Tattoodo Interview and Article: Dion Kaszas Indigenous Tattoo Revival

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

A few months ago I did an interview with Justine Morrow from Tattoodo for an article on Indigenous tattooing. In this blog post I will share a link to the article and Justine’s original questions and my answers before editing happened.

Original questions as posed by Justine.

I do have to say I am thankful for the thoughtful questions that Justine posed, and also thankful they took the time to do a bit of preliminary research before hand. Many times interviewees have not taken the time to find out the basic things about me. I feel happy about the article and would like say thank you to Justine for including my voice.

  1. I’d love if you could talk about your background…you were a Christian minister and a manager of a nightclub, and now you have wholeheartedly devoted yourself to the tattoo art form. How has your personal evolution brought you to where you are now?

Hi my name is Dion Kaszas I am an Nlaka’pamux cultural tattoo practitioner and professional tattoo artist. I have carefully and thoughtfully responded to these questions, with a heart filled with gratitude for being asked, and in the hopes that we can move forward together with full understanding of each other. What seem like harsh and pointed responses come from the deepest part of my soul, staying optimistic that I will be heard. I respond as an activist taking my responsibilities to speak my truth with care and compassion understanding that as Indigenous peoples we don’t get asked to speak about ourselves as experts on ourselves often enough.

My existence is a testament to the strength and resilience of my ancestors, whose tears, prayers, and blood paid the price for me to do the work that I do today. The revival of my ancestral tattooing practice is a gift from the creator and one of my responsibilities to the people to be. I was born 101 years after the Indian Act was passed into Canadian law; this legislation consolidated previous colonial statues including the Gradual Civilization Act. The Indian act limited, and limits the human rights of Indigenous Peoples in the nation state of Canada. Including our right to vote in the federal election until 1960, it was illegal for us to congregate in groups larger than two, without a religious minister, an Indian agent or a police officer present. The Indian Act also made the attendance of Indigenous children at state funded religiously operated residential schools mandatory; parents who refused to send their children were imprisoned. Children were rounded up and placed in cattle trucks and taken off to a foreign environment where they were not allowed to speak the only language they knew, and punished if they spoke it. The first of these total institutions in Western Canada opened in 1883 and the last one closed its doors the year I graduated high school. The cannon of this legislation’s intention was to eradicate Indigenous peoples and to assimilate their savage souls into the body politic, making us disconnected from our homelands and no longer anchored in our culture.

The beginning of my life was filled with internal turmoil associated with the colonial legacy of attempting to erase my nation, community, and family out of existence as Nlaka’pamux peoples. Leaving me desperately trying to find some sense of who I was, which lead me to becoming a minster for a very conservative Christian denomination. My conversion to Christianity was precipitated through a series of intense and life-altering circumstances on an over 2,000-kilometer road trip to Anchorage Alaska from my childhood home in south central British Columbia, Canada. My short time as a minister and a Christian came to an end as I began to research and study the role that Christianity played in the colonization and devastation of Indigenous communities, all across Turtle Island (North America). It was the thinking and theorizing of the Native American Scholar Vine Deloria Jr. that lead me away from Christianity.

I have always been committed to a life of deep reflection, grounded in a pilgrimage to find contentment, satisfaction and peace for my being. During my early years I loved browsing the philosophy section in the bookstore, bringing home a gem that filled the next few days and weeks until I had finished digesting the authors thinking and theorizing. As I left the Christian faith I stumbled upon a series of books dedicated to hedonism and the pursuit of happiness and contentment through the complete indulgence of human desires and pleasures. As I began to indulge in all that the human experience has to offer I began a close to four year period where I moved from bouncer, bartender and eventually manager of a night club. During this time I began to work on my right sleeve and while at a tattoo shop in my hometown I stumbled across a tiny ethnographic pamphlet entitled “Tattooing Face and Body Painting of the Thompson Indians.” In my introduction I shared that I am Nlaka’pamux which is one of the names that we use to identify ourselves, the Thompson Indians is a name that was imposed upon us. So this little booklet I found was a pamphlet outlining my ancestral tattooing practice.

