Nakkita Trimble is reviving almost-lost Nisga'a tattooing practices to help youth anchor themselves
See her story and more in the award-winning Indigenous tattoo documentary This Ink Runs Deep
This Ink Runs Deep features Indigenous tattoo artists across Canada who are reviving ancestral traditions that were taken away during colonization. Through the film, directed by Asia Youngman, we learn about the practices that were thought to be lost forever, and how their revival reflects a reawakening of Indigenous identity. Stream This Ink Runs Deep now on CBC Gem and worldwide on YouTube.
"I never thought I was gonna be a tattoo artist when I graduated from art school," says Nakkita Trimble, the only tattoo artist from the Nisga'a Nation. "I kept having these dreams about taking an ash, making an ink and tattooing my grandmother onto a bear hide, and so I went home to visit. In Prince Rupert I got this tattoo done on my wrist and tattooing was really the only art scene that was happening in Prince Rupert." Now living in Terrace, B.C., Trimble is an instructor at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, where she also attended as a student. And the revival of Nisga'a tattoing practices has become an integral part of her life.
"There's three methods that the Nisga'a practised prior to contact. [There's] hand-poking, which is pricking the ink into the skin. We also practised the scarification method, so we would take a scalpel, cut into the skin and then take a paint brush and paint. And then we practised skin stitching, where you take the needle and you sew it in and out of the skin."
"This one here is a hand-poked tattoo, and it's the salmonberry pattern," she says, referring to her own tattoo. "I went into labour on my 30th birthday with my daughter; the salmonberries represent that month and that this is a tattoo for us."
"Tattooing wasn't for just anybody," Trimble tells the This Ink Runs Deep crew about the Nisga'a's practices. "There's a responsibility that went with the tattoo, and the chiefs and the matriarchs would decide who would get a tattoo. Then in a year's time they would go through that process and get that tattoo done, and then once the tattoo was healed they would be revealed in the feast hall. There were names that were tied to that and the hereditary rights, and when that person passed on, that name from them passed on and the tattoo would be passed down as well."
As with many aspects of Indigenous cultures, much of this knowledge was or was almost lost due to government suppression. "With the potlatch ban it was illegal to practise our culture, and so if you were caught doing anything like that they would throw you in jail." Trimble fortunately was able to meet a Nisga'a elder who shared with her the oral history of Nisga'a tattooing prior to contact.
"When you're born and you're born into your clan, into your house, you know those things. You know all of those pieces of your identity. You're surrounded by them. With the removal of our clans off of our bodies, it's taken away our identity."
Like Dion Kaszas, also featured in This Ink Runs Deep, Trimble sees the revival of Indigenous tattooing practices as a way to help anchor youth in their lives. "Our youth are the fastest growing population with the highest suicide rate and so if we can anchor a youth in their identity where they're proud of who they are, then they can feel that in their life and they can feel good about being Indigenous. My hope is that any artist that comes through Freda Diesing, if we can teach them who they are in their identity and really build that foundation, that root system, they can then come from that place of power and really practise their culture and give that back to their people."
"Our young people are looking at tattooing and looking at their maternal crests and they're talking with their elders and with their communities and their chiefs and their matriarchs. They're reconnecting to some part of them that is tens of thousands of years old. This practice has been asleep for over 100 years and we want to ensure that the revival of it is really built on that solid foundation. I feel really proud that my daughter — who's one and a half — is gonna grow up seeing her mom and her dad practising their culture. She's never gonna have to question her identity. She's always gonna know exactly who she is."
"For her to be surrounded in that, interested in that, we just couldn't be any more proud if she became an artist — tattooer, carver, weaver, whatever she wants to do. We're just really proud of her. For me to be able to ground myself in my identity and then give that back to other people and for them to give that back to the community, it's a very good feeling that our people are gonna just continue to grow stronger and stronger all across Canada."