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The Indigenous Collective Using Tattoos to Rise Above Colonialism

Spirit writing is more than tattoos.

Thunderbird Woman was the image that caught my eye at the Standing Rock water protector camps. As an Ojibwe woman, I immediately realized that the depiction was an example of my ancestors’ ancient spirit writings, or symbols, recorded on birch bark scrolls and on rock faces along the Great Lakes long before Europeans landed in America. Thunderbird Woman, with her winged arms outstretched, seemed to float on the canvases at Standing Rock, portraying a cosmology in which dynamic spiritual forces are depicted internally, as if through an X-ray. Water rained down from her wings and thunderbolts surrounded her head. Her shape was a simple outline, and her heart anchored her image.

Images like this one represent the resurgence and reclamation of Indigenous art — in this case, spirit writing. And this resurgence isn’t just happening at Standing Rock. The artists of the Onaman Collective are reclaiming and sharing traditional art outside of Standing Rock, too.

Members and supporters of Onaman, based in Ontario, Canada, use art to portray traditional wisdom that serves as a counterpoint to the Western, colonial worldview. And they’re using the symbols in their art as traditionally intended: as guidelines for our spiritual connection and responsibility toward the Earth and each other.

Isaac Murdoch, who created the Thunderbird Woman image, helped found the Onaman Collective. In addition to Murdoch, who’s a member of the Serpent River First Nation Band of Ojibway, Christi Belcourt of the Michif Manitow Sakahihan Nation, and Erin Konsmo of the Metis/Cree Onoway/Lac St. Anne Nations also founded Onaman.

For members of Onaman, spirit writing symbols offer a desperately needed portal through which Indigenous peoples may reclaim and reconnect with their cultures and spirituality. This alphabet of the soul offers insights into the dynamics of the natural world and nuances of human nature, and offers an Indigenous-centered path to health and recovery.

Onaman is an Anishinaabe or Ojibwe word that refers to a red ochre paint also to clot the blood of wounds. Created by cooking red ochre with animal or fish fat over a low flame for a long time, onaman is both medicine and art.

The members of Onaman coordinate a host of Indigenous activities, including language immersion and traditional arts camps. They also coordinate art builds to address social inequality all over the US and Canada. Recently, Collective members joined Greenpeace in protesting Wells Fargo Bank investment in pipelines by painting a giant image of the Thunderbird Woman at the company’s world headquarters in San Francisco.

Tattooing is one type of symbol-based art that the Onaman Collective is helping revitalize. Over two days last September, Onaman organized an Indigenous tattoo gathering at Nimkii Aazhbikoong camp.

Nimkii Aazhbikoong — “Thunder Mountain” in the Ojibwe language — is a potent example of Onaman’s mission to create a sense of empowerment and unity among Indigenous people that they can, indeed, change themselves and by example, the world.

Located near Elliot Lake in Ontario, Nimkii Aazhbikoong is now a seasonal culture camp that Onaman members are working to develop into a “forever camp,” according to Belcourt, where people can live year-round. Guided by Indigenous elders, camp participants focus on cultural and language revitalization by creating art and regalia, and by learning traditional cooking and hunting methods. “We are guided by elders, visions, and ceremony in all that we do here,” Belcourt said.

About 100 people joined the camp for the gathering; many got tattoos. Indigenous tattoo artists from the Nlaka’pamux, Anishinaabe, Mi’kmaq, Secwepemc, Inupiaq, Inuit, and Zahuatlán nations traveled to Nimkii Aazhbikoong to share their skills and knowledge. Funding for the artists’ travel, lodging, food, and access to safe places to tattoo was provided by volunteers. An HIV coordinator with the Union of Ontario Indians was on hand to provide information and guidance about preventing infection.

These tattoo artists are part of a movement to reclaim a tradition that, for many tribes, was largely abandoned after European contact.

“We were shamed by the church and government to stop our tradition of tattoo,” said Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuk from Nunavut, Canada.

Arnaquq-Baril, a documentary filmmaker, explores the history of Inuit tattooing in Tuniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos. In the film, she interviews elders and delves into her own controversial decision to get traditional face tattoos. She attended the gathering with several other Inuit women who have also chosen to decorate their faces with traditional tattoos.

“It wasn’t our decision to give up our traditions,” Arnaquq-Baril said. “So much of our culture was hidden and shamed for so long. It’s been really empowering and healing to get my tattoos and to see a resurgence of the practice.”

