Native American Tattoos

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Every culture has something that distinguishes them in the eyes of the world.  Whether it be religious customs or art, these facets make each and every culture unique.  Throughout Native American history, their deeply spiritual beliefs, as well as their own personal identities, have been reflected through the implementation of various Native American tattoos.

Native American Tattoos as Tribal Indicators

There are different symbolic meanings behind the multitudes of traditional Native American tattoos that are in existence, but history gives some insight as to what their original meanings were.  Most prevalently, tattoos were a symbol of a warrior’s status within a tribe.  An example of tattooing as an indicator of status within a tribe were the tattoos of the Illinois tribe.  Tattoos in this tribe were given to those who had proficiency in using the symbol that was tattooed upon their body.  This tribe tattooed weapons on the bodies of their warriors. Additionally, this tribe also tattooed their women with various labor tools.

Another Native American tribe whose tattoos bear cultural and historical significance are the Iroquois.  Tattooing women in this tribe was very rare, but the method used by men to tattoo themselves was unique.  The design of the tattoo was stenciled onto the skin, after which time the design was etched into the skin using the bones of small animals, or needles that had been obtained through trading.  After this process was complete, the wound was allowed to flow blood.  After the blood has sufficiently drained away, charcoal was rubbed into the design, and the tattoo was complete.

It is commonplace now for people to get the names of loved ones tattooed onto their skin.  For the Native Americans, their tattoos generally represented their own names.  For example, in Albany, New York on August 13, 1706, a Dutch trader named Evert Wendel wrote in his account book that a Seneca that he had traded with had tattoos all over his face, which was symbolic of both a signature, and what he recognized as his own unique identity.  One can understand the origins of such tattoos, for whether it be for cultural or personal reasons, tattoos have important meanings for those who wear them.

Joseph Paige 2006

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