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Native American Tattoos

Secotan Native Americans in North Carolina by John White, explorer and artist (British Museum, London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Much like Polynesian islanders, the Native American tribes of North America embraced the art of tattooing in their culture, using the process and practice to mark achievements, social status, and the coming of age, as well as pay homage to their spiritual beliefs and religious practices.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of interest amongst the European scholars and explorers that first discovered the existence of tribes of native people during their many journeys to the New World, much of the knowledge that we have today of tattoos amongst the Native Americans is contained to only a few early texts, and most of these are thought to be written from memory and stories picked up along the way, as opposed to actual first-hand experiences.

Captain John Smith’s Observations

Even with the absence of an abundance of information about the tattoo culture of the Native Americans, we have been able to piece together some important facts about the designs, purposes, and meanings of tattoos amongst many of the tribes that spread throughout the early United States, from Florida to the Pacific Northwest, including some illustrations of the tattoos and the people that wore them.

The knowledge that we have of tattooing amongst Native American tribes begins in the late 16th century with a note written by the English explorer, Captain John Smith. He recorded the observation of tattoos on the natives of Florida and Virginia in his journal, stating that they had “their legs, hands, breasts and faces cunningly embroidered with diverse marks, such as beasts and serpents, artificially wrought into their flesh with black spots.”

The Missionaries in North America

Other explorers of North America around the same time also made similar notes in their logs, including John White, the illustrator that accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh on his expedition to establish a colony on Roanoke Island in the territory of Virginia. White noted that the natives that he and Raleigh encountered were marked much like the Picts of ancient times, and included several drawings of native people with elaborate tattoos in his journal entry, although he didn’t include much more information than the drawings themselves.

During the 17th century, many Jesuit missionaries made the journey to the new world to attempt to learn about the native people of North America, and attempt to convert them to the Christian religion. The missionaries recorded multiple instances of tattoos amongst the Native Americans, as well as noting that the designs that they most commonly encountered were those of animals, such as eagles, snakes, and fish.

The Tattooing Process

The Jesuit missionaries also made note that tattooing was a practice amongst everyone in the tribe, not just the men, and that most of the natives had tattoos over a vast majority of their bodies. They stated that it was such common practice amongst the natives that they encountered, that it was more difficult to find people without tattoos than it was to find those with them.

The practice of tattooing was observed and recorded by the European explorers in several different tribes, and the process seems to have been quite similar amongst them all. Tattooing was slow and painful for the natives, and usually resulted in a fever that had to be fought afterwards, sometimes for weeks at a time. This ensured that tattooing was a lifetime practice, as even the toughest warriors would need to recuperate and heal after a tattooing session.

The Tattoo Ritual

Only the most talented and skilled amongst the Native Americans were allowed to practice the art of tattooing, and there were typically celebratory ceremonies amongst all of the villagers when one of the natives received a tattoo. The process was believed to be a privilege, not a right, and all that received a tattoo were expected to maintain their composure during the process. Even the women remained silent and stoic, and those that were unable to behave bravely were looked down upon by those natives that had already received tattoos.

To place a tattoo, sharpened bone was arranged into several levels and attached to a stick by the native tattoo artist. Straw was then burned into ash and mixed with water to create the ink for the tattoo, and used to sketch out the tattoo design on the body. Once the design was in place, the artist then traced it with the tattoo instrument, creating punctures and cuts in the skin, which were then covered by more of the ash ink to ensure permanence.

Native American Tattoos – Use of Colour and Design

Native Americans also added color to some of their tattoo designs through the creation of red and blue inks that were made with locally available material, such as clay and indigo. This practice highlights the natives’ abilities and ingenuity. Even though they were a primitive people, with primitive tools and resources, they were also well-known for their creative craftsmanship and high level of artistic talent. This was made note of on many occasions by the explorers that visited the tribes and observed their carved and decorated totems, canoes, and even bodies.

It is believed that although different tribes in different areas of North America maintained individual practices and designs, there was a common theme of purpose for many of them. Tattoos were usually associated with spiritual practices having to do with the after life, as well as having played a significant role in the symbolic rite of passage into puberty.

Tattoos and the Spirit World

Many of the tribes believed that after death, spirits would block their path into the next world if they did not possess the appropriate tattoos during their lifetime. The Sioux tribe especially believed this, and had a specific legend regarding this matter. It was told that after a warrior died, he would mount a ghostly horse to set forth on his journey to the “Many Lodges,” which is what the Sioux called Heaven. During this journey, the warrior would encounter an old woman on the path who would block his way and demand to see his tattoos. If the warrior had none, she would refuse to allow him to pass and turn him back, condemning him to a life of wandering as a ghost for all eternity amongst the living.

