'They'll know my stories just by looking at my face': Indigenous body painting a way of reclaiming culture

Indigenous body painting is not a new custom. A workshop in Regina explored the history of indigenous body painting and introduced how to do body painting in a contemporary way.

Participants receive lessons on indigenous body painting in Regina

Garnett Tootoosis says art has helped him heal and he's glad to have a new medium to practice art in. (Supplied/Amber Maxie)

Garnett Tootoosis says he is covered in tattoos "from-head-to-toe." When asked if he can count how many, he laughs and says no. 

"The art on my body is more a representation of my family and the things I been through." said Tootoosis. He has his Cree name and the Cree words for "faith" and "family" on his face along with a feather. 

Garnett Tootoosis is part of the indigenous body painting workshop that was held in Regina. (Supplied/Amber Maxie)

This week Tootoosis, his partner Larissa Kitchemonia and other artists in Regina got a chance to learn about the role of body art in traditional Indigenous culture.

It was part of a two-day workshop in Regina titled Where We Stand, which aimed to teach the history behind Indigenous body painting and show Indigenous artists contemporary body painting techniques.

Amber Maxie created the workshop.

"It's only contemporary in the sense of the material that we're using. For Indigenous people, body painting and face painting is really historical and very significant, very spiritual and very powerful. That dates back generations, thousands of years even."

Maxie said Where We Stand is a theme for grounding the participants and exploring their identity. 

Facilitator Amber Maxie says she wants people to learn about the history of Indigenous body painting while learning to apply contemporary techniques. (Supplied/Amber Maxie)

Wayne Goodwill is an elder and artist from Standing Buffalo. He was brought in to share traditional teachings he learned about Indigenous body and face painting. Goodwill said he had never been asked to publicly share that knowledge about Indigenous body painting before.

"Face painting came with birthdays and Indian names, in death, people were painted when they die. People were painted when they were at battle. People painted when they are dancing," he said.

Wayne Goodwill shared what he was taught growing up about traditional Indigenous body and face painting. (Supplied/Amber Maxie)

He said men and their horses would be painted in the same colours at ceremonies. Being painted was a spiritual experience and was done in a ceremonial way.

"When they were coloured like that, they were spiritual. They even use those colours in battle. Some of the medicine men had special colours."

Garnett Tootoosis and his partner Larissa Kitchemonia said they liked learning new techniques as new artists. (Supplied/Amber Maxie)

Goodwill said his grandfather told him that some were given special colours that were unique to them, gifted to them through a vision or dream. This colour carried them through life, gave them strength and was used as an offering through cloth. Certain colours were sometimes passed down from one generation to the next.

"When I danced, my grandparents told me to use red ochre… When my grandfather died, they put red ochre on his cheeks.That's what he wanted done because that's what they did in my Goodwill family," he said.

Goodwill said Indigenous people would traditionally use their fingers to paint or create their own brushes by chewing on a willow branch or cutting a feather at an angle.

Indigenous body painting today

Amber Maxie said she overcame challenges to put the workshop on for the community.

"I struggled a lot especially over the last year trying direction, trying to find an elder, people to to talk about Indigenous body painting because it's not something that is discussed but you know the knowledge is there."

Artist Dorota Buczel shares body painting techniques with Indigenous artists in Regina for the Where We Stand workshop. (Supplied/Amber Maxie)

She found that knowledge in elder Goodwill and traditional dancer Mike Desjarlais. Artist Dorota Buczel came from Toronto to share her skills as a professional body painter with the students. 

"We're blending history and tradition and culture and that knowledge with a contemporary art form," said Maxie.

Tootoosis and his partner said learning about why Indigenous people paint their bodies was important.

"There's certain things that we shouldn't paint on ourselves. There's traditional markings that belong to families and you shouldn't be using them unless you went about it in the right way," said Tootoosis

Evelyn Maxie-Poitras creates art using her her mother's arm as a canvas. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC )

Kitchemonia painted a teepee design on Tootoosis's back. Jayda Delorme, a 16 year old artist from Regina, painted a floral design on her mother's back. Local artist Micheal Lonechild painted a buffalo canvas on Dale McArthur.

For people like Tootoosis, this experience with Indigenous body painting and tattooing furthers his sense of identity and storytelling.

"People will always ask me stories and I will always be willing to tell my stories even when I'm gone, people will look at my body while I'm laying there and they'll know my stories just by looking at my face."

The workshop Where We Stand will be made into a documentary. Maxie said they intend to do more workshops across Canada in the future.

Artists and their "canvases" at the first Indigenous body painting workshop in Regina. (Ntawnis PIapot/CBC )

About the Author

Ntawnis Piapot

Reporter

Ntawnis Piapot is Nehiyaw Iskwew from Piapot Cree Nation. She has a Journalism Degree from the University of Regina, and is a graduate from the INCA Media and Intercultural Leadership Program from the First Nations University. Ntawnis has been a Reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, APTN National News, CTV Regina, VICE News, J-Source and Eagle Feather News. Email: ntawnis.piapot@cbc.ca Twitter: @ntawnis