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Getting a Native American Tattoo

The Trouble With Tribal Designs

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 Apache, or Mohawk, or any other Native American) tribal tattoos? Because my grandmother was part Cherokee (or Apache, or Mohawk) and I want to honor my heritage."

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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 pattern or a permanent scar. So if you get a Native American 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. Now you've got a problem--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 tatoo 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 tribe's 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 give you some negative reactions too (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.

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But What If I Want A Native American Tattoo Anyway?

When I first put this page up in 2003, 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 looking for tattoos 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 tribal 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 tattoo 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 free tribal tattoo designs created by him available on his website. You could also browse through our gallery of Native American artists, particularly the native paintings, because some of the other artists may design Indian tattoo art on commission.

2) Cherokee, Cree, and Blackfoot all have unique writing systems, and you could use lettering from one of those scripts as an American Indian tattoo design. These are syllabaries, not alphabets, which means that each Indian 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, Blackfoot, 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 using word tattoos like this, 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 Native American symbol or design from traditional artwork into a tribal tattoo picture. There are plenty of good books with pictures of Native American designs and patterns, 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 Native Designs from Pre-Columbian Mexico. You can probably find a book of Native American art designs in your local library.

5) You could choose a tattoo design based on an North American animal that has significance to Native American culture, such as wolf, bear, eagle, raven, or so on. If you are a tribal member yourself you can use the animal associated with your family's clan, but if you are not or don't know your clan you can choose an animal based on its traditional symbolism. Here is a site of Native American animal symbols which discusses the meaning and mythology of various animals and can help if you're considering an animal tattoo.

6) You could use an image of 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.

Hope one of those might be the idea you are looking for.

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Further reading:

Here are some authentic resources that might be helpful to you if you are interested in traditional tribal tattoos.
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Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America is an anthropology book about native tattoo traditions in Woodland and Plains Indian tribes, complete with many Native American tattoo pictures from the 1800's.

This book, The World of Tattoo, has pictures and detailed information about tribal tattoo art and meanings around the world, including a chapter on Native American Indian tattoos.

This book, Tattoo History: A Source Book is another good book on tattoo traditions of the world, including tribal body art from North and South America.

Native North American Art is a good book on Native American artwork in general which contains sections; on tribal tattoos; though those sections are small, the rest of the book may be interesting to you too.

The Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume discusses hairstyles, clothing and ornamentation among various native peoples during various historical periods, including a sentence or two on native tattoo art in each tribe.

The book How to Make Cherokee Clothing has a lot of accurate information about Cherokee tribal tattoos and body art in it, as well as clothing styles.

The Encyclopedia of North American Indians has an online article on Native American Tattooing Methods.

Cherokee Tattoos includes history and pictures of Indian tribal tattoo art as well as contemporary Cherokee tattoo designs.

Plains Cree Clothing includes descriptions and drawings of tribal tattoos (scroll down the page to see them) among the Cree Indians.

Native Tattoo Anthropology features tribal tattoo pictures from indigenous cultures around the world, including Alaska Native and South American Indian cultures.

If you are interested in native Indian tattoos from a cultural perspective, you might like to browse through old pictures of American Indian people, such as the Curtis Collection, the National Archives Collection of American Indian pictures, and Images of Canada's Aboriginal Peoples. Many of the individuals in these public-domain photos wear native tattoos or body art, so you can get an idea of what American Indian tattoos looked like. (Obviously, I recommend against trying to copy a tattoo from a century-old sepia photograph onto your own arm, both for cultural reasons and practical.)

If you have a particular tribe in mind you can also try looking in our list of American Indian tribes--we have collected pages of historical photographs for several tribes, as well as links about tribal art, and these may also help you.

Finally, if you are more interested in tribal designs than in American Indian tattooing in particular, there are several good books illustrating the traditional artistry, symbols and designs of native people. Among them are Indian Art of the Northwest Coast and Art Design of the Pacific Northwest Indians; Images in Stone: Southwest Rock Art; Tribal Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico and Native Design from Pre-Columbian Mexico; and Indian Symbols and Designs and Native American Design.

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