A Status Symbol

Tattoos were also very important amongst the Native Americans as a way to mark status and accomplishments. Warriors were marked with their achievements in battle, and this tradition was taken very seriously amongst the tribes. Only those that had earned the privilege of being tattooed were allowed to have them, and if a tribesman was found to have a tattoo that he hadn’t earned, the tribe’s council of elders would declare that the tattoo would have to be removed, usually by cutting the marked flesh right from the transgressor’s body.

French explorers made note of the extensive tattoos that were worn by the tribe’s warriors, many of them having to do with their fierce abilities on the battle field. One warrior chief of the Iroquois tribe was noted to have over 60 tattooed characters covering his chest and arms. Each one symbolized an enemy that he had killed in the heat of battle.

Tattoos as Medical Treatment and Identification

The placement of tattoos was also thought to be therapeutic amongst some tribes, as explorers noted that the natives placed tattoos on the temples, foreheads, and cheeks of those individuals that were suffering from tooth pain or headaches. The natives believed that these issues were caused by bad spirits, and the placement of these healing tattoos were accompanied by special ceremonies meant to relieve pain and remove the evil spirits from those that were suffering.

Tattoos were also used as a means of identification amongst the Native American tribes. Both men and women were known to have tattoos that marked them as part of a particular tribe, and there were even some families that had tattoo designs that were individual to them, with images passed down from generation to generation.

Common Tattoo Designs

Some of the most common tattoo designs amongst the Native Americans included celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon, and stars, as well as geometric patterns, similar to what were found in the tattoos of the Polynesians. Native Americans also used many different animal images in their tattoos, usually linking the designs of their tribe totems with that of their tattoos.

Native American totems were carved images that were usually placed into wooden logs, and could be found throughout the village, especially in front of their places of lodging. Totems were sacred to the natives, and were highly spiritual in their purpose and use. Many of the spirit animals that were carved into totems would also be found in the tattoos of the natives of each specific tribe.

The personality, or spirit, of each animal was something that was passed down through generations, and many times each family had a certain animal that was used to identify them. This was perfected in the designs of the tattoos and totems of the family. Some of the most powerful and important spirit animals were the wolf, bear, snake, and tortoise.

Secret Meanings

Unfortunately, due to the private nature of the early Native American tribes, not many specifics are known about the meanings of the tattoos or totems. The natives would never permit outsiders to witness their religious ceremonies, or give them too much information about any tribe knowledge.

One explorer from France was taken into the confidences of the tribe that he was studying in the Ohio River Valley area, and was even “adopted” by the tribe. The Osage people welcomed Jean Bernard Bossu into their inner circle by placing a tattoo of a deer on his thigh, making him an honorary warrior of the tribe. When they placed Bossu on an animal skin and began the tattooing process, he knew that he was being watched and judged by the tribe, and he was careful to not cry out in pain or show any weakness. Bossu was rewarded for his efforts with cheers and cries of joy from the people of the village, and with the information that he could now travel to any of the tribes that were nearby and find a warm welcome. All he had to do was show his new Osage tattoo.

Tattoos were almost a secret language amongst the early Native Americans, as they could speak volumes without even saying a word based just on their tattoos. The natives were able to determine which tribe an individual belonged to, their rank and status amongst their people, and even their basic belief system, all based on what type of tattoos they had, and where they were found on the body.

Tattoo Placement

Most of the men had tattoos that covered their chest, thighs, and legs below the knees. A particular place of importance was the back, in between the shoulder blades. This was where most of the warriors chose to have their identifying tattoos placed, as well as some of the tattoos that they earned during their time in battle. This was considered to be especially ferocious, and was often used as a means of intimidation to warn the members of opposing tribes that the warrior was not someone to be messed with.

Women tended to have their tattoos placed over their breasts, on their shoulders, and on the forearms, from the elbow all the way down to their knuckles. They also had tattoos on their legs, from below the knees to their ankles. This placement was used to increase the native womens’ beauty, as well as tell their life story amongst their people.

The Enduring Influence of Native American Tattooing

Native American tattooing was a beautiful and intricate art, and although much remains a mystery as to the specifics of the designs and meanings of the tattoos of the many varied tribes, we have been able to see the time and skill that went into the practice thanks to the records that were left behind by some of the first visitors to the area, as well as how important tattoos were to the early Native Americans.

The artwork that the natives took part in, and the closely linked process and purpose of their tattoos help us to see that these native people took the time and trouble to work out a system to keep their beliefs, traditions, and practices in a place of importance and honor.

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