With this being the month of Thanksgiving, we wanted to take a moment to examine the tattoo cultures of the native peoples who once flourished in our area. Upon taking up this endeavor it quickly became apparent how little we truly know about eastern native tribal nations and their tattoo culture. Some of this loss of cultural knowledge stems from a lack of early written accounts by these groups themselves or visitors to their lands, the other side of that is the settlement of European peoples driving out native tribes and cultures at an accelerated rate. While we do not have access to much of the knowledge, history, or traditions of these peoples anymore, what we do know is deeply seeded in their beliefs on magic, spirituality, and mysticism.
Some confusion with native tribes stems from the way we attempt to breakdown and classify varying groups. For example the Pennacook tribe which dwelled in our area of the country was of the Algonquin language group, and a member of the Wabenaki Confederacy. Which makes it that much more complicated when we try and discover more about their tattoo traditions.
While images and documentation of Native tattooing are sparse, we do have accounts of the ceremonies performed and a few of the reasons for getting tattooed within their culture. It is also important to note that the process used by these tribes was more akin to ink rubbing than tattooing as we know it today. A sharp tool, be it needle, thorn, or sharpened awl is poked into the skin forming a design which then has wood ash rubbed into it creating an indelible image. A tribe member may be tattooed for medicinal purposes, some sacred tattoo ceremonies were designed to ward off evil spirits which cause various maladies. Protective tattoos were also common, or a returning warrior may show his prowess in battle through tattoos. One thing that was common with all these tattoo ceremonies was the idea that the subject must endure the pain in stoic silence to prove their worthiness of receiving these sacred tribal markings.
While these tattoo traditions may still be in use among the remaining Pennacook on their Canadian reservations, the likelihood of us knowing the details of their traditions diminishes every day. Unfortunately detailed accounts of these ceremonies are few and far between with illustrations of their tribal markings even rarer. One thing we can be certain of is that these beautiful and sacred rituals and their associated markings are slipping away.