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Tattoo Marks of the Haida (a short excerpt)
by James G. Swan 1878

James Swan and a Haida man named Johnny Kit Elswa, Victoria, BC, 1883
James Swan and a Haida man named
Johnny Kit Elswa, 1884

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.


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