Traditional Nlaka’pamux Bone Tattoo Tools and Ink

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

Researching and Creating Traditional Bone Tools and Ink

Example of Cree Tattooing Tools

This is the third of five overlapping projects that my long Term Project Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts will support. If you missed the first two go check them out in my blog timeline.

Since I first read about the traditional tools and inks we as Nlaka’pamux used, I have yearned to devote a considerable amount of time to researching and experimenting with the creation of bone tools and traditional inks. The reason I have not done this yet is the amount of experimentation and time it will take to ensure sterile practices are clearly defined, because of the health of tattoo recipients is paramount. There are cultural tattoo practitioners from Polynesia, specifically Hawaii and Samoa who still use bone tools and traditional inks, combined with sterilization practices that prevent infection and the spread of contagious diseases.

There will be three phases to the research. The first is visits to museum collections that house bone tools from across the Indigenous world. I am most interested in collections that have bone stitch needles. The Canadian Museum of History has some beautiful examples of fine Dorset needles and Nlaka’pamux needles which I can visit when I am engrossed in the phase of my project related to Nlaka’pamux visual language. 

Skin Stitch Tattooing with Metal Needle

 The next phase of this research will include visiting with practitioners who make and use bone tools in their current tattooing practice. The first person I will visit with is the Hawaiian cultural tattoo practitioner Keone Nunes in Hawaii to learn how the Hawaiians fashion their bone hand tap tools. The way these tools are crafted will give insight into how to work with bone as a medium for tattoo tool making. The second thing I hope to learn is how the Hawaiians make their traditional inks. I do know what we used for the pigment of our tattoo inks but need to research what might have been the binder, so in visiting Keone I will gain a greater sense of how traditional inks are made. One of the important things I am interested in is the process that Keone and his students use to sterilize and clean their tattooing tools and inks. Keone has developed a method of sterilization that keeps the integrity of the bone but still sterilizes it well enough to pass health inspections.

Keone Holding Traditional Tools

The archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolfe has published numerous articles on traditional bone tools and has been experimenting with bone needles for over ten years. Aaron is another person who I will collaborate with to explore his research and learn everything I can about the techniques he has developed for working with bone tools from North America. Aaron has indicated that he is excited to share his knowledge via scheduled Skype or video conference meetings over the course of this grant. In meeting with Aaron, I will gain a greater depth of knowledge of the archaeological record dealing with bone tools and also possibly get a few leads on important examples, especially of stitch needles.

Archeologist Aaaron Deter-Wolfe

I will then experiment with a variety of techniques to fashion the bone needles and learn how to extract the sinew from the spine of a deer for the thread. After I have perfected the fashioning of our traditional tools, I will move onto developing a set of procedures and protocols for collecting the medicinal plants we used for our inks. This will be a careful phase of experimentation coupled with development of sterile procedures for the processing of our traditional inks and tools. 

Once I have been able to relearn the traditional skills and successfully combined them with contemporary sterilization practices and standards, I will be able to pass this knowledge onto the coming generations. I will be documenting this whole process using digital film so as to have the footage available for the creation of multi-media installations in a physical gallery or a virtual gallery in the future and allow for educational applications. 

See you next week as we explore the fourth project that this grant will support, travel to conventions and festivals.

I acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

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