Juneau tattoo artist David Lang has recently seen an uptick of people wanting Alaska Native formline tattoos, something he specializes in.
“I say formline rather than say, ‘I do Tlingit tattoos,’ or, ‘I do Tsimshian tattoos,’ or, ‘I do Haida tattoos,’ because I’m doing them for such a variety of people. I’m tattooing a Tlingit one day and a Tsimshian another day.”
And a non-Native the next.
Lang, who’s half Tsimshian (“with a little bit of Tlingit dashed in there”) and half white, inks formline tattoos on non-Native people — something not every tattoo artist feels comfortable with.
He realizes that non-Native people getting Native tattoos could be construed as cultural appropriation. He said it comes down to “making sure on my end that I’m doing it right and making sure that people are coming at it from cultural appreciation and not cultural appropriation.”
“One of the biggest questions I get is — is it OK for white people to get Native tattoos?” Lang said.
It’s a valid question. If you Google “cultural appropriation,” you’ll likely see a news item about a celebrity being accused of it, and articles titled “The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation” or, “To the new culture cops, everything is appropriation.” Calling someone or something out for cultural appropriation can be viewed as either responsible or oversensitive.
In Juneau, cultural appropriation can be a black and white issue, like when two downtown business owners were charged earlier this year for misrepresenting non-Native made carvings as Alaska Native-made, which is a violation of the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Both pled guilty and were forced to pay nominal fines and mandatory donations, serve probation time and other conditions.
But there are more instances when cultural appropriation falls into a gray area — non-Native owned businesses that display Native imagery logos, a white artist who makes and sells Native art, a writer who uses the voice of another race, a non-Native student who gets an award for Northwest Coast art, a non-Native business owner who profits off of products with Native imagery or a half-Native tattoo artist who puts formline on white people.
Are these examples of cultural appropriation? What is cultural appropriation? Are there times when it can be acceptable? Whose place is it to determine if something is cultural appropriation?
Appreciation or appropriation
But, first, back to Lang’s question: Is it OK for white people to get Native tattoos?
Lang said he once posed that same exact question to Tsimshian carver Abel Ryan, who Lang studied formline with when he moved back to his hometown of Juneau seven years ago to help open High Tide Tattoo. Lang credits Ryan with giving him “a solid foundation in that visual language.”
“When I asked Abel about that, he said, ‘If you give somebody a design as a Native artist, that is your gift to them,’” Lang recalled. He said that put his mind at ease.
Lang also points out what he’s doing is a commercial enterprise, just like Native artists who sell their products. While tattoos tend to be viewed as a more emotionally weighted commitment than buying an engraved bracelet or a carved mask, Lang said he’s just like any other Native artist — “Tattooing is very much art for sale on demand.”
He said non-Native people shy away from designs that are associated with clans or clan crests.
“We’re not doing Eagles and Ravens; we’re doing a loon or a crane or bears, or salmon, lots of that,” Lang said. “There’s plenty of subject matter out there that we can do that gives them that design aesthetic and appreciation without taking from anything that I would put in the sacred category.”
Lang said he’s also done a lot of clan crests and family designs for Alaska Natives.
“That is something that has been passed down to them and that is their visual representation of their cultural identity, their whole story.”
Lang said he’s honored to do those tattoos, which he’s often not allowed to photograph because the clients don’t want them publicized.
“Those designs are different than a salmon I’m going to do for someone because they love Alaska,” he said.
Other reasons non-Native people might want formline tattoos, Lang said, often stem from a connection to Southeast or Juneau, like they grew up here or have lived here for a long time. Some people are tattoo “collectors” who heavily research a place and its history, and want to have a tattoo representative of the location. In the cases Lang has run into, the desire stems from an appreciation and not a notion of taking.
“I think it’s perfectly OK,” Lang said. “I have Japanese-inspired tattoos on me. I have tattoos that are inspired by artwork from all sorts of different cultures because of an appreciation for those cultures. My Japanese tattoo doesn’t make me Japanese and it doesn’t make me think I’m Japanese or claim to be Japanese. I just really enjoy the aesthetic of their large scale tattoos and always have.”
