Tattoos Are Part of the Fight Against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Cara McKenna

Tlingit artist Nahaan is using hand poke and skin stitch techniques to heal Indigenous communities and energize Standing Rock water defenders.

Most 20-somethings who've had Bart Simpson's face or Smiths lyrics stick-n-poked into their thigh at a house party probably didn't consider what kind of energy was being transmitted into their body forever. They probably wouldn't remember the experience the next day.

But the act of hand poking for Tlingit tattoo artist Nahaan, 34, is spiritual. He transfers power while he tattoos, and calls his work permanent regalia: it's a memory, a story, a language and a way of resisting. He's tattooed water defenders, respected elders and drug users. He's one of a few tattoo artists on the Coast practicing traditional Indigenous designs and methods.

Nahaan, who lives in the Seattle area, is relaxed, polite and open about his practice. He's also heavily cultural—from his huge formline neck tattoo, to the voicemail message on his phone, which is in Tlingit. VICE sat with him during a gallery demo, where he spoke about the transformative power of traditional tattoos, and what the practice means to him.

VICE: You refer to traditional Indigenous tattoos as "permanent regalia." Can you tell me more about that?
Nahaan: When people put on their finest regalia they hold themselves in a specific way. They really take the time to acknowledge. They talk differently. They act differently. You know, you wouldn't see somebody in full regalia go to the bar and get drunk. That kind of thing. If we have a similar kind of responsibility when we wear our tattoos, then it has the potential for being transformative for people who have alcohol issues or drug issues or communities who have those issues. It has that healing capability as long as we acknowledge that power within it and act upon that power. Especially for colonized communities. Communities that are dealing with basically 525 years of oppression. If we use that opportunity in order to empower each other it's a really valuable thing.

So it's kind of accountability, having it on your body forever, to your ancestors and community?
It's like a reminder. I say to a lot of my clients, when you see this tattoo, may it remind you of who you are, in the sense of referring to your power, your strength, your teachings. None of those teachings say to go get drunk, none of those teachings say to go smoke weed. That's not traditional for our people here on the coast; it's just not something we've done. It's something that we've been taught is socially acceptable because our colonizer said so.

Photo by Cara McKenna

You recently did a facial stitch tattoo on a woman at Standing Rock camp. I'm interested to hear more about that experience, and how tattoos can serve as motivation in resistance movements like the Dakota Access fight?
When I was there, I did the first tattoo for the folks out in the Red Warrior Camp, a design that they had come up with. It was an honour to do that for them and teach several Indigenous women how to tattoo with hand poke and also skin stitch.

That was really a powerful moment and I think that it leads to that same idea of responsibility. If you bear this mark, then it shows you were there and you put in that work, and you have a certain understanding—that you're willing to put your own life on the line in order to protect what is yours, protect what is all of ours.

People specifically wanted to wait until we were there together to get tattooed, to have that same energy of resistance in the tattoo itself. All the words and all the songs that she experiences while we're tattooing goes in because your pores are open, your skin is open, in a different way. It's a very different understanding than going to a typical tattoo shop and having it be somebody you've never met. They don't care about their energy being passed on to you.

You've mentioned some reasons why people you've worked with have decided to get tattooed. Are there any other reasons other than as a symbol of resistance or reclamation?
Sometimes it symbolizes, for instance, an elder in my community is a master weaver. She asked me to do a specific design across her chest and it was a design that she was familiar with because of her weaving. This was to signify her profession, her teachings and her responsibility in this lifetime, and likely other lifetimes too. I did that across her entire chest in honour of her being a weaver.

Photo via Nahaan's Facebook

How long have you been tattooing for?
I've been tattooing since 2009.

How has that informed your own journey of rediscovering your culture?
It has a lot to do with it. I had done a lot of homework and research in terms of my own Tlingit style of carving and weaving. I was in the books, always, when I was young. That's really all I had. But when I looked at other people's art it didn't move me in the same way that formline did. For some reason when I looked at formline I thought, that's the most beautiful form of art and I need to know more about it. It basically called me to it. That was a powerful understanding, you know, "you don't dance the mask, the mask dances you"—that kind of teaching. The tools are there and if it's meant to be they're going to be in your hands. If it's not meant to be it's not going to happen.