This discovery was the seed to the revival of Nlaka’pamux tattooing, however it stayed dormant for close to four years as I continued to party and live a life pleasure. During this time I read extensively into the philosophy of existentialism, reading authors like Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. In 2007 I decided it was time to continue to pursue my undergraduate degree and enrolled in a joint religion and philosophy degree at the University of Alberta, Augustana campus. After 5 months I moved back to British Columbia and started teaching a kickboxing class, and attending the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) in Indigenous studies. While a student at UBCO I was introduced to the Syilx story of “How Food was Given,” or the “Four Food Chiefs Story.” In this story, which happened in the time before this time, the Creator came to the animal people and asked them, what will you do for the people to be? Meaning us as human, because we are not well adapted to survive in the harsh environment of our ancestral homelands, without fur coats, sharp teeth or the ability to absorb nutrients from the ground or the sun. I feel this question is one the creator asks all of us and it sat on my mind and heart for a many years.

Part way through my undergrad in Indigenous studies at UBCO I began my tattoo apprenticeship at Vertigo Tattoos and Body Piercing under my mentor Carla Romaniuk in Salmon Arm, BC. I began researching my ancestral tattooing tradition and the revival of Indigenous tattooing across the globe and was inspired by the work that was being done in Aotearoa, Southern California, and Hawaii among many others. I learnt that our tattooing, Indigenous ancestral tattooing has the power to anchor our people once again into our cultures. During this time of research, I completed my apprenticeship and one of my young friends who I mentored through my kickboxing class, made the decision that he didn’t want to continue to live in this plan of existence and he took his own life.

Tears rolled down my cheeks during his funeral and watered the seed that was planted four years before in finding that ethnographic text by James Teit about my ancestral tattooing practice. My young friends death brought to remembrance my own struggle and it was through the weaving together of the Creators question, ‘what will you do for the people to be?’, the example of the power of ancestral tattoo revival in the Pacific and my knowledge of tattooing as a newbie professional tattoo artist that the revival of my ancestral Nlaka’pamux tattooing tradition was born.

  1. Can you talk about your connection with the important cultural tradition of Indigenous tattooing?

In 2012 I received a research award, which allowed me to spend the summer researching Nlaka’pamux visual and material culture, including pictographs, basketry, painted clothing and our embodied artistic practice of tattooing. At the end of this summer my responsibility to revive my ancestral tattooing practice was fully realized, I looked around for mentors who were doing this work and did not find any. So I autoclaved a needle and thread and sat down at the tattoo shop and taught myself how to handpoke and skin stitch, the two methods my ancestors used. Keone Nunes the Hawaiian Kakau master says when you tattoo in the way that your ancestors did, “its like a time machine, where you feel exactly what your ancestors felt.” As the first few stitches passed under my skin creating small tunnels filled with ink, it was as if I passed through time and the blood memory of my ancestors taught me the lessons I needed to learn. Those first few years working at the revival were difficult; some community members associated handpoke with tattoos done in jail and the visual imagination of being skin stitched makes most people cringe. There were only a few non-Indigenous practitioners of skin stitching in the beginning who were unwilling to share the knowledge they had with me. There may have been Indigenous practitioners on Turtle Island in the beginning doing the work in their own communities but I was not aware of them. This resulted in me feeling isolated and alone in this struggle to revive my ancestral tattooing practice.

In the beginning and even to this day I am asked by individuals from all across Turtle Island to collaborate in reviving their ancestral markings. In 2015 through the Indigenous Ink tattoo festival in Aotearoa, I was introduced to the larger Indigenous tattoo community and am thankful to all the friends and colleagues who I am surrounded by from across the Indigenous world. As the years have gone by the revival of Indigenous tattooing has developed into a revival movement and people in community are picking up the tools without adequate knowledge of safe sterile practices. Which lead me to envisioning a training program for those wishing to begin this journey of reviving their ancestral tattooing practice. And in 2015 I co-founded the Earthline Tattoo Collective with my friends Amy Malbeuf (Cree, Metis) and Jordan Bennett (Mi’kmaq) and in 2016 I taught the first Earthline Tattoo Training Residency. Since its inception Earthline has graduated 17 professionally trained cultural tattoo practitioners, armed with a solid foundation in blood borne pathogens, cross contamination and spiritual and cultural safety. I have personally taught handpoke and skin stitch to a handful of Indigenous tattoo artists who were already doing the work-using machine. I am so excited to see the work being done and to have so many more cultural practitioners to share this responsibility with.

