Unearthing The Secrets Of North America’s Tattooing Traditions


Hee-láh-dee, Pure Fountain, Wife of The Smoke by George Catlin by Margerykelz on Pictify

As you might imagine, there are a few roadblocks to studying Native American tattooing traditions over the millenia. There aren’t a lot of examples of tattooed eight-hundred year old remains, because people’s skin tends not to hold up after death and there’s not a lot of skin that age still hanging around. Tattooing tools weren’t always recognized for what they were when early expeditions found them, leaving many possible tools misidentified. And, the funding is rarely available to test whether any given artifact had the mixture of human blood and colored pigment we’d expect to find on a tattooing tool.

So I’ve been waiting for Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America, a collection of essays co-edited by Carol Diaz-Granados and Aaron Deter-Wolf, to come out ever since I heard about it last year.


The contributors to this volume do a great job of laying out what kinds of things can be known, the reasons they’re speculating in the directions they’re speculating, and what kinds of things other archaeologists should look out for. This book has a lot to offer for the history buff, the hard-core scholar, and the tattoo enthusiast. A discussion of Native American tattoo practices ends up being, in part, a discussion of the meanings of the tattoos. And since the tattoos have great cultural significance, the reader necessarily gets glimpses into the cultures doing the tattooing. For instance, in one chapter, anthropologist Lars Krutak tells the story of Seneca warrior Tan Na Eedsies, who, rather than writing his name in the account book of a Dutch trader, drew a picture of his face covered in tattoos, easily recognizable as him because his tattoos were unique to him, symbols of the number of kills he’d made during battle and representations of his guiding spirits. Krutak has a lengthy, interesting discussion about how the Iroquois people came to learn about their guiding spirits and how these spirits actually guided them.

One of my favorite chapters was David H. Dye’s “Snaring Life from the Stars and the Sun: Mississippian Tattooing and the Enduring Cycle of Life and Death.” He discusses the meaning of the cosmology of the Osage people and the massive tattoos select Osage women received in order to make themselves able to trap the life-force and manifest it on earth. In it is some of the most moving writing you’re ever going to read in a scholarly tome:

Osage women were conduits for life forces that descended from the stars and sun along an axis mundi, where the life forces were channeled by various lines on their arms and snared by vulvaform spider motifs into their bodies. Tattoos directed these life forces and aided women’s supplications for log life and many descendants. (p. 218)

In other words, the tattoos on an Osage woman’s body were both a map of the paths these life forces take and the paths themselves.

To get a deeper understanding of the stories the book is telling us, I asked co-editor Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, to answer an few questions about the book. He kindly agreed. Below is our exchange, edited for length and clarity:


Betsy: In your chapter, you made a couple of references to “experimental tattooing using lithic flakes.” I hardly know where to start with all of the questions I have about this. Did you let someone experimentally tattoo you with these ancient tools? Is there some brave volunteer out there upon whom you experimented? Were all the experimental tattoos successful? Did you make your own stone tools, and, if so, out of what kinds of stone? I think my favorite moment in the whole book was realizing that you had, after researching these ancient tattoo methods, decided to try them and see how they worked, but I’m wondering about the person who was cool with you trying it out on him or her.

Aaron: Experimental tattooing. First I used the ethnohistorical data outlined in my chapter to come up with a list of possible pre-contact North American tool types. Then I recreated those tools using authentic prehistoric technology: flintknapping to make stone tools, abrading and cutting with stone knives to shape deer and turkey bone needles, stone knives to sharpen river cane, etc. The tools illustrated in my chapter are all ones that I made and tested. The actual test was done on a side (including ribs) of adult pig that had been scraped clean of hair. I actually had lots of volunteers for that project, but ultimately decided it was better to take the more scientific/less actionable approach. Chris Saint Clark from Kustom Thrills here in East Nashville helped me out in doing the initial testing and evaluation. All the tools we tested pierced the skin and so could be used to tattoo, though for some of them the amount of pain and/or final product would be less than ideal. For example, the punctures left by a flint graver are irregularly shaped and tend to tear into one another if spaced too closely, and the tips of honey locust spines and river cane needles both broke fairly quickly and left fragments in the wounds. (Here’s a link to a paper I gave on the testing.)