Can you tell me anything about your own tattoos?
You know, my neck tattoo, my bro Dion (Kaszas) did it, it's basically acknowledgement of the fact that people are like, "Are you going to get a neck tattoo? You're not going to be able to get a job." That was what I was told continually. But those aren't the kind of jobs that I'm trying to get anyways. Don't put me in that place, you know. Any place that wants to prevent me from working there because of my culture, I shouldn't be there. I shouldn't be in that space, that's the wrong place for me to be. My neck tattoo symbolizes that understanding. That I know who I am, I know where I'm from, and that's more important to me than having a job that is going to provide a false sense of security.

You have tattooed people from many Indigenous backgrounds. Can you tell me what defines a "traditional tattoo" and how that differs from person to person?
It's different for everybody. For me when I do my work I do my best to create a safe space for our practice to take place. What that usually includes, in most Indigenous environments I've been in, is prayer, is songs, an emphasis on spiritual teachings. We don't sit around and talk about something like, I don't know, the next dollar menu item at McDonald's.

These tools I have here are the same that we would use a long time ago, that signifies the spiritual practice, the agreement between the person who's getting tattooed and me. I say, you know, let this be a reminder to you when you're having a tough time in your life, remember who you are. That's your power right there. Don't you ever forget that power that's inside you. Help enable your community to believe in themselves, say it's OK to have facial tattoos, it's OK to have neck tattoos, because that's who we are, and we've been that way before. We need to be that way now, especially.

Photo via Nahaan's Facebook

Do you think it's particularly relevant given everything that's going on in the world now with this huge resistance movement and the politics in North America?
Are you talking about Trump?

Partially, yeah.
More than ever, and it always has been, we need to be who we always have been. I heard this teaching one time: when you know your history, you can tell the future. So if you know your history to that extent, and you have that ability, you can see where that same mistake might be made again. This time I think I'm going to do better. To know the type of things that our ancestors have been through, I mean Ice Ages and great floods, and we have stories intact about those things. We never had to write them down because we trusted each other when we sat down and told each other things.

What can you tell me about the tattoo you're doing today, and the method you're using?
This is hand poke, so this is basically taking a typical tattoo needle that's been sterilized and all that and putting that repeatedly in and out of the skin. Typical tattoo style minus the electricity. One of my teachers, he's a master storyteller, and one of my students as well because I'm teaching him tattoos. He says he tries not to use microphones when he tells a story because there's moisture in the story, there's life in the story, and that's really what gets passed on to the listener. If you don't have the ability to do that it changes the vibration when you speak through electricity. He likened that to me doing hand poke tattoo, he said this is our written language. So it comes across more clear if you're able to do that without electricity. That made some sense to me.

Do you ever use machines?
Yeah. I started out on machines. I felt like after six years of doing machine work, I graduated to doing hand poke and I graduated to doing skin stitch. The same sterilization and cross-contamination concerns, all those teachings carry over to any other style.

Photo by Cara McKenna

How does your approach relate to modern tattoo culture?
Modern tattoo culture is like modern so-called American culture. It's homogenized, it's patriarchal, it can be misogynistic, and it can be all the things that traditional, coastal culture is not. It's profit-based, it's exclusive culture where, you know, the white guy runs the shop and you have to go and learn from him in order to do anything. It's like savior mentality. It's like, we take away your culture, now we have it, and you have to come to us in order to get it back. That's really tough for me to do. So I've tattooed out of several shops in different countries but at the same time I'm really cautious in those areas, and I don't work in front of everybody. My approach is very different. It's something I'm more picky about. I turn a lot of people away for tattoos. I'm not doing it to get rich, I'm doing it because it's a part of our culture that was shamed away from us by our colonizers. Knowing that is a big driving force for me doing this work. Success to me is having my people come up to me and get tattooed.

Is there anything else you want people to know about the practice of traditional tattooing?
I want to encourage more Indigenous people to tattoo. Each nation should have its own tattoo artist, at least. Especially here on the coast where everyone has at least one carver, everyone has at least one weaver, we should also have at least one tattoo artist. You put these things in, it's a story, it's a memory. It's really important work to do. We have to encourage each other and enable each other to do this work for ourselves, and to tell our own stories as Indigenous people. That's what we're doing through this tattoo process.

Follow Cara McKenna on Twitter.

See more of Nahaan's work here.

More VICE
Vice Channels