The practice of marking and changing one’s body is found in nearly every continent; from the lip plates and scarification in Africa, neck elongating rings in India, to the resurfacing of tongue bifurcation in modern North America. One of the most popular modifications, found in every continent, is tattooing. Numerous Native American societies, including Hawaiian and Polynesian islands, have a history of tattoos dating back to their primitive ages.
While it is common not to have a large amount of historical data on the practices and traditions of Native American tribes, this is especially true when it comes to tattoos. There are very little historical pieces that can be studied since, naturally, skin doesn’t exactly hold up well through the ages, and mummification in America was a highly uncommon accident.
(It is worth noting that some areas were more likely to produce mummification, such as the dry desert area and freezing north territories. This could contribute to an unbalanced amount of information between the tribes.) This, combined with a lack of written records, leaves very little to review. Nevertheless, some accounts do exist, and not all history is lost. For thousands of years tattooing has been an integral part of Native American society. They are and have been mostly used for two reasons.
The first is identity. Tattoos were often used to signify what region or tribe you belonged to, and what position you held within it. In Hawaii, the practice of kakau, traditional tattoos of intricate blocks of design across the arms, legs, or torso, is used to signify the highest members of society. Alternatively, they were also awarded to warriors who won great victories. The process is done with a sharp needle or quill attached to a long stick; the tattooist uses a rock to lightly tap the sharp end into the skin over and over. In many societies, if a man couldn’t finish the design due to pain, he was considered weak and not truly a man.
The second is for spiritual fortification and power. Native American societies believed that tattoos of great spirits would endow them with spiritual powers. Many people chose to take on the image of their totem animals, or strong animals that they wished to emulate, in the belief that it would connect them to the spirit of the animal. Tattoos were used to become closer to the spirit world, and certain designs and symbols were believed to ward off illness and evil energies.
In a less famous narrative, two young white girls were traded to a tribe and tattooed to ensure safe passage to the afterlife. Olive Oatman and her sister Mary Anne were sold into the Mojave tribe by the Yavapais, where they were welcomed into a new family. They were given chin tattoos by the family to ensure their safe passage into the afterlife.
There are many more traditional and non-traditional tattoo practices in Native American societies, and these have spread into the North American society as a whole. Tattooing is still one of the most popular body modifications in the world, and continues to grow every year.