“Indigenous peoples had tattoos for warriors, healing, birthing, fasting, and visions. They were based on deeply moving symbols, often associated with pictographs that reflect the spirits that exist in the earth,” Belcourt said.

These symbols, she said, remind us that we are not alone on the Earth and underscore our responsibility to care for the Earth and water.

“Tattooing is one of the latest efforts to rekindle and restore pride and traditional knowledge for Indigenous peoples. The use of art and symbols is the conduit to the spirit of the Earth and the lessons of responsibility taught by our ancestors that predate the Western written word,” Belcourt added.

In some examples of spirit writing — such as the symbols found on wiigwaasbakoon, or “birch bark scrolls” — the messages were likely created by medicine people to describe and instruct in the practice of certain Ojibwe rituals. In other examples — such as petroglyphs etched into rock faces and painted pictographs along the Great Lakes — the symbols may have been intended to foment action and change in response to environmental or other challenges.

Spirit writing symbols and messages have influenced and inspired generations of contemporary Indigenous artists.

James Simon, Ojibwe artist from the Wikwemikong Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, draws heavily from spirit writing symbols in his paintings. Simon’s work is an example of the Woodland or Legends style of painting that gained mainstream recognition in the 1960s and 1970s. This art is deeply influenced by the symbolism found in spirit writing. Simon describes the symbols he uses in his art as gifts and guidance from the Creator. Simon, whose Ojibwe name is Mishibinijima (“Birch Bark Silver Shield”), makes art that draws on ancient symbols to convey visions, dreams, and spiritual teachings. (Simon is not affiliated with the Onaman Collective.)

Said Simon, who has used this visual grammar in his paintings for nearly 50 years, “Each pictograph or symbol is like a book. Our job is to take time to understand the messages and visions they give us.”

“Our ancestors who made these symbols always put the Earth at the top. But in today’s society, humans are on top. If we don’t listen to the messages instructing us to be caretakers of the Earth, the only thing left of us will be the symbols; humans will be gone,” he said.

Nimkii Aazhbikoong has no cellphone reception, so during the tattoo gathering people were free to sing traditional songs, eat, visit, work, get tattoos, and simply be together. There was no agenda for events.

“Our people have been ‘workshopped,’ ‘consulted,’ and ‘agenda-ed’ to death,” Belcourt said.

A rigid program would lose the spirit of an Indigenous gathering, according to Belcourt and Murdoch.

“The white man’s way hasn’t worked for our people; it’s time to turn our backs on those practices and embrace our own way that leaves room for ceremony and whatever else needs to happen,” Belcourt added.

Another way Onaman counters colonial culture is in its funding. Although Onaman members accept government-sponsored arts funding for some projects, they refuse other government money.

Belcourt explained: “It’s a matter of principle and pride; we’re not going to beg money from the same institutions that oppressed us and created many of our problems in the first place. We have to rebuild ourselves in our own way. If we have to make do with less, then that’s just the way it is.”

Mary Loonskin of the Cree Nation traveled to the gathering from Sudbury, Ontario, after learning about it via social media. “Me and my family have been struggling with the fallout from colonialism for decades,” she said.

After her mother, an Indian boarding school survivor, lost custody of Loonskin and her siblings to the Canadian child welfare system, she was raised in an abusive foster home. Loonskin also lost custody of one of her own children.

She found a rideshare to the gathering via social media and joined a group of supportive Native women at the Camp. “I came here for healing,” she said.

Loonskin decided to get a facial tattoo, three lines on her chin. “I’m sick and tired of being ashamed of being Indigenous,” she said. “With this tattoo I am saying, ‘Yeah, I’m Indigenous!'”

“When we tattoo, we mark not only our bodies, but also our souls,” Arnaquq-Baril said.

Therefore, artists like Arnaquq-Baril ask that non-Indigenous people refrain from getting tribal tattoos. “I ask that people show respect for our symbols and designs. There are many other ways to honor our culture without appropriating it,” she noted.

To Murdoch, the ancient knowledge and spirituality of Indigenous people is key to leading the way in saving the Earth and its water from the West’s destructive hunger for fossil fuels.

“We are in a time of great upheaval in the Earth,” Belcourt said. She points to the impacts of climate change from burning fossil fuels as well as overharvesting timber, fish, and animals.

“Although we are not on the front lines of pipeline projects here at Nimkii Aazhbikoong, we know that our best defense for the Earth and the water is to pass down our traditional knowledge to our youth,” she said.

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