Traditional tattooing explored in FNUniv art class
- Julia Peterson | April 20, 2021
Two-spirit Métis-Cree artist Mel Lefebvre uses traditional tattooing as a mode of healing and reconnection for urban Indigenous LGBTQ+ and Indigenous women.
“I’m… looking at traditional tattoos as they relate to community but also to gender and representations,” Lefebvre said.
The Montreal-based artist brought their art practice to Audrey Dreaver’s class in the Indigenous Communications & Fine Arts department at First Nations University of Canada in March.
Lefebvre has been doing traditional tattoos for about two years as they pursue their Ph.D. at Concordia University.
The historical records of Indigenous tattoos, which were often written by, “white priests and anthropologists and explorers,” leave out important stories, Lefebvre says. They want to bring these suppressed narratives to the forefront.
“There was a lot about men being warriors, and their tattoos would represent how many people they came into contact with in battle and things like that,” they said. “And then women’s tattoos were often reported as adornments, as ornamental. And where are the stories around two-spirit tattoos?”
When Lefebvre gives someone a traditional tattoo - by hand, always - they say the experience is profoundly intimate and meaningful for both people involved.
“I’m not only providing healing or care and connection for the person I’m tattooing, but they give that to me, too,” they said. “It’s this real sort of gift of exchange. As much as they’re receiving, I’m receiving just as much. So it’s been a real pleasure.
“There’s a lot of transformation involved - grieving and happiness and a sense of belonging that comes out of it.”
Audrey Dreaver, a lecturer and program coordinator, introduced the course on Indigenous tattoo traditions because she wants her students to feel empowered by Indigenous art history.
Her students are learning about the vast history of Indigenous tattooing in North America, what was lost because of colonization, and the artists and practitioners now working towards revival.
She also brougth Indigenous tattoo practitioner Dion Kaszas to discuss the art with the class.
“I think it’s important for Indigenous peoples to understand that the arts that we had here prior to European contact were really powerful, and they were so embedded in our culture and our way of life in all aspects of society,” she said. “It was a part of who we were.
“So learning about art history from an Indigenous perspective, it’s going to empower you as a person, because then you get to see the legacy that you come from.”
The course has been a revelation for student Suzie Nemeth.
“I had no idea that Indigenous people - and I self-identify as Métis - that my own culture had a history of tattoo practice, and that so many Indigenous nations across the world really have had a history, a proud history, of tattooing and skin marking,” she said.
When Dreaver looks at Kaszas and Lefebvre’s work, and sees her own students’ enthusiasm in learning about Indigenous tattooing, she is optimistic about the future of this form of art and knowledge.
“It gives me hope … we will get more scholarship written by Indigenous people about Indigenous ways and traditions and history,” she said.