“Almost 95 percent of the time, if not more, non-Native people are very conscious of making sure what they’re doing is not culturally insensitive,” he said.
The dynamics of cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation means different things to different people. It’s been defined as members of one culture adopting, using or borrowing elements of another culture. Other definitions involve a dominant group exploiting the culture of a less privileged group. It may also be defined as theft, the taking without permission.
Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Rosita Worl said cultural appropriation is “the movement of tangible and intangible cultural elements from indigenous societies into western societies, or predominantly western societies.”
Tangible objects include art objects, medicines and human remains. Intangible items include music, oral traditions and even spirituality.
It’s not a positive thing, Worl said. The way cultural appropriation has historically been done involves taking “without regard to Native values or what Native people think about it.”
Tlingit writer and University of Alaska Southeast professor Ernestine Hayes agrees that cultural appropriation is about taking.
“I think all of it can be traced back to taking — ‘I’m taking your story, your history, your culture, your name, your land, your riches, your wealth. I’m taking everything,’” she said.
But you can’t talk about cultural appropriation without talking about history and relationship, she said.
“For me, it’s a unique relationship when members of the dominant settler group take from the indigenous people.”
For indigenous people in Southeast Alaska, the colonial settlers are the dominant group who forced their culture onto Alaska Natives — “‘Speak our language, worship our god, follow our beauty standards,’” Hayes said. “We’re not talking about a two-way street. Some people say, ‘Well indigenous people appropriate white culture all the time.’ No, that’s not the case; white culture is forced on non-dominant groups.”
She said cultural appropriation can lead to non-Native people becoming “experts” on Native things.
“It’s a national practice to speak for Native people, to study Native people, to tell Native people’s history and explain Native people’s issues, to defend Native people, to continue to be paternal,” she said.
As a writer, Hayes takes particular issue with non-Native people writing Native stories. She said intense studying or knowledge of Native people, or even being adopted into clans “doesn’t transfer history, ancestors, roots.”
“To be transplanted is one thing, but that doesn’t mean that your roots go back 2,000 years from this place,” Hayes explained.
She said getting a Native design copied on to your body is “sort of like telling a story that’s not yours and not understanding the meaning of it.”
But Hayes also understands that non-Native people can have valid connections to Native people and culture.
“I don’t think we ever go wrong telling our own stories, and our own stories, which in Southeast Alaska, has to involve Native people. That’s your story and no one can say, ‘No, you can’t tell your story,’” she said.
“The problem comes from, ‘That’s not my story, but I’m going to tell it anyway.’ That’s where the appropriation comes from. We all need to tell our own stories, but we have to be very careful when we think we can tell someone else’s story.”
When determining if an act is cultural appropriation, Hayes said the responsibility is on the individual to consider the political and historical relationships between groups of people. Cultural appropriation, she said, doesn’t exist between groups that haven’t had a dominant-oppressed relationship.
It’s about knowing one’s place, Hayes said.
“We either know our place in our relationship to others in the world on an authentic level with integrity, or we know our place as it’s been designed for us. And the place that’s been designed for people of the dominant culture is to speak for, defend, take issue with and appropriate indigenous aspects,” Hayes said.
She said that historical relationship will always exist as long as the social structure that the dominant group put in place remains. The idea of cultural appropriation — the notion of taking — between white people and Native may change, Hayes said, if “Native people ever get to the point where, ‘OK, we’ve got our power,’ but that’s not where we are as Native people. We need our voices. Every shred of power we can get, we need to keep.”
Steeped in tradition
Walk around downtown Juneau on South Franklin Street, and you’ll see gift shops that cater to cruise ship passengers.
Inside some, you’ll find Native rattles and masks made in Indonesia that sell for much cheaper than ones made by Native artists — “none of that goes to the Native community,” Tlingit artist Ricky Tagaban said.
“I see cultural appropriation as someone coming in from outside the community and using our visual arts to make money,” Tagaban said.
One downtown gift shop with shelves of Native carvings had signs that indicated which ones are reproductions and which ones originate from Ward Cove in Southeast Alaska. A small carving made in Southeast cost $131.00; a comparable reproduction made in Indonesia cost $22.95. In another shop, a mug with formline design made in China cost $9.99.
