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Skin-deep: The awkwardness of Justin Trudeau’s Haida tattoo

The Haida once approved of Justin Trudeau’s ink of a Haida raven on his shoulder. But that was before Ottawa supported an LNG terminal in B.C.


 
Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau boxing, in New York, NY. (Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boxing, in New York, NY, while displaying his Haida tattoo. (Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock/CP)

Robert Davidson, one of the country’s top Haida artists, was initially bemused to learn Justin Trudeau had one of his designs tattooed to his left shoulder. Years ago, it made him angry to see his art tattooed on strangers with no connection to the Haida, whose ties to Haida Gwaii, the remote archipelago on B.C.’s North Coast, go back 14,000 years. But Davidson, great-grandson of legendary Haida master carver Charles Edenshaw, came to see that anger was stifling his creativity, and learned to let it go. Plus, ink worn by someone of Trudeau’s stature validates Haida art, says the 69-year-old. “Since contact, the art’s been dismissed as curio.”

Davidson, whose Haida name is Guud San Glans, “Eagle of the Dawn,” has spent his life trying to elevate the form. He learned of the Prime Minister’s ink the same way most did, when, in the wake of last fall’s election, media zeroed in on what GQ called his “badass” tattoo. But Trudeau first tweeted his tattoo—“planet Earth inside a Haida raven”—in 2012, prior to his boxing match against Sen. Patrick Brazeau. The globe he’d got at 23, he said. The raven was added on his 40th birthday, shortly before he became Liberal leader.

In the heady, post-election period last October, with Trudeau promising a “new” relationship with Indigenous people, even the Haida leadership applauded the ink: “Of course we’re proud,” Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation said then.

Sculptor Robert Davidson poses for a photograph following a ceremony in Montreal, Tuesday, March 9, 2010, where he received the governor general's visual and media arts award. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Haida artist Robert Davidson. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Times, though, have changed. To the Haida, what’s changed is Trudeau. This fall, Ottawa greenlit a controversial LNG terminal near the breeding grounds of one of B.C.’s biggest salmon runs. The Haida are among those First Nations opposed to the Petronas LNG terminal slated for Lelu Island, on B.C.’s North Coast. Already, Davidson says he’ll be among those willing to stand at Lelu Island to block heavy machinery from landing on its shores. Many Haida are equally angry with Trudeau’s decision to allow B.C.’s controversial Site C Dam to go ahead before the Federal Court of Appeal can rule on treaty rights. And the Haida, like most British Columbians, are anxiously awaiting Ottawa’s decision on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, expected by Dec. 19.

Related: Will and Kate visit Haida Gwaii with anger in the air

Today Lantin says the Haida are increasingly angry and offended by Trudeau’s tattoo. Delvina Lawrence, a Haida local, says Trudeau “presents himself as an ally . . . with our ink on his body. We feel he’s stabbed us in the back.” The Haida also talk openly of Trudeau appropriating their culture. “It’s like me getting a basketball tattooed to my shoulder,” says Gregory Williams, a Haida tattoo artist. “I don’t play basketball.” Nor did Trudeau ask permission of Davidson, or follow any protocols to use the image, he adds, noting that for the Haida, acquiring ink is sacred, a step generally taken at a potlatch or public forum, particularly for a clan tattoo, like Trudeau’s. As for Davidson, the artist admits disappointment. “In accepting a tattoo, you commit to the values and laws that govern our nation,” he says. “Maybe Trudeau really needs to understand what that tattoo signifies to the Haida. In one breath we’re all excited as Haida—then all of a sudden, how do we react to what he’s doing, to the decisions he’s making?”

A renaissance has lately been sweeping Haida Gwaii, as the Haida reclaim their identity, and seek to do things their parents and grandparents could not, says Williams. His great-grandmother’s generation was the last to receive traditional tattoos, which were part of the potlatch banned by John A. Macdonald, to “lay an iron hand on the shoulders of [Indigenous] people.” The potlatch law barred the Haida from speaking their language or holding ceremonies and feasts. Williams is the first Haida tattoo artist to emerge in 120 years.

Related: The Liberals’ relationship with Indigenous communities sours

When Davidson was growing up in Masset in the 1950s, evidence of the Haida culture had all but vanished, the result of cultural genocide and museums plundering Haida artifacts. He learned of the culture through the stories of his grandmother, Edenshaw’s daughter, Florence. His father, a boat maker, pushed him to carve. Since there was no secondary school on Haida Gwaii, Davidson moved to Vancouver. He boarded with a West Side family who arranged for him to demonstrate carving in Eaton’s on Saturdays, which provided his big break. “I was able to meet clientele,” Davidson says. “Being very shy, I didn’t have courage to go sell my work to the curio shops.” Davidson is renowned today not just for totem poles and masks, but also for painting, sculpture and printmaking.

