Currently reading : Ten Questions: Lars Krutak on “Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity”

Ten Questions: Lars Krutak on “Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity”

25 June 2014

Author : jamiejelinski


While conducting the ongoing “Ten Questions” interview series, it is rare that I actually have the opportunity to sit down and talk face to face with those being interviewed. However, I am happy to say that this interview with Lars Krutak did take place in person and occurred at the recent Northern Ink Xposure tattoo convention in Toronto. This convention marked the North American launch of Krutak’s new book “Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity,” the first book of its kind on the history of Native North American tattooing, spanning, as the title indicates, from ancient to contemporary periods and covering the entire continent. After reading a copy of the book, it is safe to say that this is a landmark text within the discourse of both tattoo history and Indigenous/Native North American studies. Continue reading below for more on the book, but be sure to purchase a copy for yourself. For more information, be sure to visit the book’s Facebook page, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to visit Krutak’s personal website as well.

Up until now, there hasn’t been a book to survey Indigenous tattooing in North America. Why do you think it has taken so long?

I started this project seventeen years ago and I’ve been collecting archival material, old photographs and interviews. I think because there has been so little written about it before and everything is buried, or in other words, not publicly accessible, or difficult to find, and not to mention funding, I think these are reasons why this material hasn’t been put together in a comprehensive manner. It’s that there is a number of logistical hurdles involved. I find myself sharing a lot of my own information because I have access to the library at the Smithsonian and from there I can basically get anything. I also have a number of Indigenous people that write me and they are asking for more information about the tattooing culture of their people and if I have access to any old prints, resources, descriptions, or knowledge of what kind of tools and inks they were using. So I think those are the primary reasons – the scarcity of the materials, and the logistics involved in being able to access them.

You’ve been researching Indigenous for a number of years now, publishing several books on the topic. At what point did the idea for this book come about and why?

I’ve been thinking about doing this book from the first moment I started working with Indigenous elders, documenting their tattoo traditions in the 1990’s when I was working on my Masters thesis. But, at that time I didn’t have enough material, because as I already said, it was difficult to find this type of information. Over the years, whenever I found something in a rare or obscure journal, or when I was an archive looking for something else and I came across a folder of something, such as drawings or field notes, I would always file them away. So over the years I built this collection of materials, but during this time I was primarily spending my time in Indigenous regions outside of North America, documenting their tattoo traditions. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Asia where there is an unbroken tradition of tattooing and I decided to focus my energies there because those people will be gone in the next generation or so, but I felt like now is the time to do this project. The other main reason that propelled me into this project is that in the last twenty to thirty years there has been a renaissance across Native North America and a resurgence in tattooing. I have been fortunate through my work at the museum to meet some of these community members through the work that I do – which is repatriation – in Alaska and different parts of the United States. With this I had the missing link to make this a more contemporary book, whereas before I would have been dealing with just black and white archival photographs, and now I have the stories of living people that have brought tattooing back. These stories are often really powerful and personally meaningful, dealing with why they are bringing it back and what does it mean to bring it back. I think this information completes the picture.

Could you talk a little bit about how the title of the book came to be?

I tried to be as inclusive as possible, talking about both the ancient origins of tattooing, such as the earliest physical evidence up to contemporary tribal tattoo bearers who are expressing their personal, collective, or tribal identities through the tattoos they wear. However, most of the individuals that are contemporary tattoo bearers, as well as the tattoo artists (I deal with two contemporary tattoo artists in the book), have their own personal reasons for getting these tattoos or from a tattooists standpoint, bringing it back. It basically comes back to this question of identity ultimately, these were in most cases tribal markers, and were not done for art’s sake. In most indigenous languages there was no such word for “tattoo art”, it was much more meaningful and took the form of symbols of identity, medicinal tattoos, and marks of honour that could only be worn if you were successful in combat, or rites of passage tattoos that marked different life stages. So like I said, I tried to be inclusive and speak about all of Native North America, and although it is a wide ranging title, the book is the first and only to cover all the Indigenous regions in Native North America – so with that being said, I think it is a fitting title.

You cover a significant time period in this book – as the title suggests – from the ancient to contemporary period. Why have you chosen to work this way and what are the positive and negative aspects to this?

For one, I would think that this book is not the end all – if anything, I am wanting to open the window and promote that tattooing existed in every single region of Native North America, from 3200 years ago – and probably beyond that, it;s just that the earliest evidence we have is a tattooed ivory figurine from the Arctic that is approximately 3200 years old – up until the present time. If anything else, I encourage people and communities to start thinking about this and seek out more knowledge, and interviewing their elders about these practices because in these communities I think there is a lot more information that exists about tattooing, although it might be “buried” or preserved as an oral history, but people haven’t thoroughly sought out knowledge from elders to try and find out more about it. I think there is a lot more knowledge about tattooing in oral history that you can’t find anywhere else – it’s not going to be in some archive or written down in somebody’s field notes, so if anything else I want to encourage people to do more work on this subject and that’s partially the goal of this book. Like I said, it’s not the end all, it’s just the first step in a larger project to bring together as much information as possible to create a fuller picture.

What has the response to your work been like from Native communities? With the contemporary components of the book in mind, why was it important that their voice was included in the book?