“It’s up to us what we do with our artwork. It’s not up to people who are not from our community,” Tagaban said. “So much has been taken from us already.”
To push back against cultural appropriation, Tagaban said he spends time talking to visitors and Alaskans about history to give them context.
“People just don’t know, and that is by design because our ways of life were outlawed; we were under attack by these bigger institutions,” Tagaban said. “Like where have you heard about what it takes to weave a Chilkat blanket? That’s not talked about in school very much, because we’re not in control of our education. I end up talking to people about what’s authentic and where they should look.”
For instance, if something costs $5, it likely didn’t take 200 hours to make.
Tagaban’s training is steeped in tradition. He learned from Tlingit weaver Clarissa Rizal who learned from Tlingit master weaver Jennie Thlunaut.
He recently finished his first Chilkat robe — a commission based on clan relationship ties.
On the robe is a forward facing wolf, a house crest. Tagaban said a robe “shows lineage and records your history. There’s a story and a reason for every crest we have.”
The robe, which is for a child, was three years in the making.
“Before you even sit down at the frame, you have hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars before you can even think about weaving,” Tagaban described.
He was initially able to start the robe through funds from the Rasmuson Foundation. He spun wool for three months.
“I cooked all the bark in a crockpot for a week to make it soft. You cook the sap out so you can actually spin it without it getting stuck in your hand. The goal when you spin is to get the wool to wrap around the bark, so it’ll last longer and it’s a nice substitute for mountain goat wool. If you gather all that bark, it’s easier than gathering mountain goat wool,” he explained.
While he was doing that, he made hundreds of other weavings, including cellphone bags, purses, woven earrings — items for a larger audience, both Native and non-Native. An iPhone bag starts at $400, woven earrings at $100.
Tagaban cares about who wears his art. His target audience are Tlingit people, those he can create regalia for.
“That’s who I weave for. In a perfect world, that’s my customer, but I have to eat, so I market stuff that’s a little more accessible, like earrings. Anyone can wear that,” he said.
Despite his clear definition of cultural appropriation, Tagaban said he isn’t quick to judge.
“It’s a case-by-case thing,” he said. “I’m not going to label every non-Native I see (doing our artwork) as someone who’s doing appropriation.”
‘Not trying to own it’
Artist Don Morgan is a non-Native person making and selling Native art in Juneau. And he’s totally upfront about it.
“Customers will ask whose is it, what is it, and we tell them. Most people don’t care as long as it’s good art, if it’s well done,” Morgan said. “I’ve had local Natives ask, ‘Are you Native?’ I say no and they buy it anyway as long as the art is well done and well represented and not butchered and hideous looking.”
Morgan is the owner of Haa Shagoon, located on Ferry Way in downtown Juneau. A big sign in the window advertises, “Locally Made Native Art.”
About 90 percent of the art in the store is made by local Alaska Native artists, he said. The shop features work by artists like Abel Ryan (the Tsimshian carver who trained Lang), Tlingit and Tsimshian artist John Evans and Tlingit weaver Clarissa Rizal (who trained Tagaban). Morgan said the artists set their own price and get 70 percent. There’s also space in the store for artists to work.
Alongside the items made by Alaska Natives is art made by Morgan — rattles, plaques, clocks, drums, lamps, paddles, beadwork. Most of the items feature Northwest Coast formline. Everything in the store is labeled with the artist’s name.
Is this an example of cultural appropriation?
Lily Hope, a Tlingit weaver who has an ensemble of weaving for sale at Haa Shagoon, isn’t sure. She said there are examples of people making Northwest Coast art who weren’t born into it, people like artist Steve Brown and weaver Kay Parker.
Hope said Morgan is another example. What she is sure about, she said, is he isn’t falsely advertising that he’s indigenous.
“He’s not trying to step on anyone’s toes,” she said. “He’s being true to the art form in that he’s not trying to say this is made by a Native person and I would say his work is pretty decent as far as formline goes, but I’m not an expert.”
She said Morgan, like Brown and Parker, respect and honor the art.
“There’s a gentleness of spirit and an acknowledgment of where the art comes from. The awe that they’re experiencing of the art itself is evident in the work where they’re not trying to own it; they’re more letting it come through them,” Hope said.
