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Haida tattoo designs

The following excerpt is from James Swan's Tattoo Marks of the Haida (1878).

In February 1879 I was fortunate enough to meet a party of Haida men and women in Port Townsend, Washington, who permitted me to copy their tattoo marks.

The tattoo marks of the Haidas are heraldic designs or the family totem, or crests of the wearers, and are similar to the carvings depicted on the pillars and monuments around the homes of the chiefs, which casual observers have thought were idols. These designs are invariably placed on the men between the shoulders just below the back of the neck, on the breast, on the front part of both thighs, and on the legs just below the knees. On the women they are marked on the breast, on both shoulders, on both forearms, from the elbow down over the back of the hands to the knuckles, and on both legs below the knee to the ankle.

When the Haidas visit Victoria or the town on Puget Sound they are dressed in the garb of white people and present a respectable appearance, in marked contrast with the Indians from the west coast of Vancouver Island, or the vicinity of Cape Flattery, who dress in a more primitive manner, and attract notice by their more picturesque costumes than do the Haida, about whom there is nothing outwardly of unusual appearance, except that tattoo marks on the hands of the women, which show their nationality at a glance to the most careless observer.

Almost all of the Indian women of the northwest coast have tattoo marks on their hands and arms, and some on the face; but as a general thing these marks are mere dots or straight lines having no particular significance. With the Haidas, however, every mark has its meaning; those on the hands and arms of the women indicate the family name, whether they belong to the bear, beaver, wolf or eagle totems, or any of the family of fishes. As one of them quaintly remarked to me, "If you were tattooed with the design of a swan, the Indians would know your family name."....

Although it is very easy to distinguish the Haida women from those of other tribes by seeing the tattoo marks on the backs of their hands, yet very few white persons have cared to know the meaning of these designs, or are aware of the extent of the tattoo marks on the persons of both sexes.

It should be borne in mind that during their festivals and masquerade performances the men are entirely naked and the women have only a short skirt reaching from the waist to the knee; the rest of their persons are exposed, and it is at such times that the tattoo marks show with the best effect, and the rank and family connection are known by the variety of designs.

Like all the other coast tribes, the Haidas are careful not to permit the intrusion of white persons or strangers to their Tomanawos ceremonies, and as a consequence but few white people, and certainly none of those who have ever written about those Indians, have been present at their opening ceremonies when the tattoo marks are shown.

My information was derived from the Haidas themselves, who explained to me while I was making the drawings, and illustrated some of the positions assumed in their dances by both sexes. As the Haidas, both men and women, are very light colored, some of the latter, full blooded Indians too, having their skins as fair as Europeans, the tattoo marks show very distinct.

This tattooing is not all done at one time, nor is it everyone who can tattoo. Certain ones, almost always men, have a natural gift which enables them to excel in this kind of work. One of the young chiefs, named Geneskelos, was the best designer I knew, and ranked among his tribe as a tattooer. He belonged to Laskeek village on the east side of Moresby's Island, one of the Queen Charlotte group. I employed him to decorate the great canoe which I sent to the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia in 1879, for the National Museum. I was with him a great deal of the time both at Victoria and Port Townsend. He had a little sketch book in which he had traced designs for tattooing, which he gave to me. He subsequently died in Victoria of smallpox, soon after he had finished decorating the canoe.

He told me the plan he adopted was first to draw the design carefully on the person with some dark pigment, then prick it in with needles, and then rub over the wound with some more coloring matter till it acquired the proper hue. He had a variety of instruments composed of needles tied neatly to sticks. His favorite one was a flat strip of ivory or bone, to which he had firmly tied five or six needles, with their points projecting beyond the end just far enough to raise the skin without inflicting a dangerous wound, but these needle points stuck out quite sufficiently to make the operation very painful, and although he applied some substance to deaden the sensation of the skin, yet the effect was on some to make them quite sick for a few days; consequently, the whole process of tattooing was not done at one time. As this tattooing is a mark of honor, it is generally done at or just prior to a Tomanawos performance and at the time of raising the heraldic columns in front of the chief's house. The tattooing is done in open lodge and is witnessed by the company assembled. Sometimes it takes several years before all the tattooing is done, but when completed and the person well ornamented, then they are happy and can take their seats among the elders.

