Yukoners reclaim culture through traditional Tlingit tattooing

Eight brave Yukoners put needle to skin, many for the first time, as part of a Tlingit tattoo workshop at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Center, this past week.

For workshop leader Anne Spice, the event Wednesday was an opportunity to reintegrate Tlingit tattooing as a cultural practice in Whitehorse.

“[Tattooing] is a very old practice for a lot of Indigenous peoples,” Spice said.

But many Indigenous peoples have been cut off from traditional tattooing practices due to colonial policies like the potlatch ban.

Spice said that means there aren’t many visual documentations of Indigenous tattoos.

Two forearms are shown, one with a red tattooed line going around the wrist, the other with a black tattooed line around the wrist.
Two women who took part in the workshop display their hand-poked tattoos. (Maya Lach-Aidelbaum/CBC)

“It’s been a number of generations since we saw tattoos actually being practiced more often,” she said.

But she said she’s starting to see a shift towards more Indigenous people getting traditional tattoos.

“I think it’s a way to connect and it’s a way to also show pride in your own ancestry and where we are coming from,” Spice said.

Tattoo supplies, including several colors of ink, were supplied at the workshop. (Maya Lach-Aidelbaum/CBC)

During the workshop, Spice taught eight Indigenous participants how to create hand-poked tattoos using a needle and ink.

Kalina Benoit, one of the participants, tattooed a red ring around her sister-in-law’s wrist. It was her first time giving someone a tattoo.

A woman wearing blue medical gloves holds a needle as she gives a tattoo on another woman's hand.  The woman already had a thin black band tattooed around her wrist.
Kalina Benoit gives a hand-poked tattoo to her sister-in-law. (Maya Lach-Aidelbaum/CBC)

“I’m comfortable with needles though – I’m a nurse,” she laughed.

“It’s actually a bit easier than I thought it was going to be and a lot less painful than I thought it was going to be.”

Benoit said it was a powerful bonding experience, different from getting tattooed using a machine.

“We both have a lot of tattoos, so this is the first for us as well, getting a hand-poked tattoo. So it’s special.”

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