Saturday, February 14, 2009

Getting a Native American Tattoos

The latest hot question filling my email box, usually from young people with American Indian ancestry, is "What are the traditional designs for Cherokee (or Blackfoot, or Lenape, or any other Native American) tribal tattoos? Because my grandmother was part Cherokee (or Blackfoot, or Lenape) and I want to honor my heritage."
Well, this isn't a bad question on the face of it. Many American Indian tribes do have traditions of tribal tattoo art. In some tribes this tradition is unbroken, and in others it's being revived by Indian young people. However, if you are writing to me and asking this question, I would encourage you to consider three things:

1. You may have Indian heritage, but you do not have an actual connection with your ancestors' tribe, otherwise you would have family members to ask about your tribe's tattoo tradition rather than asking me.

2. People who have Indian heritage but no actual connection with their ancestors' tribe are often wrong about their ancestors' tribal affiliation! (You wouldn't believe how many people have been looking for an impossible-to-locate Cherokee great-grandmother, only to find that they'd wasted years bcause she was actually Assiniboine and everyone just called her Cherokee because they'd never heard of the Assiniboines.)

3. You should assume that getting a tattoo will be PERMANENT. Sometimes they can remove tattoos later (which is extremely expensive) but other times they can't remove them completely and you would still have a partial tattoo or a permanent scar. So if you get a tattoo, plan on keeping it.

Now, combine these three things. Say you're a young man who really wants to connect with your grandmother's people, really want to make that a part of your life, so you get an elaborate Cherokee facial tattoo. Then you find out she was really Assiniboine. Sorry to put it this way, but you're screwed. A lot of Indians are skeptical of young non-Indians rediscovering Indian roots anyway, think they're not very serious. You think the Assiniboines are going to accept you as one of them when you have Cherokee tattoos all over your face. (In Sioux cultures men don't even tattoo their faces, only women do, so you'll look like an idiot going over and claiming to be related to them.)

Now if you have a tribal identity already--you belong to a tribe, or you have third cousins who do and you visit them every year, or something like that--then great, go for it, worse that happens is you get old and fat and the tattoo doesn't look good anymore like the one I got in the army. But if you are looking for a tribal identity, and you would maybe like to be accepted as a mixed-blood Indian someday, or at least you don't want actual Indians to laugh at you when you introduce yourself, please do yourself a favor and hold off on the Native American tattoos until you are actually affiliated with the tribe in question. Use your common sense: if American Indian tattoos were originally used as a form of permanent tribal identification, then putting on the wrong tattoo will permanently mark you as an outsider. Do you really want to risk that? For that matter, even putting on a correct tattoo from a tribe you've never even been to visit will pretty much mark you as a poser (just like putting on army tattooes when you've never been a soldier would).

In other words, if you have to ask a stranger about it over the Internet, you probably really do not want to be getting a Native American tribal tattoo. You run the risk of achieving exactly the opposite effect from the one you were hoping for: distancing yourself from your people, or even mis-honoring an ancestor. Tread carefully there.

But What If I Want A Native American Tattoo Anyway?

When I first put this page up some years ago, most of the tattoo-related email I received was from mixed-blood people wishing to get traditional tribal tattoos to honor their native ancestors and feel closer to their native heritage. It is these people that my previous advice is intended for (and judging from their responses, it has been appreciated.) However, since that time tribal tattoo art has apparently really hit the mainstream, and now I get a lot of frustrated email from other people--young people who are not that interested in reconnecting with their specific Indian roots, or indeed do not have any at all. "Look," they say, "I just want to get a cool looking tattoo that shows my respect for Native Americans in general. I don't really care which tribe it's from. I don't need warnings--don't you have any suggestions?"

Well, you're going to have a hard time getting an authentically traditional Native American tribal tattoo if you really don't belong to a Native American community at all, but here are some ideas which may be interesting to you if you are in this situation:

1) You could get a tribal tattoo design created by a contemporary Native American artist. I know of one Cherokee artist, Ken Masters, who has pictures of a few tribal tattoos designed by him available on his website for free. You could also browse through our directory of Native American artists, particularly the native paintings, because some of the other artists may design tattoo art on commission.

2) Cherokee and Cree both have unique writing systems, and you could use lettering from one of those scripts as a tattoo design. These are syllabaries, not alphabets, which means that each Cherokee or Cree character represents one syllable. You could use the first syllable in your name or your girlfriend's name or something like that. Here are pictures of all the characters in Cherokee and Cree. You can also download a free Windows font of Cherokee letters here.

3) You could use a word from a Native American language as a tattoo design. This isn't traditional in any tribe that I know of, but in recent times some young Indian guys have started doing it, especially with their names, family or clan names, a kinship term, or an animal they feel a connection with. Anything that gets the young people more interested in our languages is a good new tradition as far as I'm concerned. You can use a dictionary to find the word for your favorite animal or the kinship term for a family member you'd like to honor. Here's our Amerindian directory, where we have links to online dictionaries and other resources in various Indian languages. If you'd like a word like this but don't want to track one down yourself, our Native American language organization is currently doing a fundraiser to provide Native American names for people's dogs, and we could also provide translations of an animal or kinship word in several different native languages. Here's a form you can fill out if you're interested in that.

4) You could adapt a traditional symbol or design from Native American art into a tattoo picture. There are plenty of good books with pictures of Native American designs and symbols, including Indian Designs, American Indian Design and Decoration, Indian Art of the Northwest Coast, Art of the Northwest Coast Indians, Images in Stone: Southwest Rock Art, Tribal Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico, and Designs from Pre-Columbian Mexico. You can probably find a book of Native American art designs in your local library.

5) You could use the tribal seal or flag of a Native American nation as a tattoo design. If you're really sure which tribe grandma belonged to, this might be the option for you. Here is a really nice site with pictures of almost all the tribal flags in the United States and some of the Canadian ones: Native American Flags.

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