from the indigenous crafts people who have the true hereditary privilege and responsibility of upholding the culture and its written language.
read the books, ask a knowledgeable person from the tribe, and approach your work in the most humble way.
these experiences and ones similar to them are what we as tlingit people have had to persevere through in order to be here today. these are some of the stories that our design work carries within it. all the taught shame and guilt and traumatic experiences from 273+ years of colonization, boarding schools/residential schools has injured the strength of our design work, and it took some time to recover from that damage. even in the last two generations, we have seen a great resurgence of carving, tattooing, and chilkat weaving where it was more scarce in prior times of early contact.
i ask everyone i do work for to become more cultural on a daily basis. that means they can either, become clean and sober, find a traditional spiritual practice to heal, learn a bit of our language, and or empower their opposites and community. i create all of my work in the spirit of
my ancestors and focus on the pacific northwest coast, northern form line design. i don’t do lettering, numbering, and sure as hell not any american flags when i design.
you cant be a cultural leader on friday then be an alcoholic and drug user on saturday then go be a pastor on sunday, my work reflects the concept that our life ways show in what we produce. i ask people who i do designs for to put in their own work to get a better grasp on what they wear or show on their walls. i ask them to use my work as a responsibility and a reminder to continue doing these things to expand their relationship to the piece itself. the work that the client continues with after we complete a finished piece is the true and lasting payment for my original design work. knowing that my client became more enriched and involved in the ways of our people allows me the piece of mind that my efforts were not without meaning and pure intent. if you want an authentic design from me, you better be authentic yourself. by that i mean, know your history, your relations, your place in the circle of time.
it is through these practices that i honor my teachings, the culture i belong to, the kinship with our environment, the sacred cycle of life, and spirit world that we are all so deeply involved with.
nahaan is an activist, singer, song composer, tlingit language teacher, tlingit tattoo artist and designer, storyteller, published poet, spoken word artist, hunter, fisher, dancer, carver, and ceremony facilitator. he is deeply involved with the people and cultures of the pacific north west coast. he walks in a prayerful way striving for self mastery and community empowerment.