  1. For those who don’t know, why was were some of these artistic modes of expression almost lost? Why is it so important to preserve it?

The Nlaka’pamux ancestral embodied artistic practice of tattooing was put to sleep for a period of around 150 years, the reason for this is the story of colonization on Turtle Island. The following is a modified narrative from the exhibition catalogue for “Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Northwest,” which outlines the reason very briefly why I am now waking up a sleeping tradition and not living in a vibrant tradition. The fabric of our cultures and tattooing practices began to ever so slightly fray at the edges, the moment the first boat containing Judeo-Christian ‘explorers’ caught site of Turtle Island. In the blinking of a crusty sea weary eye we were reduced to heathens and savages not worthy of our lands and sovereignty, through the racist discriminatory legal construction of the Doctrine of Discovery. Colonialist conquerors were not the only passengers on the ships that sailed across the oceans to strip our lands of resources to fuel the fires of first world development and progress. Very tiny, devastating microbes traveled across the oceans with catastrophic consequences. The apocalyptic scenario that I am referring to includes waves of epidemic diseases that swept across the continent, including smallpox, influenza, measles and tuberculosis. After first contact our population was on a steady decline due to the effects of “the most potent weapon in the armory of ‘ecological imperialism.” These diseases contributed to the tattering of the social fabric of Indigenous world and lifeviews.

In tandem with the emergence of fur traders, explorers, gold miners and diseases came an equally devastating wave of invasive ideologies, which engulfed the lives of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island. The lives of Indigenous peoples as they had been lived since time immemorial were changed by the rhetoric of the ‘uncivilised savage’ who needed saving through Christ. Missionaries came into our lands to convert our savage souls and to train us to become productive members of a foreign economic system. Missionaries came with the blessings of the great commission but also with the tenants of the Doctrine of Discovery, which gives the mandate to the superior European from God to “bring civilization, education, and religion to Indigenous peoples.”

In bringing civilization to us, savages, our lives and relationship to the Imperialist colonialist governmental system was outlined beginning in 1763 with the Royal proclamation. Then entrenched in the legislation of the Dominion of Canada in the Indian Act of 1876, which defined ‘reserves’ and ‘Indians’ into existence. The Indian Act and all legislation that came before it was created with the express purpose of the eradication of Indigenous peoples, part of distinct nations with rights to Indigenous lands and territories. In 1920, forty-four years after the first official Indian Act, Duncan Campbell Scott then deputy superintendent general of the Department of Indian Affairs said, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed” It was this same year that the Canadian government made school attendance mandatory for Indian children as an amendment to the Indian Act.

Diseases, Indian Agents, government officials and missionaries had already attacked the threads of our existence for one hundred and forty-six years by 1831, when the Mohawk Indian residential school was opened in Brantford Ontario. The residential school system cut to the core of Indigenous existence, our children. It forcibly removed children from families and communities and sometimes moved them across the country in an effort to civilize them. Story after story has been told of the atrocities that happened to the children held captive in residential schools. Families and communities had a hole left at the center of their beings when their children were removed. In the beginning it was not clear what the true intentions of the Indian residential schools were. As it became clear that the intention was to “kill the Indian and save the child,” parents began to resist and those who did were imprisoned. The last residential school in Canada was in Saskatchewan and it was closed in 1996.

The residential school system was extended to the west in 1883 authorized by Sir John A. Macdonald, and one year later an amendment was made to the Indian Act to outlaw the potlatch and many other religious, cultural practices. The suppression of the potlatch was not new for the peoples of the Northwest Coast, including the Haida, Nisga’a, Heiltsuk and Tlingit. Missionaries and federal officials had opposed it as soon as they set foot in British Columbia. When I sit quietly and consider the history that my ancestors lived through, I do not find it surprising when I look out into the nation state of Canada and see the struggles of our people. The sometimes harsh realities that we as Indigenous peoples lived through each and everyday have in large part to do with the processes with which our land, our philosophies, laws, bodies and identities have been ignored, silenced and destroyed.

