Thursday, November 20, 2008

North American Indian Ink

The story of body art in North America is one of fascinating religious and spiritual significance. The art of tattoo was so widespread among North American Indians that it could justifiably be considered universal. Although many of the uses and features of tattoo were similar among various tribes they were not identical. Generally tattoos were used for four main reasons: to mark rites of passage, to signify one's clan or tribe, for healing and pain relief and to warn of a warriors abilities and therefore intimidate the enemy. The methods to apply their tattoos were generally the same throughout North America and usually consisted of sharpened bones or thorns used to pierce or puncture the skin into which a darkening agent was then applied. In 1653 the Jesuit missionary Francois-J. Bressani recorded methods used by the natives of eastern Canada:
In order to paint permanent marks on themselves they undergo intense pain. To do this they use needles, sharpened awls, or thorns. With these instruments they pierce the skin and trace images of animals or monsters, for example an eagle, a serpent, a dragon, or any other figure they like, which they engrave on their faces, their necks, their chests, or other parts of their bodies. Then, while the punctures which form the designs are fresh and bleeding, they rub in charcoal or some other black color which mixes with the blood and penetrates the wound. The image is then indelibly imprinted on the skin. This custom is so widespread that I believe that in many of these native tribes it would be impossible to find a single individual who is not marked in this way. When this operation is performed over the entire body it is dangerous, especially in cold weather. Many have died after the operation, either as the result of a kind of spasm which it produces, or for other reasons. The natives thus die as martyrs to vanity because of this bizarre custom.

If we discount Bressani's obvious lack of understanding regarding the spiritual significance of tattoos we learn a great deal about the application process. To the left we see Haida tattoo needles collected in 1883. Note how similar, yet shorter, the tools are compared to traditional foot long Japanese tattoo tools.

Tattoos for rites of passage typically signified a persons first step into adulthood. These tattoos usually consisted of lines and geometric patterns. Arapaho men tattooed three dots on their own chest to prove their manhood. Tattoos for young women were often placed on the chin and immediately told the viewer her background and marital status. To the right we see a Mojave woman with impressive facial tattoos and body art. Most rite of passage tattoos were placed upon puberty but sometimes death as well. Some tribes, including the Sioux, held that after death as a "ghost warrior" made his way to the spirit world he would be met by an old woman who would demand to see his tattoos. If the individual was unfortunate enough not to have any ink he would be denied passage to the other side and, along with his horse, be thrown back down to the Earth, doomed to wander aimlessly for eternity. This was such a strongly held belief that many elders, who had not been previously tattooed, would be tattooed as they lay on their death beds.

The natives of the Northwest Coast, including the Haida and Tlinglit, used crest tattoos to signify their clan's territory and distinguish between members of different social groups. Crests could include land and sea animals as well as geographical features and heavenly bodies. They could also include natural materials like clay or copper. To the left we see an 1886 photograph of a Haida man with a bear crest on his chest and dogfish on each arm. These crests not only told the viewer to what family group a person came from but that the person "owned" that crest and its associated usage in stories, songs and personal names. It could also denote ones ownership of a particular geographical area and the accompanying resources. While these images were not themselves worshiped they were symbols of the magical connection between the people, the land and the animals and the ancestors who won and wore them in the past.

Warriors were often known to bear tattoos signifying their personal strength and skills as well as how many kills they'd made. Jesuits reported in 1663 that an Iroquois chief had 60 tattoos on his thighs, each one representing a man he had killed with his own hands. Among the Chickasaw, and presumably other tribes, the best warriors could be easily recognized by their tattoos. Tattoos were also used for therapeutic reasons among many tribes. The Ojibwa were known to tattoo the temples, forehead and cheeks of those suffering from either toothaches or headaches. Believing the pain was caused my malevolent spirits songs and dances would be performed as part of the tattoo ceremony. The Menoltiini and many other tribes also used tattoos for curative purposes. To the right we see Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, King of the Maquas, by John Verelst. He was one of four Mohawk chiefs who, in 1710, visited London as part of a delegation to Queen Anne.

From kids reaching puberty to warriors frightening their enemies the history of tattoo among North American Indians is fascinating to say the least. And although historical information regarding North American Indian tattoo is scant, and images even harder to find, I hope I've provided an interesting overview of its history. For more information please visit the following sites: Draadlogger Tattoo History, North American First Nations Tattoo History and America's Tattooed Indian Kings.

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