IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Have a Culturally Insensitive Tattoo

What my ill-advised dream catcher tattoo taught me about youth, regret, and cultural appropriation.
Publish date:
June 8, 2015
tattoos, cultural appropriation, insensitivity, Dream Catcher

To be honest, it didn’t really happen to me. I happened to myself.

It was Halloween weekend of my freshman year of college and my best friend was visiting me for the first time. We had a lot of plans for the weekend, but our primary goal was to get our tattoos. It was just a few days after Katie’s 18 birthday, and what better way to mark our independence? We thought.

A few Google searches and asking around led me to the shop I wanted fairly quickly. The only problem was what to get. It was, as everyone reminded us, permanent. Katie had already decided on a tiny anchor, but I was less decisive.

I thought about getting a quote, but all of my favorite quotes were too long. A tree? Too complicated. A flower? Too cheesy. Bird? Cheesy. An elephant? Cute, but why?

I’m not even sure how I finally landed on dream catcher. Or how I thought that a dream catcher wouldn’t be cheesy. I think I saw it on one of the members of Kings of Leon, and thought it would be cool. And I mean, how pretty are dream catchers, right?

The artist designed it for me, an intersecting geometric pattern with faded feathers in black and white. It was bigger than I’d originally planned, about the size of my palm, but I thought it was beautiful. And well, if I was going to do this thing, I might as well go all in.

I gave the artist the thumbs up, and about two hours later I was walking out of the shop $150 lighter, with an intimidatingly large tattoo on my left shoulder.

To go out that night, I carefully peeled off the moisturized Saran wrap and put on the open-backed shirt I’d bought specifically to showcase my new ink. The artist had done a beautiful job, with intricate, subtle details, and expertly rendered shading. My God, I thought, letting strangers admire the artistry of it, I am so goddamn cool.

Just a few days later, when the ink was still bumpy on my skin, a good friend of mine with Cherokee heritage asked me, “So what tribe exactly is your dream catcher from, Kathleen?”

And that was the moment I felt my first pang of shame.

What could I answer? It came from the tribe of I-Couldn’t-Think-Of-Anything-To-Represent-My-Authentic-Self-So-This-Is-What-I-Picked-It-Was-Pretty-Random-Honestly-Sorry. I think I made some sort of scoffing noise and picked up a slightly louder conversation with somebody else.

But her comment bothered me. It hadn’t hitherto occurred to me that a dream catcher might mean something beyond its mostly superficial value to me. Or that it was a representation of a culture not my own, that I understood very little. Or that people of that culture might be offended by my shallow use of their iconography and tradition. But it sure as hell occurred to me then.

A dream catcher on my back suddenly rang as hollow as if I had tattooed “Thug Lyfe” on my knuckles.

I could dismiss her comment as mere saltiness the first time, but I began to shrink whenever people asked me about it.

“So, why’d you get a dream catcher?”

“What’s the meaning behind that?”

“Are you Native American?”

Innocent questions that felt like accusations. I usually mumbled something about my childhood and how I liked the idea of it and it’s like a good luck charm and no I’m not Native American why do you ask?

“But, Kathleen,” said my mom, confused, the first time she saw it, “We’re not Native American.”

But how is that even relevant, that’s not the point! I wanted to tell her. But obviously it was.

I slowly stopped wearing open backed shirts.

And then I began to see articles like this and my heart sank. I began to feel sick.

As a non-Native American American, I automatically benefit from years and years of the government’s brutal subjugation of Native peoples. And charmed as I was as a child by the idea of a magic device to keep away the nightmares, my appropriation of it began to feel a little… icky. What tribe did the dream catcher come from? No idea. What was its original significance? I don’t know.

Awesome, I thought. I am officially an asshole. Not only am I an asshole, but I actually have a giant stamp proclaiming “ASSHOLE” permanently affixed to my back.

Because I couldn’t just go the rest of my life with my back constantly hidden, I began to take refuge in my favorite defense mechanism, self-deprecating humor. I made the asshole joke, I compared myself to Miley Cyrus, I made a number of highly sarcastic comments about how deeply I honor Native American traditions. I basically opened every conversation about my tattoo with, “But wait! Let me explain!”

I thought about getting it removed when I had enough money, but that sounded incredibly painful and I didn’t think I was ready for an enormous scar on my shoulder. I could get it covered up, but with what? A giant sunflower? Maybe just an enormous disclaimer stamped over it “I WAS 18 AND STUPID. SORRY.”

But the truth is that my dream catcher had, as tattoos do, already become a part of my body. Like a scar, it was now a piece of physical evidence of who I was at 18 years old. I was young and a little reckless and I was ignorant. But my culturally insensitive tattoo actually taught me more powerfully about cultural appropriation than any article ever could.

I learned that the dream catcher actually originally comes from the Ojibwe tribe, though it has been used cross-culturally, and is still considered sacred. I also know that because it is a cross-cultural symbol and because it has been adapted for arts and crafts by multiple tribal artists and for children, a dream catcher is less problematic than, say, a war bonnet.

So these days when someone asks me about my tattoo, I shrug. “I was young and didn’t know any better,” I say. “Luckily, now I do.”