The realities I am referring to include but are not limited to drug and alcohol abuse, a gross over representation of our people in the un-justice system, and the lure to assimilate and severe connections to the bones of our ancestors that cover this entire continent. Or as my young friend decided, to become another Indigenous person who decided the struggle was to hard. It was not to long ago that my mother admits, “even though you knew that you were native, you didn’t dare even say that word, let alone admit that’s what you were.” This brief history of Canada contained in the few paragraphs above is a very simplified and grossly inadequate part of Canada’s often times untold history of genocide.

On a personal level I can see from my contemporary perspective that the genocidal practices and processes we are here talking about have one goal in mind, the extinguishing of my identity as an Nlaka’pamux person, as an Indigenous person. One of the benefits of my erasure as an Nlaka’pamux person who comes from a nation that has roots to a very particular ecosystem, a very particular geographic area, is the erasure of the burden of the Canadian government to finally deal fairly and honestly with us on the rights accorded to us in the royal proclamation of 1763, section 35 of the Canadian Constitution and to give legs to its acceptance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. From the few threads of my culture that remain, I work as a cultural tattoo practitioner to stitch myself back together so that I can fulfill my responsibilities to the people to be.

  1. Can you describe the sacred aspects of indigenous tattooing and the symbolism illustrated with the technique?

There are many sacred aspects to Indigenous peoples tattooing practices and the symbolism associated with these traditions, in many cases these aspects are unique to each individuals journey and story. Each Indigenous culture, nation, community, family and individual has their own journey with the symbols and practice. For some nations the designs and motifs, are inherited and accompany names which stretch back to an original ancestor and each time the name is given and its accompanying tattoo applied it is a reincarnation of the original ancestor. Sometimes our tattoos are given in dreams by our spirit helpers, sometimes given for healing for physical, emotional and spiritual trauma. Today I would argue that Indigenous tattoos include all the aforementioned aspects but also are an embodiment of our ancestor’s resilience, strength and prayers. It would be inappropriate for me to give further in depth explanations concerning the sacred aspects at this time, far to often the generosity of Indigenous peoples to share intimate, sacred aspects of our cultures and ancestral practices have resulted in the appropriation and misappropriation of that knowledge for the gratification and financial gain of those who wish to use things that they do not have rights, relationship or responsibility to.

  1. How do we educate people about cultural appropriation? How do you feel people can (or can’t) respectfully use the technique of indigenous tattooing without treading upon sacred cultural iconography or rituals?

First I would say that far to often cultural appropriation is positioned in terms of Eurocentric philosophical and legal constructions that are based on discriminatory assumptions that we are savages and our philosophical and legal constructs are inferior and do not need to be considered. Second the issue of cultural appropriation and misappropriation for me arises from a culture and history of genocide that started with turning us into savages to calm the cognitive dissonance caused when human beings are treated as if they are sub human. Allowing for the theft of land, and children to fuel the colonial project through slavery, deception and violence. The inappropriate use of Indigenous knowledge including iconography, rituals and practices is a furtherance of a colonial legacy of violence, discrimination and furthers the continued history of genocide. I further feel the issue of cultural appropriation is not a matter of education, for the topic has been argued clearly and eloquently by generations of Indigenous activists, scholars, and artists. It is a matter of insisting that those who are offended, angered or threatened by my words turn the mirror upon themselves to see why this is the case. If we are to move forward together in this world as lovers, friends, colleagues and fellow human beings it is time to listen to each other. We were forced to listen, learn and understand Western European epistemologies, worldviews, and practices. The difference here is if someone does not understand cultural appropriation from an Indigenous perspective it is not because we haven’t tried, it is because you haven’t taken the time to listen.

I feel its is important to point out that it is not ok, for non Haida or Northwest Coast people to hashtag their work as #haidatattoo or #northwestocasttattoo whether the hashtag is in English, Russian or German. The same goes for hashtags like #inuitsewing, if you are not Inuit, it is a misrepresentation and outright slap in the face for people to claim things that are not theirs. Just the same as it would be inappropriate to hashtag your work using the hashtag for a shop you don’t work for or using the #guyaitchison to promote your biomech tattoos when your not Guy Aitchison.

