Tattoo Traditions of Native North America

For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples of North America have produced astonishingly rich and diverse forms of tattooing. Long neglected by anthropologists and art historians, tattooing was a time-honored practice that expressed the patterns of tribal social organization and religion, while also channeling worlds inhabited by deities, spirits, and the ancestors.

Tattoo Traditions of Native North America explores the many facets of indelible Indigenous body marking across every cultural region of North America. As the first book on the subject, it breaks new ground on one of the least-known mediums of Native American expressive culture that nearly disappeared from view in the twentieth century, until it was reborn in recent decades. In the following excerpted photos and text, we learn about three tattoo traditions still in practice today, as well as a glimpse into their significance for the people who practice them. 

1.

Facial tattoos of Anna Aghtuqaayak of Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, 1997. Photographer Lars Krutak.

On St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, Anna Aghtuqaayak (Qayaghhaq), one of the last completely tattooed St. Lawrence Islanders said of tattooing: “We did it to be beautiful, so that we would not look like men. We wanted precious pictures of the afterlife.” Most of Aghtuqaayak’s tattoos dated to the 1920s and she noted that the circular and branching elements on the cheek near her ears were called qilak, or “heavens.”

2.

Sage LaPena photographed in Santa Rosa, California, 2012. Photographer Lars Krutak.

Sage LaPena (Wintu herbalist, ethnobotanist, and teacher): “When I was growing up, I learned about the boarding school era and these difficulties, and the genocide perpetuated against us. I was surrounded by my elders, other Native peoples, and ceremony, and to me all these things were natural and a regular part of my life. And I also went through the shortened  version of our puberty ceremony–although back then we didn’t have as much information about these rituals as we do now because they have been restored. I participated in all the dances, then had children and became an herbalist. [The tattoo] was one more step, it is my birthright to who I am as a traditional Native woman. I would say it makes me a whole human being, that I might take my rightful place in my community. And instead of having to pull out my credentials, of who I am and what I represent, it is there on my face before I open my mouth. And when I talk about taking care of the earth, living with the environment, herbalism, TEK (traditional ecological knowledge), the words that I speak are the truth and come from my elders, my ancestors, from Mother Earth. So that is what is embodied in that tattoo; that is what it represents as a human being living where I do, in Northern California.”

3.

Tlingit tattoo artist Nahaan, 2012. Photographer Lars Krutak.

Nahaan (Tlingit tattoo artist): “Tattooing has always been part of Pacific Rim cultures. Be it a sign of wealth, genealogy, roots, ancestry, traits, talents, or history, it has been a part of who we have been since time began. It is an act of sovereignty, a practice of tradition, to ceremonially give and receive tattoos, and it always will be a part of who we are as Tlingit people.”

Preview additional images from the book here.

Tattoo Traditions of Native North America is distributed for LM Publishers and is available for purchase on the UW Press website, as well as through other bookstores and online retail outlets.

“Simply put, this book is beautiful. [It] presents [tattoo] traditions with levity, generosity, and respect, and most importantly, not as a dying or vanishing art form but one which is re-emerging, giving voice to the people to whom these traditions belong.” —Analisa Tripp, News from Native California, February 2015

Lars Krutak is a cultural anthropologist, photographer, and writer who has traveled the Indigenous world for over fifteen years documenting the traditions of tribal body modification. He is a Research Associate at the National Museum of Natural History. He is the author of The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women; Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal; and Magical Tattoos and Scarification: Spiritual Skin. Wisdom. Healing. Shamanic Power. Protection.

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