tattoo is a special event/exhibition that honours the ancient art of tattooing. The exhibition features original designs by contemporary artists from across Turtle Island. Designs are available for sale to tattoo lovers and art collectors alike. Imagine artwork permanently part of your personal collection, close to your heart (or any other body part). Sound tempting?


This is what TattooNation looked like: (top left) Barry B at work; (top right) the Tatouge Imago guys; (bottom left) Sefwan at work; (bottom right) Jimmy, Ryan and Catherine display the latest additions to their private collections!


Shelley Niro, Ryan Rice, Eric Robertson, Rose Spahan, Sheldon Gibson, Lise Ann Smiley, Richard Glazer Danay, Kim Kahentine Gabriel, Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, Randy Rosenburg, Gary McFarland, Louis Ogemah, Lita Fontaine, Karen Huska, Terry Haines, Justin Lepage, Timothy Armstrong, Annie Tremblay, James Tucker, Roberto Di Giacomantio, Jennifer Herd


Sweetgrass Armband by Tricia Fragnito


Tattooing Among the First Nations of Turtle Island

by Catherine Mattes

Among the many First Nations of Turtle Island (North America), the art of tattooing has been commonly practiced. Whether for medicinal, spiritual, or aesthetic purpose, tattooing was historically a vital cultural tradition of First Nations, such as the Haida, Crow, and Iroquois Confederacy. This tradition eventually subsided upon contact with Christian colonists who often felt the practice of tattooing was paganistic, overtly sexual, and barbaric.

Because of this belief, information on this important art form has been quite limited, and poorly documented. Within various writings on tattooing, the significance of this art form to Native cultures has been disregarded, with the focus being placed on visual and technical aspects without reference to symbolic value. Also, in much of the literature there is little effort to distinguish between First Nations. Some writers would research tattooing practices among one particular nation, without mentioning which one. Thus, there are many generalizations, and unanswered questions in the realm of First Nations tattooing practices.

Both Cree and Haida Nations used tattooing for medicinal purposes. Members of both nations wore tattoos as charms to ward off various illnesses. The Cree would often tattoo a cross on each cheek to protect against painful toothaches. Similar symbols were placed on legs and wrists to fight off rheumatism. Small circles were also placed on each temple to ward off severe headaches.

Tattooing was also done for spiritual and other symbolic reasons. The Haida were tattooed with their clan crests to convey family and rank. Iroquois and Mic Mac persons also supported tattooed clan crests. Totemism was one of the main motives for several First Nations to bare tattoos, an example being the Western Dene and Iroquois. Animal figures and Manitous were tattooed on the body to symbolize one's totem, which are protectors, and suppliers of magic power. Often, men recieved an instruction in a dream as to what designs should be placed on their body.

It has been suggested by several writers that women were often tattooed for purely aesthetic purposes. Cree women would sport two lines, reaching from the lip to the chin. Southeastern Ojibwa and Inuit women were also tattooed on the chin, as well as the cheeks.

Although it is suggested that tattooing for women of these nations was purely ornamental, there is an alternate theory that the tattooed chins symbolize a floodline. In many different indigenous cultures such as the Samoa and Mayan, there is a great flood myth. The belief is that if there were a great flood that tattooed person would be saved, as the water would only rise to the tattooed lines.

The idea that women were tattooed only for aesthetic purposes, while men for more significant reasons, is problematic because it negates the often matrilineal structure of several First Nations. This notion is exemplary of how European writers, often ignorant to the cultural systems were writing on, applied their own value systems to First Nations discourse.

There are several ways among the First Nations to place a tattoo on a body. Assiniboines, who were tattooed with two black stripes from neck down to the breast, would apply charcoal into pricks made with pointed bone. For the Crow nation, pricking was done with porcupine quills, and charcoal from red willows and pines was rubbed into the skin. The Cree have been described as having several different methods of applying a tattoo. In one manner, the shaman would use a pointed stick that was dipped in water in which gunpowder had been dissolved. Willow sticks have also been used to apply tattoos. The sticks, which were about eight inches long, were adorned with two large hollow bird quills with pellets inside which rattled when the instrument was used. The lead base was wrapped with eight steel needles projecting from the end. In the event of a tattoo, a ritual was performed, with feasting, the erection of a special lodge, dancing, and the offering of tobacco.

Despite the disapproval of much of the colonizing society, tattooing has been appropriated by western mainstream. In virtually every urban area, a tattoo parlour can be found, with tattooists, who for a price, will use electric needles and synthetic colours to give you that tattoo you've always wanted. Whether it be hearts, dragons, Indian princesses, or Tweety Bird, all people get tattooed for their own symbolic reasons.

Bibliographical information available upon request

 © Copyright 1997 Catherine Mattes