Edge of the knife: Kidnanang (Tattooing)

By Graham Richard —

Actors in the upcoming Haida language feature film ‘Edge of the Knife’ are helping to revive the hand-poked Haida tattoo.  Haida artists T’aakeit G’aayaa Corey Bulpitt and Kwiaahwah Jones were hard at work at Hl’yaalan ‘Lngee Hiellen Village tattooing actors in preparation for their performances on-camera. The film shoot began at Yaan as Taaxid Kung Sockeye Moon or May waned.

Kidk’aalang tattooed crests imbue Haida with the power of their ancestry and put their kinship on full display. Since the beginning of time kidk’aalang have been applied and legally recognized through potlatch law. During these days-long ceremonies recipients have exchanged great amounts of wealth for the privilege of bearing kidk’aalang on their family’s behalf. Kidk’aalang depict figures that stretch across distant time; paying homage to the first tree to arrive at SGuuluu Jaads Saahlwaay, honouring the first mother of millennia-old lineages, or recalling the moment Nang Kilslaas brought the first light into the formless cosmos. Kidk’aalang keep these distant memories strong by etching them into the bodies of Haida descendants.

Haida derive part of their authority over their territory through the memories they etch into the surfaces of everything around them, including themselves. In recent history kidk’aalang, like any part of Haida culture that carries power, were caught up by the assemblage of colonial institutions used in the attempt to erase indigenous rights and title. By banning the centre of coastal governance, the potlatch, colonial authorities damaged the governance system through which Haida received kidk’aalang. To reinforce the damage residential school education taught children that kidk’aalang were evil, and shame was heaped on those who bore them 

The cast-members of the upcoming Haida feature film, however, are leaving that behind according to director Gwaai Edenshaw.

“Tattooing was such a big part of our culture and people before it was pushed down by the colonial puritanical attitudes,” said Gwaai. “We are trying to make a movie that is as historically accurate as possible. Given the history and the revival of the west coast poke tattoo tradition in recent years, we thought it would be great to help cast members who were willing and happy to get tattoos. It would be a cool thing that we could leave with them.”

Hluu kidk’aalang ‘llGaayGa tattoo artists T’aakeit G’aayaa and Kwiiahwah completed 16 tattoos, including six full hluu k‘aalang.nga chest tattoos, five xyaay kiida forearm tattoos, and four hand tattoos using the traditional stick poke method. Everything was finished within a week, with both designers pulling all-nighters to ensure people were decorated.

“It’s a powerful experience to work with Haida people to put their crests and souls to the skin,” Kwiaahwah said. “A connection grows in the hand-poke process that is much different from a machine. It feels deep – timeless – and helps us all connect to our ancestors. It is an amazing process to see these designs appear, and once they are done I surprise myself a bit. I have studied many photos of the ancestors with their tattoos, but it is completely different to see them come to life when they are done, both for the person and myself. When I am tattooing I feel that time doesn’t exist.”

“I remember the tattoos of Chief Honna and Jonny Gedalesas,” said T’aakeit G’aayaa. “Chest tattoos are something that always stood out to me. After I was adopted Fred Johnson tattooed my chest when I first got home in 1998 with a jailhouse-style machine. Since then I’ve spent quite a few years studying traditional tattooing, and I went to Aotearoa New Zealand to check out Māori tattooing. After about fifteen years of research I finally started doing it myself.”

“I always wanted to bring back traditionally hand-poked Haida chest tattoos, but I never had the chance and nobody asked me for one. When I finally got this opportunity it was a fulfillment of a dream. These were the first full Haida chest pieces to be hand poked in a hundred years.”

“For many Haidas it is their first chance to see those tattoos again. It’s a great honour to put those crests on the people. When you’re putting someone’s crest on you are linking them forever to their clan and their history, and all the people around them can easily identify them as a clan member. The main objective is to link each person to the community.”

“In the late nineties a lot of younger guys started getting armbands, and a trend to get back to our tattooing began. All of those tattoos, like my chest-piece, were done with machines. Now it just feels good to be tattooing the traditional way with the hand. It’s a whole different experience for both the person getting the tattoo and the tattoo artist. You feel more connected to the person and to the history.”

“I have seen a lot of pride in the elders who see the hand-poked tattoos and remember their parents or grandparents having them. They comment on how they are happy to see us wear our tattoos with pride again, and that we don’t live in shame like they were forced to for many years. They radiate that happiness through their whole being. It creates a powerful connection between the generations through time. Some people told me how their grandmothers said they were tough because they had endured the tattoos without flinching.”

Gwaai says the kidk’aalang grounded actors in their roles and bolstered their pride. The clans in the movie are fictional, but the tattoos actors received are meaningful crests belonging to their real-world clans. Hypothetical sum of crests that you can figure out by what tattoos people have on them. “I kind of directly walked the journey of choosing the figure with them,” said Gwaai. “For some it was another level of connecting with who they are within their clan, their crests and what they mean.”

Actor Brandon Kallio received family crests on both his forearms and his chest. “This is one way we pay respect to our ancestors,” he said. “These are our family crests, and Corey is also part of our family. We are in the same clan so I have been meaning to ask him to do some work for me for quite some time.”

“We are also connected by a similar story, because we were both adopted out at an early age and we returned to Haida Gwaii in our late teens. Having that in common brought us close together. These crests represent our family, our clan, and our interconnection.”

“It was also good to be close to Naay Kun Rose Spit, because that’s where our clan comes from. Whether I’m fishing, clam digging, or just going out, it’s a place where I can go out to reflect and separate myself from the everyday hustle and bustle. It’s a great place to collect my thoughts, get centred, and let go of some of the stresses of today’s life.”

“This is one way of paying respect to our ancestors. We are descendants of the strongest of the days of old,” Kallio concluded. “We represent Haida of today. It is the least I could do; to pay respect.

 

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