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Native American Tattoos

Many Native American tribes across the United States practiced the art of tattooing for a variety of reasons: to mark special rites of passage, such as puberty; to identify other members of a clan; to scare off enemies; to express spiritual beliefs; to honor great achievements, such as bravery in battle; to provide magical protection and strength; and to mark certain leaders, such as the medicine man.

Tattooers used geometrical designs to represent celestial bodies, natural phenomena, and animals. A person receiving the tattoo of a turtle, for example, would expect to achieve a long, healthy life since turtles symbolized Mother Earth, water, life, and health.

Tattooing was a painful process, but many tribes believed that pain brought a person closer to the spirit world. Designs were cut, hand-tapped, or hand-pricked into the skin with sharp needles made of stone, bone, or other materials. Then dye was rubbed into the wounds.

Black dye could be made from soot or charcoal. Ochre mixed with clay produced a brownish-reddish hue. And blue came from indigo or other materials.

These tattoos became permanent markings on the skin that could be enhanced with temporary body paint, especially during time of war.

Dawn Pisturino

September 25, 2012; November 30, 2021

Copyright 2012-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

10 Comments »

Reprise: The Woman with the Blue Tattoo

Olive Oatman, Library of Congress

Olive Oatman became famous in the 1850s for the blue perpendicular lines tattooed onto her chin. She called them “slave marks,” and people all across America wanted to know how and why she had acquired them.

On the afternoon of February 18, 1851, while camped along the Gila River in Arizona, Olive and her younger sister, Mary Ann, watched in horror as a band of Western Yavapai Indians massacred their mother, father, two sisters, and three brothers. Held back as captives, the two girls, fourteen and seven, were forced to walk barefoot through the rugged desert to the isolated Yavapai camp. For a year they lived there as slaves, fetching wood, hauling water, and gathering food, until traded to the Mohave tribe for two horses, three blankets, vegetables, and beads.

The Mohaves (Aha Macav, “along the river,”) inhabited a lush, fertile valley along the banks of the Colorado River, the traditional boundary between Arizona and California.

Chief Espaniole and his wife, Aespaneo, welcomed the girls into the tribe and adopted them into their own family. They were proud to have rescued the girls from the cruel Yavapai and vowed to treat them well.

The girls worked alongside the other women of the tribe, gathering wood, fetching water, and planting seeds. They soon learned the Mohave language and developed close friendships with other members of the tribe.

Olive was variously called “Ali,” “Aliutman,” “Olivino,” and “Owich (cloud),” the clan name of Chief Espaniole’s family. Mohave women inherited clan names passed down from their fathers, and bearing a clan name meant Olive was considered a full member of the tribe.

Facial tattoos were common among the Mohave Indians because they believed the permanent marks guaranteed a place in “Sil’aid,” the land of the dead. Tribal members who died without tattoos would spend eternity in a desert rat hole. Since Olive and Mary Ann belonged to the tribe, they were expected to undergo the tattooing process.

The girls lay quietly on the ground while experienced tattooers drew designs on their chins. Since the tattoos were meant to be decorative, they chose designs that would enhance the girls’ faces. Using cactus needles or sharp sticks, the designs were pricked into the skin until the wounds freely bled. The sticks were dipped in the juice of a special river weed, then into a powder made from a blue river stone, and applied to the pinpricks on the girls’ chins. The process took several hours to complete and several days to heal.

With this rite of passage, Olive and Mary Ann became permanent members of the Mohave tribe and the first white females in the United States to wear tattoos.

A terrible drought in 1855 brought famine to the tribe. Many people died, including Mary Ann. Olive soon fell ill herself. Aespaneo saved her life by feeding her gruel made from cornmeal.

In January 1856, a Yuma Indian named Francisco arrived at the Mohave camp with papers from Fort Yuma ordering the release of Olive Oatman. Chief Espaniole refused to release her. But Francisco persisted, claiming that five million white soldiers were hiding in the hills, ready to attack and destroy the Mohave village. The Mohaves reluctantly gave in.

Once again, Olive was traded for two horses, blankets, and beads. She arrived at Fort Yuma ten days later, tanned, tattooed, painted, her hair dyed black, and wearing only a bark skirt. She was nineteen years old. Her brother Lorenzo, who had survived the massacre, traveled from California for a tender reunion with his long-lost sister.

Olive became an overnight sensation. Newspapers all across America printed stories about “the white Indian” and her blue tattoo. The Evansville Enquirer reported on November 9, 1859: “She will bear the marks of her captivity to her grave. Her savage masters having tattooed her after the customs of their tribes.”

In 1857 Royal B. Stratton published the first book detailing the Oatman ordeal, Life Among the Indians, which became an immediate best-seller. Olive and Lorenzo traveled to New York, where Olive promoted the book with autographed photographs and lectures. She openly displayed her tattoo while relaying the tragic story of the Oatman massacre and her life as a “slave” among the Mohave Indians.

When not delivering lectures, Olive self-consciously covered her chin with her hands to avoid the staring eyes of curious people.

Olive married wealthy cattleman John Brant Fairchild in 1865, left the lecture circuit, and eventually settled down in Sherman, Texas. She became reclusive, hid her face behind a black veil, experimented with make-up to hide her blue tattoo, and refused to discuss her life among the Indians. She died of heart failure in 1903. Afraid the Mohaves would claim her body, John Fairchild had her coffin sealed in iron and covered her grave with a thick granite tombstone.

(Mohave Indian woman with body paint and tattoos.)

Dawn Pisturino

October 17, 2012; November 25, 2021

Copyright 2012-2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Please contact author for sources.

