In Ottawa Ontario, Canada from October 31st to November 28th at Gallery 101, an art exhibition curated by Cheryl L’Hirondelle entitled, “Owning With the Gaze” featured works by Millie Chen, Leah Decter, Stephen Foster, Ayumi Goto, Suzanne Morrissette, Lisa Myers and myself. At the opening of this exhibition on October 31st I performed my first “Earth line tattooing action” from 6-10pm. This blog post will outline where the idea for this performance emerged and share some of my thoughts, feelings, emotions and insights that have come to my consciousness since that date a little over a month ago.
In Tattooing and Face and Body Painting of the Thompson Indians by James Teit was my first introduction to the motif of the earth line, on page 411 Teit explains, “a straight horizontal line is generally called an ‘earth line,’ especially if it is placed underneath some other figure. It represents the earth.” The idea of a tattoo motif connected to my ancestors that simply represented the earth was such a poignant design for todays world, a world plagued by complete destruction of many of earths habitats and the extinction of many species of plants, animals, birds, and fish. This got me thinking about the use of this simple design to help remind people about our earth and that if we do not take care of it we will perish.
After thinking about this teaching I was fatefully connected with my friend Peter Morin an Indigenous performance artist through a graduate degree course at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna British Columbia. It was after chatting with Peter over lunch about my work into reviving Nlaka’pamux tattooing and specifically skin stitch tattooing that Peter indicated that he would be delighted to assist in the revival of skin stitching and would like to get tattooed and that he would leave the design up to me. After some thoughtful consideration I suggested we skin stitch the earth line onto Peter’s arm, I briefly explained the teachings I had begun to develop around the earth line and our need to be mindful of how our actions affect our environment.
During the same course I was also introduced to Cheryl L’Hirondelle and began to tattoo two serpents on her back. A tattoo that took three sessions to complete, between our first and second tattooing session I began to more fully explore the visual and material culture of my Nlaka’pamux ancestors. The earthline motif consistently began to appear and as I looked at baskets, architecture, clothing and body painting. In the book Earth Line and Morning Star: Nlaka’pamux Clothing Traditions by Leslie Tepper the earth line as a teaching for our day took on more meaning. Leslie says that, “In architecture as in clothing, people wrapped themselves in circular structures. Families livid in circular winter pithouses and summer mat tipis. Dome-shaped sweat houses were places of prayer and renewal. Clothing in the form of capes, cloaks and blankets also physically wrapped the individual. Painted motifs at the hem, waist or collar and on belts and headbands are described as earth lines. Often decorated with designs of ‘trees’ or ‘mountains’, they encircle the individual in a symbolic representation of the Nlaka’pamux landscape…Perhaps the encircling image of the earth line reflects on an intimate, personal level the individual within his or her environment; encompassed by mountains and rivers, it includes places of power and of home (79-80). The development of the skin stitch earth line began to develop as I gained more knowledge surrounding this simple motif and its place in our Nlaka’pamux psyche and our visual and material culture.
Mat Tipi Inside pit house Pit house from outside
Examples of earth line on clothing
After considering the earth line and its use on our clothing I pictured what a bird might see if it flew over top of one of my great grandmothers wearing a cloak with a earth line painted on it. Simplified down to a simple diagram it might appear as two concentric circles.
The inner circle would represent my grandmother or who ever was wearing the cloak or garment and the outer circle the earth and all that sustains the wearers life.
As soon as I envisioned the two concentric circles and how each represented self and the earth respectively I was reminded of a Syilx teaching I had obtained through one of the professors I had during my undergraduate degree in Indigenous studies at UBC Okanagan, Dr. Jeannette Armstrong. It is from her teachings in conjunction with the idea of the earth line encircling us as we wear it painted on or clothing or as we sat in our pit houses or mat tipis that the teachings began to grow. Jeannette uses the schematic of what is commonly known as a nested systems schematic to help us understand what she is saying.
First we can expect each INDIVIDUAL to fully appreciate that, while each person is singularly gifted, each person actualizes full human potential only as a result of physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being, and that those four aspects of existence are always contingent on external things.
