Yukoners reclaiming culture through traditional Tlingit tattooing

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Last week, eight brave Yukoners put a needle to their skin, many for the first time, in a Tlingit tattoo workshop at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre.

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

“[Tattooing] is a very ancient practice for many Indigenous peoples,” Spice said.

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

Spice said that means there isn’t much visual documentation of native tattoos.

Two women who participated in the workshop show off their handmade tattoos. (Maya Lach-Aidelbaum/CBC)

“It’s been several generations since we’ve seen tattoos done more often,” she said.

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

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

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

During the workshop, Spice taught eight Indigenous participants how to create hand 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 the first time she tattooed someone.

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

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

“It’s actually a little easier than I thought and a lot less painful than I thought.”

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

“We both have a lot of tattoos, so it’s also the first time for us to have our hands tattooed. So it’s special.”

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