Cultural lineage: Reclaiming the Indigenous art of skin stitching

Gwich'in artist Jeneen Frei Njootli has been exploring the art of traditional tattooing, with needle and thread. 'It’s another way of connecting, it's another way of strengthening community.'

'These tattoos have been displaced from us in the same way that people have been displaced from lands'

Skin stitchings by Gwich'in artist Jeneen Frei Njootli. 'It’s another way of connecting, it's another way of strengthening community, and it’s another way of re-matriating these lines back onto our bodies,' she said. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

Jeneen Frei Njootli, a Gwich'in artist and performer, readily admits that she's no expert in the traditional art of skin stitching, but she's been an eager student.

"As soon as I did it, it just felt so natural to me. It reminded me a lot of sewing," she said.

It is a lot like sewing, in that it involves a needle and thread, but it's actually a form of tattooing — using the needle to thread trails of ink under the skin and form decorative and permanent designs.

'I'm just excited to be able to share this with people and just to help have those lines, those tattoos, revived in people’s communities,' said Frei Njootli. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

Frei Njootli, originally from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, recently finished a cultural tattoo training residency to learn more about skin stitching.

For her, it was a way to reclaim something that's been lost. Skin stitching was practiced in Indigenous communities around the world for centuries, before missionaries and settlers arrived to discourage or even ban the practice.

"These tattoos have been displaced from us in the same way that people have been displaced from lands. These lines have been displaced from our bodies also as a result of colonization," Njootli said.

"Tattooing is a way of having sovereignty over our bodies and of practising that, and also of letting people know who we are and where we come from."

'The live canvas'

One of Njootli's first "clients" was her friend Erika Tizya-Tramm, who asked Njootli to stitch a design on her thigh. 

"Part of the process, half of it, was just talking about the piece and what it meant," Tizya-Tramm said.

Frei Njootli working on Erika Tizya-Tramm's tattoo. 'Being together, sharing that moment, was really important to us,' Tizya-Tramm said. (Submitted by Erika Tizya-Tramm)

"She was very professional and very detailed about what exactly I wanted, and what the meaning was behind it."

Tizya-Tramm described the process as painful at first ("basically just stitching my skin with ink"), but she said the pain was quickly forgotten in the power of the moment.

"Having that relationship with someone who is doing this artwork, and being the live canvas for that expression, is a really personal thing. And I think that helped take my mind to a different place than the pain," she said.

"This was done at home with my best friend, over tea."

Not just something 'cool'

Frei Njootli agrees that one of beauties of skin stitching — apart from the historical and cultural significance — is the intimacy it affords.

There's no loud machine, no special facility required — just a needle, thread, ink, and a clean and "physically and culturally safe" environment.

"You could do it in your home, you could do it outside, you could practise whatever things are important to you culturally, while getting one of these tattoos," she said.

Tizya-Tramm's completed tattoo. She has other tattoos, but said this is her favourite one. 'This was done at home, with my best friend, over tea.' (Submitted by Erika Tizya-Tramm)

"A lot of those [tattoo] venues that you can go [to] aren't necessarily open or you don't know that it's somebody that can understand your culture."

Frei Njootli doesn't turn up her nose at modern tattooing, though — she has several of her own tattoos and loves to see other peoples' as well, and hear the stories behind them.

She's also willing to incorporate contemporary designs and ideas in her own skin stitch work, if that's what a person wants. For Frei Njootli, it's all about helping people discover and share what's meaningful to them.

"Some people have created drawings that embody teachings that they've grown up with, and I've worked with them to create a design," she said.

"It's not just something 'cool' — it's something that has real cultural depth and meaning. And I count myself lucky to be part of someone's journey in that."

With files from Leonard Linklater