Tlingit tattoo artist reclaims power, poke by poke, through healing 'beauty marks'
When I set out to tell this story, I knew it would be important. As a young, fair complexioned Tlingit [KLING-khit] woman who struggles with claiming her own roots and cultural identity, I knew that I would be entering a sensitive arena touching close to home. But I had no idea that I would come out on the other side with a renewed sense of empowerment for my culture and a scheduled tattoo appointment.
I embarked on my journey to meet Nahaan at his North Seattle home in August. It was a dewy Wednesday morning and I awoke anxious yet excited, eager to see what the day had in store. I stopped at a Starbucks along the way to snag coffee for Nahaan and his mother, who he tattooed that day. In hand, along with my fumbling mic set, was two cans of jarred salmon that my Alaskan grandmother made — an offering of appreciation for Nahaan and his mother for allowing me to sit in on such a special occasion.
“What do you think for your tattoo today mom? Want to do something gangster on your hands?”
“Yeah,” she responded. “I was going to even say scarification if you’re up for it. That's how fierce I feel today!”
Scarification. One of three different forms of traditional Tlingit tattooing that involves the cutting of the skin in specific designs with a scalpel-like tool; ink is then rubbed into the wound. The other methods are skin sewing and hand poke or stick and poke, which Nahaan practiced on his mother that day.
Frieda, who also goes by her Tlingit name of K?áashtu?ix’ [cah-shtoo-?ick] was fierce no doubt, like so many native women. She reminded me of my aunties back in my family's hometown village in Alaska — eyes full of wisdom and palpable strength. Frieda stoically watched as Nahaan carefully hand poked a traditional Tlingit spirit face onto her right hand without so much as a flinch.
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., I sat with Nahaan and Frieda in his living room. Listening, watching and learning about the traditional ways that make us Tlingit, but specifically, how traditional tattooing is being revitalized and reclaimed as our own.
Nahaan is a language teacher, a dance instructor, a poet, a jeweler, an activist and a tattoo artist in addition to being the vocalist of a local band. He wears many hats, but his emphasis on each is clear — Native empowerment and cultural reclamation.
Nahaan has been tattooing since 2009. He says that the “permanent regalia” he writes on people’s bodies serves as a form of activism, as well as a place for healing. Wearing these traditional tattoos is a way in which indigenous communities regain their power.
Indigenous people have long practiced traditional tattooing. Tattoos symbolized familial lineage, social rank, fishing rights and rights of passage. But with the colonization of native communities, they were denounced and put on the back-burner along with many other important indigenous traditions.
Nahaan is one of a select few of Coastal native artists bringing these practices back.
“I think it was more so my culture that propelled me into it,” Nahaan said. “Through the process I become more into the design style and more into the other parts of our culture that make up the tattooing. The tools found my hands and are constantly teaching me.”
For almost 10 years, Nahaan researched and educated himself on his ancestors’ teachings. He says that, in the beginning, he was constantly delving into the depths of old libraries and museums to be knowledgeable on the Tlingit traditions — tattooing being one of them. He says it took time and persistence, but it was important work to do.
“The revival that carving went through, the revival that weaving ravens tail went through and the revival that all those processes went through, they did it because they had to,” Nahaan said. “They knew it was valuable and they did it for all of us.
“That is a big difference I think in looking at the revival of any sort of cultural practice, is it takes a lot of courage to do it, and then maintain and uphold it.”
That is a big difference I think in looking at the revival of any sort of cultural practice, is it takes a lot of courage to do it, and then maintain and uphold it.
Nahaan initially started tattooing with an electric machine in 2009, but made the switch to the native traditional tattooing methods of skin stitch, hand poke, and scarification in 2017 because he felt more of a connectivity to his culture through it.
“It’s a way to get more back into what my ancestors did and the process they used in order to wear our crest designs,” Nahaan said. “Electricity can alter the vibration of anything and that’s not the best for the work.”
Making the switch also has allowed Nahaan to tattoo in places where he wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Among them: the Standing Rock camp.
“It’s not just the ink that goes into the body, it’s also the sound, the songs, the prayers, and the experience,” Nahaan said. “Being outside helps out with that process.”
Nahaan says pain is central to the process, too, but not as it's traditionally understood. Western culture views tattoos as incredibly painful. For natives, he says, it's about healing.
“We forgot what it means to relate to pain,” Nahaan said. “It’s something that we all go through no matter what. Some of us are afraid of pain, some of us are afraid of experiencing it or watching our loved ones experience it but I think there is the possibility of becoming stronger through it and healing through that.”
Nahaan’s mother found healing through her native tattoos such as the one on her chin, which she proudly wears to honor her Iñupiaq bloodline. Frieda received the tattoo at her family’s first ku.éex, or potlatch, which in the Tlingit tradition involves the coming together of a community to celebrate births, give names, conduct marriages or mourn the loss of a loved one.
I’ve been to these gatherings many times with my family; occasions ranging from receiving my Tlingit name of Keil Ke when I was a baby, to mourning the loss of my cousin as a young girl.
“Participating in my culture is really amazing for me,” Frieda said. “It’s the best gift I have in my life.”
Although Frieda and Nahaan proudly wear their native tattoos, it is not something that the general population is used to seeing or accepting. And Frieda says that, at times, it can be frustrating trying to educate non-natives. It’s a constant internal push and pull between how much she wants to explain herself, she said.
“It’s something that people in mainstream society don’t see enough of and because we are revitalizing our ways and our tattoos, they’re going to see more of that,” Frieda said. “Where people are able to display their beauty, their indigenous beauty.”
At one point I vented to Frieda about my own tattoos, a traditional form-line eagle for my moiety surrounded by a beaver to represent my clan house on my right forearm. Sometimes I don’t even want to make them visible because it means explaining them to people who do not see me as native — due to my fair complexion.
When I said this to Frieda, she scolded me in Tlingit.
“I can imagine how it is to defend your identity because I do it all the time,” Frieda told me. “And to be of light skin is another level of that wall that people have between cultures that makes it hard to be either or, but if in your heart you know, you know.”
And she was right. In my heart I do know. Being native is a part of my identity no matter how it may be perceived to society. It is not society's stereotypes or generalizations that hold weight. What holds weight is the strength in knowing who I am and where I come from.
Though the revival is still in the early stages, work like Nahaan's is important to natives' sense of being in this world. And it doesn't stop at tattooing or weaving or speaking the language.
“Our culture needs all the other parts of it to be what it needs to be,” Nahaan said. “It’s a matter of taking the teachings of what it was about and applying it in ways that help our people to heal.”
Just as the tools are teaching Nahaan, Nahaan and his mother have taught me, and shown me that the pride in one's culture is really all that they need to be who they are.
“We are reclaiming what is ours,” Frieda said. “And it is OK not to give all of the answers.