The reality is when it comes to technique everyone was handpoking before Edison and Samuel O’Reilly, so poke away. The issue arises when designs, symbols, and scared aspects of Indigenous peoples communal knowledge is used without rights, relationship, or responsibility. If people wish to embody Indigenous symbols, design styles, and artwork, get tattooed by an Indigenous person who comes from a nation that originally tattooed using those symbols, design styles etc. If this is not possible, commission an Indigenous artist who has rights relationship and responsibility to those designs and motifs and have them design a work they feel is appropriate for you to have tattooed by whomever you choose. Wherever your ancestors originate from, dig deep into your place and find inspiration for your own designs, symbols and motifs. Develop new ceremonies, rituals and practices associated with your ancestral lands and territories, don’t steal ours. Our world will become more beautiful as it is filled with the diversity of designs, symbols and motifs informed by your ancestry and homelands. Its time to take your hands off our stuff, including unceded territories, design styles, motifs, and sacred knowledge that you don’t know how to take care of.

Before I move on I feel it is important to share that when I consider the sacred aspects of our ancestral tattooing practices, I am reminded of my relatives who are on the frontlines defending our homelands and territories against resource extraction and development. It is in these places that our tattoos speak the loudest to their sacredness and indelible connection to mother earth. With this in mind I feel it is important to bring to your attention to what is happening right now in so called British Columbia, Canada. On February 7th, 2020 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided Gidimt’en checkpoint on unceded Wet’suwet’en territory. The Wet’suwet’en are an Indigenous nation who has been defending their land from the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is their right as unceded stewards of their territory. When I use the term unceded what I mean is that the Wet’suwet’en have not given up their territory through treaty, war, or surrender. I ask that you please educate yourself about the Wet’suwet’en’s fight for their land, and a multitude of other similar violations of human rights happening in the nation state of Canada. So many times I have had tattoo artists, or tattoo collectors when approached about the inappropriate use of Indigenous designs, symbols and motifs, the reply comes back in a few different flavours. The first response is usually, “we respect and are honouring you,” secondly “I feel so connected to this symbol.” The reason our tattoos are so sacred is because they connect us to our lands and territories and they speak of our responsibilities to that land. If you really want to respect and honour our tattoos and if you really want to feel connected to our symbols, research, spread the word and stand with us against the consumption, exploitation, and extraction of our communal heritage, including our lands, territories, symbols, ceremonies and cultural practices.

  1. What are your future hopes for the sacred and ritualistic aspects of tattooing? What are your hopes for your own practice?

My hope for tattooing is that we can all stand as human beings supporting and lifting each other up, embracing our diversity and respecting one another’s rights, boundaries and responsibilities. As we seek truth, happiness, love and peace, we will be able to discern the realities of being part of a family, community and ecosystem that requires the individual to uphold its responsibilities as a member of each relational community. I hope that we will not sacrifice relationality, friendship, truth, and peace in pursuit of monetary gain, and ego driven pursuits. I hope that each and every Indigenous nation across Turtle Island and across the globe will have at least one cultural tattoo practitioner to serve and assist in the embodying of their ancestral mark making practice. I hope that as we heal our connection to ourselves and to our cultures that we will heal our connection to mother earth and begin to live for the coming generations, not just for our own selfish desires.

            I hope that I will be able to continue to share my knowledge with the future generations of Nlaka’pamux cultural tattoo practitioners and continue to reintegrate our spiritual and ceremonial practices into our everyday lives. I have just begun a new project I am calling Nlaka’pamux Blackwork, where I will be applying Nlaka’pamux visual language to the canvas of the full body. I started this project as a way to address my own concerns around committing to tattooing only patterns, designs and motifs inspired by my ancestry, things that I am connected to and have rights, relationship and responsibility to. This project is dedicated to allowing the revival of Nlaka’pamux tattooing to stay in community, reserving traditional tattoo patterns and placements for Nlaka’pamux peoples. This project will allow me to develop a contemporary Nlaka’pamux tattooing practice that I can share more broadly with any and all who wish to be tattooed by me, using the visual language of my ancestors. I have so far this year visited the Canadian Museum of History, Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and the Royal BC Museum to study the visual language contained on baskets, painted cl