Native American Tattoos as Imprints of Life

A tattoo of a Cherokee Chief wearing an American Indian headdress is etched onto your left arm eyeing a fist-size dreamcatcher on your right. Together, they create a dramatic introduction to a silent scene that has been inked onto your back - two wolves howling in the deep forest humbled by the moonlight echoing the blackness of the night. You’re a walking reminder of the wonders of the Native American culture. You’re spiritual, you’re free, and you’re paying a tribute to a huge part of America’s history and culture.

Or are you?

(Photo via Tattoostime)


Nature, spirit, and life, what’s not to like? Native American tattoos paint a deeper meaning of life. They act as physical imprints of Mother Nature and spur an intense connection to what is seen and what is not. Aside from the beauty expressed in forms that usually carry a short and sweet meaning, these come from a long line of awe-inspiring interpretations. It goes beyond words, so profound, that the sheer sight of it gathers an understanding between their universal tongues.

From the Break of Dawn

Traditional inking in North America slowly vanished when European settlers, Canada, and Mexico colonized the US, together with the conversion of their beliefs and desertion of their spiritual practices to further blend in with the European dwellers. But thanks to the dauntless people who’ve kept the art alive, it’s still here with us, ubiquitous more than ever. 

As much as we’re eager to see centuries-old mummies of tattooed American Indians, their skin couldn’t eternalize their life scripts after death. But despite the lack of physical evidence, we do know that tattooing back then amongst the tribe members was common practice thanks to the logs and journals kept by travelers, explorers, and religious groups from all those years ago.

Deep Meanings

From celestial bodies to power animals to totems; tribes were branded by wearing their signature tattoos. These days totems can be tattooed anywhere on the body, but in the past, it was commonplace to etch them on chests.

Something else of significance is the rite of passage ink that symbolizes a huge leap of a person’s life such as coming-of- age or initiation ceremonies. Just like earning an Indian headdress, being the Chief of a tribe, a special mark is also gifted when displaying one’s role in society.

It also wasn’t uncommon for tribe members to have scary creatures tattooed onto their bodies for in time of war, as these gave off a fierce and strong impression to the enemies – they acted as a silent message to move with caution.

Aside from being skin armor or a war mask, Native American tattoos were also said to be mystical. American Indians were convinced that having such imprints would give them supernatural powers, which came from the belief of Shamanism where every breathing entity around us imbued spirits. Thus, animals were labelled as spirit guides and were used as faces on totems. Feathers, plants, stones, and medicine bags also acted as protective emblems or charms, and therefore were common tattoo choices.

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Tools and Techniques

Finding tattooing tools was like a treasure hunt for early anthropologists as they were vaguely recognizable, which meant that a lot were misidentified or missed completely. Proving to be even more difficult was tracing human blood or a pigment’s existence in an artefact. Tattooing practices have certainly come a long way over the years to what we’re familiar with today. Our hand-gripped machines like little jackhammers are incomparable to the tattooing tools that were once traditionally used by American Indians. They were as natural as they can get - sharpened bone or rocks filled with soot that blended into the wound as they were carved into the flesh.

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Soot or remnants from charred animal bones created black pigments while brown or reddish tattoos were achieved by dabbing ochre mixed with clay. And with the help of indigo, natural blue dyes were also added to the palette and grass rubbed into the wound helped achieve a greenish color.

With regards to Maidu tattoos, a different approach was taken. The skin was pricked with pine needles or bird bones, and then red pigment was rubbed into the wound. Men could also be draped with upright streak tattoos that began from the tip of the nose to the chest, stomach and arms.


Before You Get another Indian-Inspired Tattoo…

Many tattoo enthusiasts are opting to identify themselves with Native American tattoos and their tribes, but in some cases, there’s misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

With a widespread curiosity for such a beautiful ethos, these tattoos have become in high demand. The thing is, if you are a Native American getting to know the intimate art of your ancestors, don’t just settle for the aesthetics and do your homework. Because of their rapid interest, those who have recently felt connected to their Native American heritage have erroneously picked the wrong images and have got tattoos from the wrong tribes. It’s similar to the Indian headdress outbreak in the last few years where tons of trend-seekers naively followed a fad and wore Indian headdresses without knowing its purpose or history. Just like everything else, it’s safer to know what you’re getting into, so always do your research first.

These tattoos were originally used as a way of lasting tribal badge, so parading the wrong tribe's tattoo will initially label you as an outcast. And even though you’ve displayed the right one from a tribe you’ve never encountered, it will still make you seem indifferent, like trying to be something you’re not. But for most of us who can’t help but sense an obscure infatuation with Native American tattoos through dreamcatchers and Indian headdresses, there is no compelling reason to stress over the authenticity of the tattoo.


What’s Your Sign?

While an eagle represents honor, respect and freedom, a turtle dignifies longevity, health and fertility. An owl is a symbol of wisdom and a wolf can be portrayed as an intelligent and loyal character.

Here are some of the most beautiful tattoos inspired by Native Americans:

1. Dreamcatcher

No matter where you choose to have it tattooed, a dreamcatcher tattoo is thought to help push darker dreams aside and invite good dreams instead, which in turn was thought to result in a restful sleep and peace of mind.

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2. Indian Headdress

Before being crafted into an Indian headdress, warriors receive a feather for each daring act they do. The headdress tattoo represents power and honor.

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3. Native American Woman

There is no denying a Native American woman’s timeless grace. They were naively beautiful, but also at the same time strong and ferocious in their own right. Such a tattoo is the symbol of inner strength, raw beauty and courage.

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4. Wolf

As much as it’s deemed to be loyal and clever, the wolf symbol is also used to embody control and leadership. But when used to present evil, it can also mean destruction. Whether they were seen as good or bad, there’s one thing that is certain – the wolf was believed to have had a spiritual connection and great powers, which is why it typically featured on totem poles as well.


5. Eagle

Native American Indian tribes considered the eagle, especially the golden eagle, to be a sacred bird. Because this is the bird that can fly the highest, it was believed for that reason that it was the one living thing in the world that was closest to the Creator. Therefore, to have an eagle tattoo means to have courage, strength and wisdom.

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From Native American women with feathers in their hair to Chiefs in headdresses to dreamcatchers to wolf packs on a hunt, American Indian tattoos tell a story. Not just any story, but the ones that have been engraved in history.