The Davidson painting Trudeau used in his tattoo, Raven Bringing Light to the World, came from a 1985 collaboration with the artist’s 12-year-old daughter, Sara. The tattoo replaces her circular design with a globe. Sara, now a Ph.D. candidate at UBC, is okay with it, says Davidson; “I think we were both more humoured than upset.”

Davidson has spoken with Trudeau just once, three years ago. He explained the Haida name his grandmother gave Pierre Trudeau in 1976, when she adopted him into her clan—a means to show openness and generosity. Kihl gulaans roughly translates to “his voice is good as gold.” “We were all so excited before [Justin] became Prime Minister. We all had high hopes of a better relationship with government,” he says. “That’s starting to sour. I am certainly disappointed.”


 

Skin-deep: The awkwardness of Justin Trudeau’s Haida tattoo

  1. Trudeau should be forgiven for appropriating the culture of the Haida. He was young. He probably didn’t know what cultural appropriation was at the time.

    • Says the article:
      “The globe he’d got at 23, he said. The raven was added on his 40th birthday, shortly before he became Liberal leader.”

      The raven is the part of the tattoo that’s Haida; and 40 may be the new 30, but nonetheless it ain’t young.

      • thank you for making my point. I wasn’t sure my comment would get the appropriate response.
        .
        I do stand by last sentence. It must be true. He wouldn’t be so arrogant as to knowingly appropriate indigenous culture …. would he?

    • “the Haida leadership applauded the ink: “Of course we’re proud,” Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation said then.”

      “The Davidson painting Trudeau used in his tattoo, Raven Bringing Light to the World, came from a 1985 collaboration with the artist’s 12-year-old daughter, Sara. The tattoo replaces her circular design with a globe. Sara, now a Ph.D. candidate at UBC, is okay with it, says Davidson; “I think we were both more humoured than upset.”

      It would behoove some of you guys to read the article. If he had their blessing, then it wasn’t appropriation. And they can’t retroactively reverse this opinion just because they’re unsatisfied with his policies now. I understand deeming him unworthy of the tattoo in light of his broken promises toward the indigenous community, but it’s disingenuous to pull the cultural appropriation card when it was all hunky dory at the time he got that tattoo. He’s not a member of the Haida tribe and wasn’t when he first got the tattoo, so what stopped them from telling him to slow his roll back then? Why didn’t they call him out for not obtaining permission first? I thought allies weren’t immune from criticism? It’s like asking for all your gifts back after falling out with your best friend. The bitterness is understandable but it’s also quite petty.

      • if you are going to quote from the article at least try to get the correct quotes
        .
        Robert Davidson, one of the country’s top Haida artists, was initially bemused to learn Justin Trudeau had one of his designs tattooed to his left shoulder. Years ago, it made him angry to see his art tattooed on strangers with no connection to the Haida”
        .
        it then goes on to state this …
        .
        “He (Davidson) learned of the Prime Minister’s ink the same way most did, when, in the wake of last fall’s election, media zeroed in on what GQ called his “badass” tattoo”
        .
        here is the logic part …. how could he or the tribe accept the tattoo if he/they didn’t know it existed? If you read to the end, you’ll see that he has only spoken to the PM once. I’ll let you find that part on your own.
        .
        what is disingenuous is to talk of respect for others culture while appropriating culture for your own wishes. They didn’t tell him to ‘slow his roll’ because he did it on the sly, without asking permission. Now that they are aware, they are speaking up.

  2. Tattoo?

    Really folks?? SERIOUSLY??

    • But Komarade E1 he’s sooooo Dreamy and MacLeans must do a Lot of Sucking up to get part of that #1.5B that TrudeaVision (CBC) receives every year….Get with the Program..

    • It is what Trudeau has himself declared that the tattoo represents….his respect for Canada’s First Nations and his pledge to honour their rights. He pledged to ensure they would get a say in how their land was used. He hasn’t come through with the promise. He pledged to increase education funds but he didn’t in his budget. First Nation’s kids get around $1,400.00 funding and the rest of Canadian children get $2,700.00 yearly. He also did not raise for post secondary funding. Meanwhile, we have rampant abuse and suicides of youth occurring on reserves at much higher rates than among non indigenous people as reported to us by Canadians top physician. Of course the First Nations feel disappointed. They got sucked in.