Second, as an individual each person is a single facet of a transgenerational organism known as a FAMILY. Through this organism flows the powerful lifeblood of cultural transference designed to secure the best probability of well-being for each of the generations.
Third, family systems are the foundation of a long term living network call COMMUNITY. In its various configurations this network spreads it life force over centuries and across physical space; it uses its collective knowledge to secure well-being of all by the short-and long-term choices made via its collective process.
And fourth, a community is the living process that interacts with the vast and ancient body of intricately connected patterns operating in perfect unison called LAND. The land sustains all life and must be protected from depletion in order to insure its continued good health and ability to provide sustenance over generations. It is a clear imperative that community-through the family and the individual-must be seen as a functioning whole system engaged in maintain principles that insure its well-being”
It is from this teaching that I see the nested system and its four concentric circles as an Indigenous Syilx ethical system that helps us to understand our relationships and our responsibilities. Many people see themselves as one lonely circle or island floating out in the great vastness of our world today. For these folks their concerns begin and end with themselves they feel no attachment or responsibility to any one or anything other than their own desires, wants, needs and dreams.
Some people see their connection to family and hold fast to the idea that their responsibility goes only as far as their familial connections, Blood is thicker than water. Then some look even further than themselves and their family out into their community, however they conceive of it. From this place they act in a way that helps to sustain and grow their family and their community. And finally a few of us alive today see our connection to and responsibility for the earth, our planet the very thing that makes the rest of our existence possible. Some understand their responsibility to the earth but forget their responsibility to family, other a responsibility to community and forget to take care of themselves.
The four concentric circles are one way of reminding us that we are connected, sustained by, and responsible for ourselves, our families, our communities and the earth. Returning to my visioning of the bird flying over top of my great grandmother wearing her cloak with an earthline painted on it, I see the teachings of the nested system highlighted. I see the two concentric circles as the self in the middle and the outer circle, the earth line as representing the earth and all that is. The earth line then becomes a teaching that helps to remind us of all that sustains us and nourishes us and of our responsibility to “maintain principles that insure its well-being.”
After reading and thinking about all of these things I met up with Cheryl again to continue working on her serpent tattoo, it seemed that she had been thinking about the brief teachings I had shared with her about Peter’s tattoo. She asked me to elaborate further on the meaning of the earth line so I again outlined my thinking associated with this simple yet potent symbol. She then indicated that she was interested in possibly somehow including this teaching in a show she was curating, I agreed even though we didn’t have a clear plan on how to accomplish this goal. After many phone talking about the earth line tattooing action resulted in the first performance of the Earth line tattooing action. I must admit I am forever grateful and thankful for the vision of Cheryl L’Hirondelle for helping me to see how I can share the earth line and its teachings in a bigger way than I had ever imagined.
Now with all of the background to the Earth line tattooing action which happened on October 31st at the opening of “Owning With the Gaze” lets explore the event itself. I was assisted by Melody McKiver, Tayrn Pelletier, and Christi Belcourt as I tattooed skin stitch earth lines on between twenty and thirty guests who were in attendance in four hours. Each individual learned of the earth line and its teachings, and each now embodies their responsibilities to the earth or land and all that is.
At the end of the event we gathered all who remained and each revealed their earth line and stood in a circle which is a reminder of not only each individuals responsibilities but also our collective responsibility.
After having time to think about this event, I am blown away on how it unfolded, many of the folks who got skin stitched it was their first tattoo others it was the first time they had even heard of skin stitching and other had never even considered getting tattooed. Some happily chatted, others sat contemplating or trying not to cry sometimes it was hard to tell. At times the whole gallery space transformed into a very sacred place as singers sang as they received their earth line or in support of those who needed it. People stopped talking and centered their energy and attention of those involved in embodying this symbol. The stitching of earth lines at Gallery 101 on October 31st, 2015 has begun a movement, for there is talk about a second and possibly a third performance of the “Skin Stitch Earth Line Tattooing Action” in Vancouver and Queen’s University.