Preservation of indigenous culture through tattoos (2023)

With the rise of tattoos in recent years, students flaunting ink on their shoulder, or perhaps along their spine, have become a routine sight on campus.

There are many reasons to get a tattoo, from remembering a loved one to recognizing personal achievements. But for some Native students at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa, tattoos are a way of preserving cultural traditions.

Natalia Qangyuk Schneider, a sophomore from Kodiak, Alaska, proudly wears an intricate tattoo on her right thigh consisting of lines and symbols traditional to her indigenous Sugpiaq roots. Schneider explained the different aspects of her indigenous tattoos and stated that each line has a meaning.

"Thigh tattoos have traditionally been pregnancy tattoos," Schneider said. "I purposely removed only one leg, but by the time I have children, both sides will be healed."

Snyder explained that the tattoo is done before motherhood because it is the first thing the baby will see after birth.

"It's supposed to be a story about who the mom is and where the baby comes from," Schneider said. "That way your child will know that he has been accepted into a happy and safe home."

Schneider is actively working with community elders to teach the lost native Alaskan language, Sugt'stun. He decided to get a tattoo after he got his language school certificate. Snyder said her left leg was left empty because her journey wasn't over yet.

In addition to her leg, Schneider also tattooed her arms using the traditional Sugpiaq method, which uses three needles in a stabbing style. On each finger, next to the foreskin, there is a point that protects her joints, and at the same time represents her identity.

"They mean I'm a weaver, a bead maker and a sculptor," Snyder said.

Although the indigenous community actively works to preserve traditions, Schneider said her tattoos are relatively modern because some elements of the culture were erased by colonization. During the interview, she specifically pointed to chin tattoos, which in Sugpiaq culture are given to young girls after their first period as a sign that they have entered womanhood.

"It's not alive in our culture anymore," Snyder said. "Very few people have chin tattoos these days."

Other indigenous students, like sophomore Chavell Espinosa, feel the same way. Traditional Hawaiian tattoos were obtained by applying albatross bones to the skin. However, today many Hawaiians are tattooed in modern tattoo studios, and those that are done using this method are considered modern.

"Not many people have traditional tattoos because so much knowledge has been lost that it's hard to know where they come from," Espinosa said. "I'm trying to start the process of traditional Hawaiian tattooing by tapping on the bones and inking, but it's very difficult for me because I don't know much about it myself."

While her work includes symbols like iwa birds, heʻa (octopus) tentacles, and iʻa (fish) scales as a nod to her family's fishing heritage, Epsinosa explained the many other meanings Hawaiian tattoos can convey.

"Not only does it tell your family history and where you come from, but the ali'i (high chiefs) in Hawaii used them to protect themselves in battle," Espinosa said. "The parts that were not covered by their clothes were tattooed to protect them where they were not covered."

Despite the centuries-old tradition associated with these tattoos, Espinosa stated that the public's perception of them is still similar to that of other types of tattoos.

"The military doesn't allow facial tattoos, but it's a tradition in Maori culture to have facial tattoos," Espinosa added. "You're afraid to immerse yourself in your culture."

For some, entering the world of cultural tattooing is a profound experience, like sophomore Seven Davis, who began his tattooing journey at age 14. Davis has 20 tattoos and counting, and is especially fond of modern Hawaiian tattooing.

"My tribal tattoo tells the story of my life, from my childhood to every fall I've survived," Davis said.

Davis' calf is tattooed with an aumaqua, his family's tortoise.

"In Hawaiian culture, an aumakua is a family god or spirit that has chosen to watch over you," Davis said. "My turtle represents strength and protection."

While society once condemned body art as threatening or dismissed it as unprofessional, tattoos are becoming normalized and accepted as a form of self-expression. While the number of people getting body tattoos is on the rise, Davis believes the stigma around tattooed people still exists.

"Sometimes people get a little scared when they see me. I'm not the smallest person and I have a lot of tattoos,” Davis said. "I know times are changing, but there's still a stereotype that if you have a tattoo, you're either in a gang or you're not a good person."

Freshman Kaia Ordinario is also receiving criticism for her tattoo, but from a different perspective than Davis. Ordinario, who has his roots in the Ilocano ethno-linguistic group, decided to combine the traditional Ilocano arm and back cross tattoo with modern elements of the Hawaiian tribe.

Speaking about how people view her tattoo, Ordinario said: “They are shocked, especially because of my short height. Some people will ask why I have such a big tattoo.

Ordinario predicts that the normalization of tattoos will continue to progress and stated that the stigma in the workplace is almost over.

"Of course, there can be concerns about professionalism, especially with the elderly," Ordinario said. "But as time goes on, as they retire and younger people take their place, I give myself ten years before this is over."

As an artist, Ordinario has always wanted art on her body, especially since it is a tradition in her family to get tribal tattoos from her uncle.

"This is extremely important to my family and represents not only me, but my family and our background," Ordinario said. Each of us has a part that is specific only to us, but also to our whole family.

Although many cultural practices of tattooing have been lost to colonization and time, Ordinario and Schneider see a glimmer of hope in the efforts of their communities, especially young people today, who are working to revive and re-normalize ancient traditions.

Snyder said some of her friends have taken an interest in them since she got the leg tattoos and even helped design a tattoo for one of her friends who is a mother.

"There is a community of people who are ready for more," he added.

As someone with ethnic tattoos, Ordinario sees his influence as positive.

"This allows more people to get tattoos and represent their culture," Ordinario said. "With tattoos we mark our bodies as our own."

In general, cultural tattoos are often considered closed practices for the groups they are specific to. However, Snyder, like many other indigenous peoples, believes their sanctity is sometimes disrespected.

For example, Schenider said her design, common in boho culture, has been tattooed on non-native people.

"It's a very old project in Alaska," Snyder said. "It's funny how modern trends culturally appropriate those designs."

Espinosa sees a similar problem with the appropriation of Hawaiian tattoos.

"I really see a problem with non-Pacific Islanders getting tattooed with modern, traditional tattoos," Espinosa explained. “You can have whatever you want on your body, but you have to understand its meaning. Every line, every sign has its purpose.

The consensus is clear. It is inappropriate to have tattoos intended for indigenous cultures, especially if you do not know their meanings and traditions. Tattoos represent much more than meets the eye.


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