By Guen Douglas
My name is Guen Douglas and I am a British/French Canadian tattooer currently living in Berlin, Germany working at Taiko Gallery. As someone who’s work is heavily influenced by the American Traditional atheistic, I spend a lot of time looking at classic motifs and designs for inspiration. Having spent half my life in Canada with many First Nation friends I have always felt uncomfortable tattooing designs depicting women in headdresses and other “cartoonified” American Indian designs. I admit that I have done a few in the past and have since decided that unless I am asked to tattoo a particular historical person with a story based in fact, I will no longer tattoo any of the classic “American Indian” flash. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves and to share and amplify the stories of people around us that still face oppression. To start a discussion on this topic I thought it best to ask my long time friend Ian Campeau to answer a few questions. He is a deejay and activist who in the last few years has fought hard to implement change and to educate on the injustices First Nations people still face daily in North America.
Guen: Firstly, I’d like to congratulate you on your recent Juno award win for “producer of the year” and to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for me. Please introduce yourself for those that don’t know who you are here in Europe and elsewhere.
Guen: You’ve been getting tattooed for as long as I’ve known you, (which is now going on about 18 years), and as a wearer of lots of American Traditional tattoos you are aware that there exist a slew of old designs featuring First Nations peoples and symbols.
Does it bother you to see so many non First Nations people getting tattoos like this? Women wearing headdresses, beads and feathers or dream catchers.
Ian: I think it’s important to change the idea of “Traditional America.” There’s a big difference between getting Indigenous Art and getting an “Indian Head” tattooed. I think the fetishizing of Indigenous people as “American History” is a weak point. Slavery is also a BIG part of American History and yet images of people of African decent aren’t exploited this way. Why is it only the Indigenous culture being mined this way? We need to start asking ourselves these questions.
Guen: True! I mean you don’t see hoards of hipsters getting “golliwog” tattoos (named after a blackface minstrel-like character in Florence Kate Upton and Bertha Upton’s 1895 book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg – Time Magazine), it would be considered totally unacceptable! Do you think is it important to change people’s views on First Nations motifs in tattooing?
Ian: I think it’s important to change the views that First Nation’s culture is not something for Non-Indigenous people to take and exploit.
Guen: As festival season looms and people are off buying outfits and accessories for Coachella and other large festivals we see this discussion start over. People love to justify their headresses, cornrows or bindi as being celebratory. Do you think as so many would argue that the tattooing or wearing of native symbols like headresses is a “celebration” rather than an appropriation of native culture? If no why?
Ian: When you wear a headdress to a music festival, you’re literally making fun of Indigenous people. It’s taking something of great meaning for some Indigenous people and wearing it for “fun.” It’s taking something of honour and making it “fun.”
Guen: Your family recently grew a little larger with the birth of Nenookaasi, congratulations again! As a father of three daughters, do you think the caricaturization of First Nations symbology affects young people growing up in your communities?
Ian: The caricaturization of Indigenous culture is literally killing our youth. Indigenous youth in North America have the highest suicide rate in the world. There’s plenty of research done by the American Psychological Association on the effects of Native Mascots on Indigenous students. When society doesn’t treat their culture with respect, it’s tough to find self esteem.
Guen: Thank you Ian for taking the time to answer these few questions for me. I’m sure this topic will provoke some heated discussion within the tattooing community as these types of tattoos are increasingly popular the world over.
Ian: Thank you!
During the yearly pre-festival season, articles written on the subject of appropriation become very divisive, with people arguing on the side of the misappropriation for multiple reasons. Many feel attacked and get defensive because they have worn a headdress, dressed as an indigenous person for halloween or have an “indian head” tattoo. Just remember many of us are guilty of one or all, myself included. What matters most is what you do once you understand the effect this has on a group of people, that have been overlooked, underrepresented and continue to be oppressed. Apologise and move forward. The legacy of colonisation is dark the world over. We shouldn’t forget it.
I hope to revisit this topic in the future so I have some questions I’d like to ask for those that will undoubtedly be posting in the comments. Do you believe everything is fair game in this now globalised world? Do you believe that one persons desire to wear something is more important than respecting the wishes of a people? In your opinion is it important to have access and ownership over imagery and symbols belonging to other cultures and if so, why? Is it important to explain to people how to know when is the line crossed from cultural exchange to cultural appropriation? Do you feel personally attacked when you read about appropriation because of your past behaviour or choices? Would you be interested in reading about the history of some of the most appropriated symbols and clothing? Remember, Please be kind to each other when commenting.
To find out more about Ian and his group A Tribe Called Red i’ve included some links below and you can find him on Instagram and Twitter as @deejayndn
For those interested in further reading about First Nations people in Canada:
Find Guen Here: @guendouglas on twitter and IG