Morgan has been learning about the art since 2013 when he moved to Juneau and made friends with local artists. He hesitated when Native friends encouraged him to learn their artwork.
“I was doing portraits and stuff like that and they were like, ‘You should learn how to carve as good as you draw. You could be really good at it.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I really don’t want to use somebody else’s culture.’”
But as he spent time with friends like Ryan and Evans, he did learn from them.
“I just liked it. And then I just wanted to start a store where the artist got the credit and the money,” he said.
Teaching and protecting Native art
During Celebration in June, Sealaska Heritage Institute held a Juried Youth Art Exhibit and awarded an honorable mention to a non-Native participant.
“And that’s fine,” said executive director Rosita Worl. “It wasn’t a clan crest.”
In trying to make Juneau the Northwest Coast Arts capital — an effort that’s been ongoing for a couple of years — Sealaska Heritage Institute is trying to cultivate an appreciation for the art form. That means conducting trainings in the school system, in the prison, within Juneau and in surrounding villages.
“We’ve taught non-Native teachers to teach Northwest Coast art. We’re teaching non-Native children about Northwest Coast art. If they’re going to have an appreciation of art, we want them to have an appreciation of good art,” she said.
It also involves teaching about the cultural rules and values around the art. Worl said SHI is trying to promote cross-cultural diversity and understanding. She said it can be a struggle and a conflict.
“The difference is we are fully engaged in this, whereas before we were just the passive people where things were being done to us,” Worl explained. “We have two different ideological systems coming into contact and when the cultural appropriation occurred it was the dominant society that was taking things away from an indigenous society. But now we’re trying to figure out — with two competing ideological systems, two societies with two different world views — how do we make that work for us?”
Worl said she wants Southeast Alaska Native culture to survive.
“We know it has to adapt to these modern situations, but we also have to figure out how do we protect the cultural protocols, the cultural rules, the cultural norms?”
‘I think I’d feel different if I wasn’t from here’
Downtown at the new AP Showroom, a formline sun design by Native artist Len Edwards is painted on the wall and silkscreened on shirts and tank tops. Native artwork on wood by James Johnson hangs on the walls.
The store is the latest venture by Aurora Projekt owner Scott Baxter. Aurora Projekt designs, like the AK Hand or the 907, are seen on T-shirts, hoodies, hats. Stickers are plastered on things from trucks to Xtratufs.
Several of the designs incorporate Native formline.
“I wanted to start something where I included local friends and artists and people I met along the way, and some of them were Native and had Native art,” said Baxter, who’s non-Native and is a fourth-generation Juneauite.
He’s used designs by Native artists Shane Brown and Logan Henkins, oftentimes buying the design outright or paying an artist each time something with their design is purchased.
Baxter said he’s never received comments about being a non-Native business owner profiting off of Native imagery, but he hasn’t given it too much thought. He added he’s also profiting off of imagery that’s not Native.
“I think I’d feel different if I wasn’t from here and I didn’t grow up around it. I’m definitely not Native, but this whole area is in my blood, I grew up around it and I’ve got a lot of respect for the heritage and culture,” Baxter said.
He said it’d also be different if he was doing the designwork, which he does not.
“Shane Brown took a raindrop and he made it into a Native design, and he took the AK Hand and gave it its thing,” Baxter said. “I’m just putting it on shirts and stuff, and it’s a different look and it’s cool.”
He hopes his shops can serve as a stepping stone for some of his designers, and showcase design and artwork he has a lot of respect for.
‘If it’s done in the right way’
Back at High Tide, tattoo artist Dave Lang wants to promote an appreciation of formline through his work.
“Knowing that we had so much of the culture put away for so long, to have a cultural resurgence like we’ve had over the last few decades when you’re seeing potlatches and dance groups and artists and all these people flourishing is so beautiful, and that is a part of why I don’t really see a problem if things are done in a conscious way.”
So Lang’s big question on if it’s OK for non-Native peoples to get Native art on their body — he says sure.
“If it’s done in the right way, if nobody’s stealing, then that’s just more Native artists that are getting business, that’s just more Native artists that are making beautiful art work and that’s what I want more than anything.”