Documenting Nlaka'pamux Visual Culture for the Coming Generations

When I first started this work of reviving my ancestral tattooing practice, I had only a few references that recorded Nlaka’pamux tattooing and our visual language documented on rocks, baskets etc.

From The Thompson Indians of British Columbia by James Teit.

From The Thompson Indians of British Columbia by James Teit.

Ever since that time I have been visiting pictograph sites, museums and reading as many academic and non-academic resources documenting our visual and material culture. Many of the people who have invited me to speak, share, tattoo them or assist in the creation of artwork have seen my manila folders, frayed at the edges and filled with photocopies of book pages and print outs of references from close to a decade of research. I started to think that I needed a way to organize and continue this research, so I conceived of what I am calling an Nlaka’pamux visual dictionary. In this book I have transcribed designs found on baskets, rocks, painted clothing and tattoos and compared the interpretations offered by researchers, anthropologists and community members. It currently contains 142 pages with 1575 designs documented with many of the designs and motifs being interpreted.

Sketches in the Nlaka'pamux Visual Dictionary

I have always loved art, tattoos and have always loved buying tattoo magazines; I used to have stacks and stacks or boxes of back issues. I would always love reading about the ancestral practices of Indigenous communities from across the globe. I even have some of those old articles that I have saved from the early days. It’s funny, recently a reporter asked me for a timeline of when I started this work, and its hard to nail down when it all started, because I can see the influences going back to those original articles where Keone Nunes was sharing about his work, or articles in the tat mags of the Samoan work. I can see those original articles being the original inspiration. Of course 2006 was pivotal with the finding of the Teit pamphlet, however at that time I wasn’t in a place to do anything with that information because I was partying and drinking way to much and had to become sober. I don’t talk much about my struggles with alcohol but that time in my life was ruled by a wonton pursuit of pleasure. I am thankful that I have been sober for a long time now.

Over the years I continued in an informal way researching and collecting articles from pop culture magazines and watching documentaries, I would argue that the inspiration and fire to revive Nlaka’pamux tattooing came from watching the journey of those Indigenous peoples involved in their revivals across the globe. I can remember some of those early films like the Vanishing Tattoo, Skin Stories and the episode of Miami Ink were Ami and Chris Garver visited Hawaii and Keone.

I started my professional tattoo apprenticeship in 2009 at Vertigo Tattoos in Salmon Arm, British Columbia Canada under my mentor Carla Romaniuk.

It was in 2011 the first time I official documented this interest of mine in a paper written in my Indigenous Historical Perspectives class, taught by my academic mentor Dr. Margo Tamez. In this class I tracked down James Teit’s pamphlet I found in 2006, and began reading and researching the academic literature in a serious way. I wrote a final paper in this class and ever since that time I have been reading, writing and researching on the topic of Indigenous tattoos.

I first started the documentation of our baskets in museums in the summer of 2012, as part of my UBCO Undergraduate research award. I visited the Nicola Valley Museum and Archive, The Yale Historic Site, The Langley Museum, and the Museum of Anthropology. When I made this trip with my mom I didn’t know enough to ask to get into the collections and just took photos from outside the glass cabinets. It was beginning in this year I believe that I began visiting pictograph and rock art sites with my now good friend Angela Clyburn, and I have been documenting sites every since. As a research assistant to Dr. Jeannette Armstrong I visited the Salmon Arm Museum and Archive, the Kelowna Museum, the Vernon Museum and Archive, the Lytton Museum, and the Archives at the Museum of Anthropology, and accessed the original sketches of Nankivell and Wyse. As part of the YVR Master Piece Study grant I visited the Burke Museum in Seattle Washington. As guest curator of Body Language alongside Beth Carter the curator of the Bill Reid Gallery I was able to visit the Royal BC Museum.