19 Comments »

The Woman with the Blue Tattoo

Olive Oatman

Photograph of Olive Oatman

Olive Oatman became famous in the 1850s for the blue perpendicular lines tattooed onto her chin. She called them “slave marks,” and people all across America wanted to know how and why she had acquired them.

On the afternoon of February 18, 1851, while camped along the Gila River in Arizona, Olive and her younger sister, Mary Ann, watched in horror as a band of Western Yavapai Indians massacred their mother, father, two sisters, and three brothers. Held back as captives, the two girls, fourteen and seven, were forced to walk barefoot through the rugged desert to the isolated Yavapai camp. For a year they lived there as slaves, fetching wood, hauling water, and gathering food, until traded to the Mohave tribe for two horses, three blankets, vegetables, and beads.

The Mohaves (Aha Macav, “along the river,”) inhabited a lush, fertile valley along the banks of the Colorado River, the traditional boundary between Arizona and California.

Chief Espaniole and his wife, Aespaneo, welcomed the girls into the tribe and adopted them into their own family. They were proud to have rescued the girls from the cruel Yavapai and vowed to treat them well.

The girls worked alongside the other women of the tribe, gathering wood, fetching water, and planting seeds. They soon learned the Mohave language and developed close friendships with other members of the tribe.

Olive was variously called “Ali,” “Aliutman,” “Olivino,” and “Owich (cloud),” the clan name of Chief Espaniole’s family. Mohave women inherited clan names passed down from their fathers, and bearing a clan name meant Olive was considered a full member of the tribe.

Facial tattoos were common among the Mohave Indians because they believed the permanent marks guaranteed a place in “Sil’aid,” the land of the dead. Tribal members who died without tattoos would spend eternity in a desert rat hole. Since Olive and Mary Ann belonged to the tribe, they were expected to undergo the tattooing process.

The girls lay quietly on the ground while experienced tattooers drew designs on their chins. Since the tattoos were meant to be decorative, they chose designs that would enhance the girls’ faces. Using cactus needles or sharp sticks, the designs were pricked into the skin until the wounds freely bled. The sticks were dipped in the juice of a special river weed, then into a powder made from a blue river stone, and applied to the pinpricks on the girls’ chins. The process took several hours to complete and several days to heal.

With this rite of passage, Olive and Mary Ann became permanent members of the Mohave tribe and the first white females in the United States to wear tattoos.

A terrible drought in 1855 brought famine to the tribe. Many people died, including Mary Ann. Olive soon fell ill herself. Aespaneo saved her life by feeding her gruel made from cornmeal.

In January 1856, a Yuma Indian named Francisco arrived at the Mohave camp with papers from Fort Yuma ordering the release of Olive Oatman. Chief Espaniole refused to release her. But Francisco persisted, claiming that five million white soldiers were hiding in the hills, ready to attack and destroy the Mohave village. The Mohaves reluctantly gave in.

Once again, Olive was traded for two horses, blankets, and beads. She arrived at Fort Yuma ten days later, tanned, tattooed, painted, her hair dyed black, and wearing only a bark skirt. She was nineteen years old. Her brother Lorenzo, who had survived the massacre, traveled from California for a tender reunion with his long-lost sister.

Olive became an overnight sensation. Newspapers all across America printed stories about “the white Indian” and her blue tattoo. The Evansville Enquirer reported on November 9, 1859: “She will bear the marks of her captivity to her grave. Her savage masters having tattooed her after the customs of their tribes.”

In 1857 Royal B. Stratton published the first book detailing the Oatman ordeal, Life Among the Indians, which became an immediate best-seller. Olive and Lorenzo traveled to New York, where Olive promoted the book with autographed photographs and lectures. She openly displayed her tattoo while relaying the tragic story of the Oatman massacre and her life as a “slave” among the Mohave Indians.

When not delivering lectures, Olive self-consciously covered her chin with her hands to avoid the staring eyes of curious people.

Olive married wealthy cattleman John Brant Fairchild in 1865, left the lecture circuit, and eventually settled down in Sherman, Texas. She became reclusive, hid her face behind a black veil, experimented with make-up to hide her blue tattoo, and refused to discuss her life among the Indians. She died of heart failure in 1903. Afraid the Mohaves would claim her body, John Fairchild had her coffin sealed in iron and covered her grave with a thick granite tombstone.

Dawn Pisturino

October 17, 2012

Copyright 2012-2019 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

2 Comments »

Native American Tattoos – A Short History

native-american-tattooMany Native American tribes across the United States practiced the art of tattooing for a variety of reasons: to mark special rites of passage, such as puberty; to identify other members of a clan; to scare off enemies; to express spiritual beliefs; to honor great achievements, such as bravery in battle; to provide magical protection and strength; and to mark certain leaders, such as the medicine man.

Tattooers used geometrical designs to represent celestial bodies, natural phenomena, and animals. A person receiving the tattoo of a turtle, for example, would expect to achieve a long, healthy life since turtles symbolized Mother Earth, water, life, and health.

Tattooing was a painful process, but many tribes believed that pain brought a person closer to the spirit world. Designs were cut, hand-tapped, or hand-pricked into the skin with sharp needles made of stone, bone, or other materials. Then dye was rubbed into the wounds.

Black dye could be made from soot or charcoal. Ochre mixed with clay produced a brownish-reddish hue. And blue came from indigo or other materials.

These tattoos became permanent markings on the skin that could be enhanced with temporary body paint, especially during time of war.

Dawn Pisturino

September 25, 2012

Copyright 2012-2015 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

(This short article was originally a sidebar on another history-related article.)

3 Comments »

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