    • it is indicative of his attitude toward them … that he may take what he wants and use it as he sees fit.

  3. Like almost everything else in Trudeau’s personality, his tattoo is merely an affectation.
    It’s an attempt by a basically insecure individual to impress others by drawing attention to his appearance. It must bother him to realize that minus his physical assets there’s nothing of substance remaining in his intellectual and spiritual makeup. It’s too bad he’s unable to take selfies of his character.

    • Really?

      And you know this, how?

      Why do you make up things about people you’ve never even met?

      • Let’s just chalk it up to my woman’s intuition which is actually a proven psychological phenomenon.
        I know this will not satisfy you and you will respond with one of your typical snarky comments. Go ahead. Be my guest. I shall not reply to you any further, thus presenting you with the last word.

        • ‘Women’s intuition’ is hokum. Men call it a ‘gut feeling’

          Same diff…..both unreliable.

          You judge everybody based on that??

          No wonder you’re so confused all the time.

  4. There is no such thing as cultural appropriation, the term may be one of the stupidest to come out of the modern social justice movement.

  5. Good lesson here; don’t get a tattoo that is readily visible unless it says “Mother” or one day you might regret it. Trudeau has shown,or at least Gerald Butts has shown rare common sense on the LNG and Site C issues. Some of the Haida activists may protest, but they too will benefit from the sale of our resources to other Countries,just as all of Canada will.
    We have nothing else to offer the world except raw resources, so let’s get on with selling them lest the economy completely tanks.

    Maybe,just to save hurt feelings,Justin should have the Haida tattoo covered over with the flag of China.

    • Natural resources makes up very little of our wealth or exports…….but I knew you were Con the minute you were compelled to throw in a partisan shot instead of reality

      • so, if you are a true blue liberal you would never dare to question the policies of the great son … is that how it works Em?
        .
        or can Liberals question the policies of their leader?

        • I’m not a Lib, and I have certainly questioned them.

          People never agree 100% with a party or a leader.

    • @Don – Could your poor punctuation be the result of using a Chinese computer?

  6. In America, it is cultural appropriation. If a native American wears jeans is it cultural appropriation?

    • I know this will come as a shock to you, but denims have never been worn as a symbol of culture or religion.

  7. Site C was mentioned . . .this BC Hydro project is a ‘huge shame’ on the BC & federal Gov’t .
    It’s even a larger tragedy on that valley and the total disregard & disrespect to the First Nations and landowners. I’m really really sad that Trudeau & Clark are pushing it forward. May some miracle take place to stop this destruction of the land and culture. It’s NOT needed !

  8. There is no such thing as cultural appropriation. That’s just a made-up term for activist hand-wringers so they can get upset about something else. One gets tired of talking about “colonialism” and “neo-colonialism” all the time. Inventing things like cultural appropriation gives them some new “problem” in need of correcting. Activists don’t much like having nothing to be activist about.

    • So, we should all feel badly that you are “tired” of rational discussion?

      Here’s an idea: Go away. Then you’ll feel better and the rest of us can get on with fixing problems that need fixing. Win-win.

  9. Someone should tattoo his mouth shut.

    • Someone should amputate those little Trump fingers of yours.

  10. Delvina Lawrence gives a perfect analogy in saying, “it’s like me getting a basketball tattooed to my shoulder. I don’t play basketball.”

    Right. And if you admire or are interested in basketball, it makes every bit as sense to tattoo one on yourself. Or even if you’re not, if you just like the look of a basketball, feel free to tattoo it. It’s a perfect analogy because someone took offended at another person’s basketball tattoo it would be every bit as irrelevant, banal and utterly meaningless in the public sphere as with a Haida image.

    I hope the LNG terminal never comes to pass, I have several criticisms of Trudeau’s performance to date, I love Haida culture and am active in protecting Canada’s west coast. But I don’t care what “offends” you. Nor what offends anyone. I don’t care what tattoo someone has and most importantly, “cultural appropriation” might well be the goofiest over-reaction and dim-witted attempt at a concept in my lifetime. It’s not a thing. It’s not even coherent. Good lord, stop referencing this ridiculous phrase.

    If you want to make headway on issues like the LNG terminal, I implore you to do so using reasoned arguments grounded in coherence. Those are effective. For an excellent illustration of “How-not-to-make-a-case-on-anything” read the article devoid of substance above.

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