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Tats Incredible: The Revival of Indigenous Ink

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Due to colonization and the spread of Christianity throughout Native lands, Indigenous tattooing became taboo during the assimilation era. Even today, it’s discouraged. As a result, the practice went underground. Thankfully, genocide was unsuccessful and Native Nations remain, along with their languages, customs, belief systems, and rich heritages. As Native people begin to return to their traditional ways, we are starting to see a resurgence of the ancient art of tattooing.

Tattoos worn by the Polynesians are well known. Numerous North American Tribes also adorned themselves with permanent body art well before the arrival of Columbus. Algonquin, Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), Cherokee, Chippewa, Choctaw, Commanche, Cree, Creek, Crow, Haida, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Kiowa, Mandan, Nimíipuu (Nez Perce), Osage, Pawnee, Pima, Ponca, Tlingit, Winnebago and others all wore tattoos. They had meaning. Some were considered necessary for travel to the spirit world.


Penobscot, from left to right: Shantel van Dyke Penobscot/Onieda), Leigh Neptune Penobscot/Passamaquoddy), Alexis Ireland Maliseet), Nakoa Parson Penobscot), Julian Loring

My Tribe practiced tattooing as well. The Dakota of the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) often adorned their flesh with ink. The most common tattoos we wore were on the wrist or forehead. These identifiers gave our ancestors the ability to recognize us as belonging to the Dakota after we died. Chief Little Crow (His Red Nation) of the Mdewakanton Dakota, who lead the people during the Minnesota Uprising of 1862, had eagles tattooed on both wrists. I have a blue thunderbolt on my wrist, to honor the wakinyan (thunder beings).

Recently I was able to visit with Marjorie Tahbone, about traditional tattoo work. She is Inupiaq and Kiowa, and was Miss Indian World 2011-12. Marjorie lives in Nome, Alaska and wears traditional tattoos on her body.

“Inupiaq is a tribe that inhabits the arctic regions of the globe. I grew up living a fairly traditional lifestyle, learning to subsist and hunt for my family and others. I was fortunate to grow up with a strong identity to my Inupiaq roots. I was always intrigued with tattoos from our region, I had always seen them on women in pictures, but whenever I asked there was very little information about them. It almost seemed taboo to talk about them. I myself have three traditional tattoos. The first one I received was on my chin in 2012. Many years ago it was a symbol of womanhood and coming of age, when a girl becomes a woman who could bear children. I translated that to modern times and got mine after I graduated from college, moved back to my home community, and worked for my people. To get those I had the support and backing from my family, but it took several years to convince my grandmother, who lived in a time where it was shameful to admit you were Native. My second set of tattoos are on my wrist. They serve as reminders of where I come from, but also serve as adornments, as it was long ago. My birthing tattoos are the last ones I received. They are done on the thighs, and are meant for no one else but the next generation. When they exit the womb we want them to see beauty and love. We want to ensure that they know they are entering a world full of love and beauty.”

Now, Ms. Tahbone is actively involved in reviving the art of Indigenous tattooing.

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She says, “Just a few months ago in August I learned from Elle Festin how to do traditional tattoo using the old methods: hand poking and skin stitching. Elle sought me out. He saw that our way of tattooing needed to be revived and asked if I wanted to learn. I jumped on the opportunity and flew down to his tattoo shop in Los Angeles. He and his wife did my birthing tattoos.”

“After he taught me, I did tattoos on my family first,” she continues. “My sister Vanessa got one on her wrist and my mother asked me to finish hers on her wrist that she started when she was a teenager. I have done a dozen others and still continue to learn and do more tattoos. I have also done demonstrations and presentations.”


Penobscot, from left to right: Shantel van Dyke Penobscot/Onieda), Leigh Neptune Penobscot/Passamaquoddy), Alexis Ireland Maliseet), Nakoa Parson Penobscot), Julian Loring

Marjorie sees reviving the art of tattooing among her people as important in bolstering a sense of pride in them as new ancestors and representatives of their Native Nation.

“I hope to instill strong identity with our people, and I feel that learning and doing tattoos is one way I can do that. I love who I am and I know I am on the right path, I know my ancestors are with me every step of the way.”

Indigenous tattooing is part of who we are. As non-Native hipsters and popstars display generic dreamcatchers and Americans get so-called ‘Tribal’ tattoos on their flesh en masse, it becomes even more vital that we save the art of Indigenous body design from the brink of extinction, thereby preserving its true meaning and place in Native history so we may pass it down for generations to come.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.