The last time I taught the Anthropology of Tattooing at MTSU I did a lab practicum where I recreated this experiment with a wider variety of tool types from around the world and let the students try them out (again, on pig skin). A good time was had by all.

Betsy: One of the things that you and your contributors discuss is the difficulty, when looking archaeological artifacts, in discerning if an object before you is a sewing needle or a tattoo needle or something else entirely. You once told me that one issue is that previous generations of archaeologists who weren’t looking for tattoo tools, but who did expect to find sewing needles, tended to call all needles “sewing needles.” Have you personally had the experience of looking at a needle and realizing, “Hey, wait a second! This could be a tattooing tool?” If so, what factors led to your realization?

Aaron: There are all kinds of sharp, pointy things in the archaeological record. Depending on the specific shape, material type, & the region you’re working in, these get called needles, awls, punches, points, pins, drills, scarifiers, etc. Here in North America, most of the slender, pointed bone implements get called “needles” — though they typically lack eyes, and so aren’t properly “sewing needles” (Side note/trivia — in the American Arctic the Inuit and others literally stitched their tattoos through the skin using eyed-bone needles and pigment-rubbed sinew!). Being able to differentiate between tattoo implements and needles/awls, etc. starts with being able to recognize associated artifacts and embracing the concept of tattoo bundles, which I discuss some in the book chapter. By looking at comparative data from traditional tattooing societies around the world, we can understand that ancient tattoo tools rarely traveled alone, and instead were part of larger bundles or toolkits. These kits also included a variety of functionally- and ritually- related items, such as the pigment used in tattooing, tools for needle repair, and various subsidiary materials (plant medicines, musical instruments, symbolic animal remains, etc). Tattoo bundles were one variety of sacred bundles (sometimes glossed as “medicine bundles”) used historically by Native American groups in Eastern North America and on the Great Plains. During the time I’ve been researching ancient tattooing, I also spent several years working on unrelated reanalysis of an excavation from the 1980s at a site here in Middle Tennessee. One of the Late Archaic (ca. 1500 BC) burials at that site was interred beside a bundle that included bivalve shells containing pigment residue, dog or wolf paws, and a set of sharpened turkey bone needles. Two of the needles were stained with red ochre, and I identified microscopic use wear patterns on their tips consistent with repeatedly piercing soft hide to a very shallow depth — this is the same wear pattern created by tattooing with bone needles. Of course it’s not conclusive that these were tattoo implements, but between the context (sacred bundle), associated pigment remains, and use wear pattern, I think it’s a pretty compelling case.

Betsy: I found David Dye’s chapter about how the tattoos of the Dhegiha women function to snare souls from the spirit world and bring them into our world to be really moving. The tattoos serve to help the women perform this sacred community function and to take their proper place in the cosmology of their community. And yet, from what Dye wrote, it doesn’t seem like women get these tattoos any more. Is it a practice that’s completely lost or, since tattooing has become so much more common and mainstream, is there any indication that intricately symbolic (and enormous) tattoos like these are making any kind of comeback?


Aaron: So far as I know, the original Dhegiha tattoo traditions were extinguished by the mid 20th century. Over the past decade there’s been a growing tattoo revitalization movement among Native Americans, undoubtedly linked at least in part to the popularity and acceptance of tattooing in mainstream society. I honestly don’t know many specifics. Thankfully, Lars Krutak, who authored two of the chapters in my volume, has his own book on Native American tattoo history and resurgence coming out this summer: Tattoo Traditions of Native North America: Ancient and Contemporary Expressions of Identity. Am quite looking forward to that one.