At ICT, reflecting back on a year’s efforts is part of the New Year ritual, as is taking stock of all the many contributions others have made for Tibet. I will personally remember dear friends who have left this earthly journey in 2012 – among them Adam Yauch, Marvin Hamlisch and George Patterson, an historic figure for Tibet who recently passed away in his Scottish homeland. They were each larger-than-life advocates for Tibet. Of course, more of us work off-stage, out of the lamp-light, and in ways uniquely ours. The work of one such individual, Heidi Minx, is highlighted in the next edition of ICT’s Tibet Press Watch. Heidi’s “Tatoo Project” is part of her larger “Built on Respect” movement. Not too long ago, our own extraordinary ICT intern, Brianna Campbell, engaged Heidi in the following question-and-answer exchange. I share it with you in the hope that your reflections on 2012 include personal efforts made for Tibet – however wonderfully unique. Happy New Year!
Brianna: Heidi, can you tell me a little of your personal story?
Heidi: I was born on the U.S. East Coast and have lived in many places, most recently downtown New York City. I can’t remember when human rights weren’t a part of my ethos. I grew up within what most people would call an ‘alternative’ scene, listening a lot to punk and ska music. Ska music was always ‘unity’ charged, as it came from islands such as Jamaica, then mixed in with the English working class neighborhoods. So songs calling for the release of Nelson Mandela, and musicians actively calling for his release filled my airwaves. We had an almost overactive sense of justice and were very vocal about injustices. That never died.
Brianna: I know that after traveling throughout Haiti and India, you decided to focus solely on the Tibetan community. What drew you to the Tibetan struggle specifically?
Heidi: I’m fascinated by other cultures. I spent some time on the boards of several NGOs, like the Coalition for a Lead Free Childhood and the Children’s House at Johns Hopkins. But I preferred to be hands-on as an advocate. Haiti was my first developing world hands-on experience, and it changed and motivated me. As far as Dharamsala, the initial draw, which I think many Westerners will say, was Tibetan Buddhism. I’m very black and white. After learning what is happening in Tibet, I made a direct correlation in my mind that if people who appreciate or follow Tibetan Buddhism don’t take a stand and mix their religion with politics then the roots of the religion would be erased via cultural genocide. In some ways, Tibet is an extremely complex issue. My view is that what is happening there is gravely wrong. If I can make a difference, I am compelled to do so.
Brianna: In your opinion, drawing on your personal experiences living in Dharamsala and your interaction with the Tibetan community there, how well is the Tibetan culture being preserved? Where do you see pressures against this preservation?
Heidi: There are definitely group efforts to preserve Tibetan culture – the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts, the Norbulinka Institute, and other schools like the Institute of Tibetan Thangka Art. All the young Tibetans I know are proud of their heritage, and everyone I know has traditional clothing and appreciates traditional music. Dharamsala experiences much higher tourism than other Tibetan communities, so I think it is more influenced by the outside world. Still, Tibetan culture is well preserved within the Tibetan diaspora in India because of the sheer number of Tibetans. As Tibetans take exile in Western countries, their jobs often change. Artists, musicians, even tailors – most cannot make a living with their traditional training, and they need to enter into other trades. I think there needs to be a greater appreciation and outlet for Tibetan Buddhist culture in the West.
Brianna: What are some of the things that Built on Respect does to address the needs of the Tibetan community?
Heidi: The one thing that I have tried to do is identify on the ground the problems that face the Tibetan community, and how to solve those. One problem is finding work in India and, if young Tibetans take refuge in the West having job skills that are transferable. I worked to bring a Beta outsourced work center doing computer data work into Dharamsala. Not only did this provide training, but also jobs and, on top of that, a job reference for many young people who have since moved to other countries. I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time documenting human rights issues, but also finding ways to draw parallels between issues young Tibetans experience and those that effect young people worldwide. I’ve worked with bands to help raise awareness for Tibet among a new generation of Western youth, and I write about Tibetan issues in several media outlets.
Brianna: Regarding the Tattoo Project specifically, where did the idea of creating a Tibetan-tattoo cultural project come from?
Heidi: I was with the monk and former political prisoner Palden Gyatso one day when I looked at his hands and saw dark marks. I asked him what the marks were, and he said they were two tattoos he had done on his hands as a youth, but they were cut out of his hands by Chinese prison guards during the Cultural Revolution. As someone who is heavily tattooed, I’ve paid particular attention over the years to other people who are tattooed, including Tibetans. Most Tibetans do not have fancy machine-done work – their tattoos are mostly done by hand and almost all of the work is politically related. I personally have the Tibetan flag and Bhod Rangzen (independence for Tibet) tattooed on my arm, and many of the young Tibetans in town know me and have seen my arm. So it was very easy for us to talk about tattoos. I realized that whether in India or New York, people will stop you on the street to ask you about your tattoo. What does it mean? Why did you get it? There are TV shows based solely on these questions. Tattooing translates in any culture, so I saw it as a universal language of sorts. Tattoos tell Tibetans stories about why they got them and what they mean, and tattooing and tattoo stories serve to bring East and West together.
Brianna: Which Tibetan story from the Tattoo Project moved you the most?
Heidi: It was a story from a young man named Palbey. My friend Tamding, who is the only Tibetan tattoo artist I know, lives in Dharamsala. He himself is very political and will tattoo a ‘Free Tibet’ themed tattoo for free. He called me one day and said I must meet a certain young man from Amdo. Palbey was a new arrival to India from Tibet, and he wanted to have a tattoo that showed his dedication to Tibet’s freedom in both English and Tibetan. He asked me to help design the tattoo, and we all worked on it together. It is a fist with flames, a rangzen (Chime Gudril) bracelet, and Bhod Rangzen in Tibetan, and “Justice for Tibet” in English. He told me about his life in Amdo and the events that changed the course of his life that brought him to India. He was so passionate and talked for hours, in full detail. It was one of the most powerful interviews I’ve ever done.
Brianna: Do you have any other projects on the horizon that we could know about?
Heidi: The photos from the Tattoo Project were just on exhibit at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, through my relationship as a professional fellow with the Center for Genocide, Human Rights, and Conflict Resolution. I believe ICT also wants to show the exhibit in their Washington headquarters office. I am looking now for other groups or schools that would like copies of the images and stories so they can share them with their communities. They are available for no cost.
Brianna: Heidi, what future do you hope to see for the people of Tibet currently residing in Dharamsala?
Heidi: In the immediate future, I would like to see more job creation, work, especially work with good pay, is very hard to come by. I would like to see Tibetans in India be able to communicate freely with their families in Tibet, travel to see them without issue, and ultimately, regain their country.
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Palbey’s story: builtonrespect.com/tattoos-of-tibetan-refugees-palbey/
Full project of pictures and stories: builtonrespect.com/tattoos-and-human-rights-awareness/