It is an interesting question, and one worthy of careful and patient investigation, why it is that the Haida Nation alone of all the coast tribes tattoo their persons to such an extent, and how they acquire the art of carving columns which bear such striking similarity to carving in wood and stone by the ancient inhabitants of Central America, as shown by drawings in Bancroft's fourth volume of Native Races and in Habel's investigation in Central and South America.

The tattoo marks, the carvings, and heraldic designs of the Haida are an exceedingly interesting study, and I hope what I have thus hastily and imperfectly written may be the means of awakening an interest to have those questions scientifically discussed, for they seem to me to point to a key which may unlock the mystery which for so many ages has kept us from the knowledge of the origin of the Pacific Tribes.

The following is from The Haida Indians of Queen Charlotte's Islands, British Columbia by James Swan (1874)

The custom which prevails among them, and seems to be a distinctive feature of this tribe, is that of tattooing their bodies with various designs, all of which are fanciful representations of animals, birds, or fishes, either an attempt to represent in a grotesque form those which are known and commonly seen, or their mythological and legendary creations. A recent visit of a party of these Indians to Port Townsend has enabled me to study carefully a variety of their carvings and tattoo marks, and to ascertain with accuracy their true meaning and signification.

I have forwarded to the Smithsonian Institution, to accompany this memoir, several carvings in wood and stone; and, in order the better to describe them, I have made sketches illustrative of these carvings and also of various tattoo designs, which were copied by me from the persons of the Indians, and also have caused photographs to be taken to still further illustrate this subject...

The designs which I have copied and described are but a portion of the whole which were tattooed on the persons of this party; but the limited time they remained did not enable me to make a very extended examination. Enough, however, has been obtained to show that this subject is one of great ethnological value, and if followed up with zeal and intelligence would be certain to produce interesting results.

The method by which I determined with accuracy that meaning of these various carvings and tattoo designs was by natural objects, by alcoholic specimens of frogs and crayfish, by dried specimens, by carvings of bears and seals, and by pictures, and by the mythological drawings of similar objects which I had previously obtained and determined among the Makahs. The Haidas, in explaining to me the meaning of their various designs, pointed to the articles I had, and thus proved to me what they meant to represent.

The tattoo marks of the codfish, squid, humming bird, etc., never could have been determined from any resemblance to those objects, but by having the specimens and pictures before me they could easily point each one out. Nor was I satisfied until I had submitted my drawings to other Indians, and proved by their giving the same names to each, that my first informant had told me correctly. The allegorical meaning, however, will require for determination time and careful study. Indians are very peculiar in giving information relative to their myths and allegories. Even when one is well acquainted with them and has their confidence, much caution is required, and it is useless to attempt to obtain any reliable information unless they are in a humor of imparting it...

I will not, at this time, press further this discussion, upon a subject which to perfectly understand will need extended observations to be made upon the spot, and would require an explanation that would carry me beyond the limits to which I propose to confine myself in this present paper. I trust that it will be sufficient for me to have shown that the subject of the carvings in wood and stone and precious metals, the paintings and tattoo marks of the Haidas, is one of very great interest, and one which not only never has been properly explained, but never properly understood. When we reflect on the great number of centuries during which all knowledge of the interior of the Pyramids of Egypt was hidden from the world, until the researches of Belzoni discovered their secret treasures, and until Champollion, by aid of the Rosetta Stone, was enabled to decipher their hieroglyphic writings, may we not hope that the knowledge of the ancient history of the natives of the northwest coast, which has so long been an enigma, may be traced out by means of the explanation of the meaning of the symbols such as I have been enabled to discover in part, and have in this paper described.

This very brief memoir, made during the visit of a party of Haida Indians for a few weeks in Port Townsend, will serve to show what could be effected if the Government would empower some person here, and appropriate sufficient funds to be expended in these ethnological and archaeological researches.

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