Because it has only just hit the market, I’m not sure what the response will be like. But before I launched the book, I did a thirty days of North American tattoo history Facebook page and a lot of members of Native communities wrote me, saying that they weren’t aware of a lot of the information I was posting, and so far they have all been positive comments. It seems to me that the book has opened up a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that there is still a lot of information out there that still has not been accessed, and it definitely hasn’t been put into print, and I see that as a positive sign. It’s really important to grasp the contemporary aspects of tattooing, because there are many different reasons – many deeply personal reasons for why these practices are being brought back. The contemporary people who are featured in this book don’t pretend to speak for their entire communities, and they make that extremely clear in my interviews with them. For these personal reasons, I wanted them to be able to express in their own words why they are doing it. As a writer I have to filter certain things but I stayed true to the words that were given to me in these interviews – I rarely edit these interviews, because these are really powerful stories in every single circumstance and I think it is a great educational tool to preserve these stories and promote tattooing revival and knowledge in whatever types of cultural heritage projects may be undertaken in these communities. I’m curious to see what the ultimate outcome of this book may be – where does the knowledge go, how is it to be used and shared by Indigenous communities.

In the book you have a photo of a tattooed Haida woman – something which you had not seen prior, and were told an image did not exist for. Could you tell us another interesting story pertaining to the book?

The individual featured on the back of the book, Alan White, is a Cayuga Bear clan member from New York state. His tattoos are related to personal visions and dreams that he has had and the tattooed thunderbird on his back has an interesting story. He has been participating in sun dances for a number of years and when he participated in his first sun dance, the whole time he was driving there he was experiencing thunder and lightning storms. During the performance, a circle of men gathered around the sun dance performers and a huge lightning storm started, followed by rain and wind and as he began performing, a lightning bolt struck in the middle of that circle of men. Later that night he had a vision of a giant thunderbird flying through a great city with bloodshot red eyes and the wings clipping several buildings. This was about eight months prior to 9/11, and it is almost as if he foresaw what happened on that day. For a more detailed account of this story, I encourage people to check out the book.

Why have you chosen the North American launch of book to be at a tattoo convention as opposed to, for example, a book store or more academically-inclined setting?

For one, I was invited a number of months ago while in the final stages of my book to come here and give a lecture on the history of Indigenous tattooing. There are a lot of historians of tattooing that also happen to be tattooists, so I thought it was a great opportunity to reach people involved with the industry, that may have Native clients who are interested in getting traditional tattoos. With that being said, I thought this would be a great place to launch the book because I knew it would be followed by more academic settings, such as the Musée du quai Branly in Paris and I also have a number of lectures and book signings scheduled at universities later in the year. I’m sort of trying to cover the gamut and trying to bring together the academic and popular realms to reach all audiences that are interested in tattooing, from the industry to the academic community.

As a researcher, what was one of the toughest or most strenuous hurdles to overcome during your research for this book?

The hardest part is always trying to find grant money to conduct field work! Some of the fieldwork for this book started in the 1990’s when I was working with the last group of tattooed St. Lawrence Island Yupik women, and those were my first informants – the first photos that I took of a tattooed person, Indigenous or otherwise, was during that time. But getting the funding to do a series of trips in 2011 to travel and interview individuals knowledgeable about tattooing was the primary difficulty. Fortunately, through a small research grant I was able to do so from a particular museum in Washington state, through the Whatcom Jacobs Fund, but without that, I think the contemporary component of the book would have really suffered. Otherwise the book would have been a lot of historic black and white photos and information without the contemporary living colour of where tattooing is going.

Your book includes several photos and artworks depicting Indigenous tattooing, albeit done by individuals of European origin. How do European representations of Native tattooing differ from Native representations (in artwork, material culture, etc) of tattooing?

I talk quite extensively about European, and more specifically early European, depictions of Native North Americans in the book. The problem is when we are talking about the 17th and 18th centuries, rarely do you find a Native point of view about tattooing and its meaning documented by Native North Americans. I can only think of a few examples of a tattooed Native North American being interviewed speaking about the meaning of their tattoos in the 1800’s. So obviously the information, and therefore the representations are skewed. Even though many of these illustrations are said to be drawn from life, we know that they’re not, and were actually drawn from composite sources from Greek mythology and followed in European ideals of bodily forms and types. These images are really conglomerates of many other sources put into an idealized version of what a tattooed Native American must have looked like. A lot of it you have to take with a grain of salt, but a lot of these drawings have elements that are probably truthful, but in the book I make these distinctions and critique and deconstruct these images so the reader can form their own opinions what is factual documentation and what is fantasy. The other thing to remember is that when early books were published in the 17th and 18th centuries about Native Americans these exoticized portraits were created to drive book sales, so the industry even in those days was trying to generate revenue, and even though most of these images were said to be truthful, a lot of them were not.

To conclude, if you had to choose the single most important thing you hope readers will take away from the book, what would it be?

That tattooing was of paramount importance for every single Indigenous culture that practiced it for thousands of years and is something that will continue into the future as long as Indigenous people are here. For Indigenous people it is very powerful statement that we are still here, will always be here, and we are proud to wear our culture on our face for everyone to see.

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