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North America's First Nations Tattoos

Most 19th Century scholars took no interest in North American native tattooing and very little information can be found. One scholar, A.T. Sinclair surveyed all the literature written about tattooing and wrote a paper, "Tattooing of the American Indians" which surveyed the records of tattooing in each geographical area of North America.

Early North American tattoos among First Nations people

17th Century French explorers and missionaries in Eastern Canada wrote some of the most interesting description of tattooing in North American.

Early North American tattoos among First Nations people
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Gabriel Sagard-Theodat's account of tattooing among the Hurons, written in1615 reads:

But that which I find a most strange and conspicuous folly, is that in order to be considered courageous and feared by their enemies (the Hurons) take the bone of a bird or of a fish which they sharpen like a razor, and use it to engrave or decorate their bodies by making many punctures somewhat as we would engrave a copper plate with a burin. During this process they exhibit the most admirable courage and patience. They certainly feel the pain, for they are not insensible, but they remain motionless and mute while their companions wipe away the blood that runs from the incisions. Subsequently they rub a black color or powder into the cuts in order that the engraved marks which one sees on the arms of the pilgrims returning form Jerusalem.

Numerous brief references to tattooing are found in writings of 17th century Jesuit missionaries whose reports were sent to Paris each and compiled in volumes titled, Jesuit Relations. Jesuit missions were scattered through Canada, and missionaries reported that tattooing was practiced by almost all the native tribes they encountered. In 1653, Francois-J. Bressani wrote:

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 chess, 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. The 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 a result of a kind of spasm that it produces, or for other reasons. The natives thus die as martyrs to vanity because of this bizarre custom.

Early North American Algonquin tattoos
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Native North American tattooing was often associated with religious and magical practices. It was also used as a symbolic rite of passage at puberty ceremonies.

The Sioux, believed that after death the spirit of the warrior mounts a ghostly horse and sets forth on its journey to the "many lodges" of the afterlife. Along the way the spirit of the warrior meets an old woman who blocks his path and demands to see his tattoos. I he has none, she turns him back and condemns him to return to the world of the living as a wandering ghost.

Many tribes practiced therapeutic tattooing. The Ojibwa, tattooed the temples, forehead, and cheeks of those suffering from headaches and toothaches that were believed to be caused by malevolent spirits. Songs and dances that were supposed to exorcise the demons accompanied the tattooing ceremony.

Tattooing was also used to honour warriors who had distinguished themselves by bravery in combat. Other Europeans reported the use of tattooing to record achievements in war. In the Jesuit Relations of 1663, it was reported that an Iroquois chief known to the French as "Nero" bore on this thighs 60 tattooed characters, each of which symbolized an enemy killed with his own hand.

There are few surviving illustrations of North American native tattoo designs.

Tattoo Museum Bibliography, Resources and Links

North America Tattoo Map See all North American Tattoo Culture Articles here

Additional Resources

See the Lars Krutak article America's Tattooed Indian Kings for more information about tattoos & tattooing among North America's First Nations.

North America's Wichita Tribe -- Historical overview of the Wichita people that includes mention of their tattooing practices

Marks of Transformation: Tribal Tattooing in California and the American Southwest

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