Baxter's Blog


Posted in History by misterroadtripper on September 13, 2010



The Northwest Coast area divides roughly into north and south; the north being the center of the culture and the home of the previously mentioned tribes and also the Coast Salish. South of these tribes was a multitude of small language groups and included the Puget Sound, Washington Coast and Oregon peoples. Virtually all of these tribes practiced tattooing, but it was very similar to that of the California Indians. There are really no illustrations or descriptions about them, just generalized statements. Chin tattooing on females was the most common.

Osage Indian called Star That Travels (also called Fat on Skin or Bacon Rind) is tattooed with marks of an Osage secret society, a great honor that allowed him such privileges as presiding at ceremonies. His medal is a James Buchanan Peace medal issued in 1857.

The Plateau tribes lived in an area bounded on the Rocky Mountains on the east, the Cascade Range on the west, the Fraser River in Canada on the north and a line about midway through today’s Oregon and Idaho on the south. The region included parts of Washington, Montana, British Columbia and a wedge of Wyoming as well. There were several dozen major tribes in this area, the most famous of which were the Nez Perce. However, these Indians were more closely akin to the plains type of Indians. Most of the other tribes were interior Salish speaking tribes such as the Flathead, Kalispel, Spokan and others. Another dialect, Shahaptian, was spoken by Cayuses, Walla Wallas, Yakimas, etc. Lewis and Clark mentioned one tribe near the Dalles in which the women had lines of dots from the ankles to the calves, that would seem to imply tattooing.

The Indians of the northern plateau were predominantly of the Interior Salish group, consisting chiefly of the Lillooet, the Thompson Indians of the Fraser River Valley, the Okanagon, the Lake Indians and the Shuswap. These five tribes were very similar but were constantly fighting each other. They inhabited the mountainous regions of southern British Columbia and northern Washington and Idaho. James Teit, an anthropologist, worked most extensively with the Interior Salish groups. Teit has written extensively on the face painting and tattooing of the Thompson Indians. Tattooing was practiced by most of the tribes, and almost all of the Lillooet women had their wrists and arms tattooed

The Kootenai is a distinct language group that inhabited parts of southeast British Columbia and northern Montana and Idaho. They were driven west by their hereditary enemies, the proper Blackfeet (Siksika,) whom they called Sahantla (bad people.) They are also known as Kutenai, a possible corruption of one of the names they went by, Dutonaga. Bodmer and Maximilian had contact with several of these people on their expedition up the Missouri River from 1833 to 1834, and Bodmer painted several of those with tattooed faces. One chief had solid tattooing on his lower face.

No real record was found of Indians who populated the Great Basin, but that is not to say the practice did not exist. One account said the Indians of the Great Basin did paint and tattoo their bodies with earth pigments mixed in bone marrow. This is one of the most inhospitable areas on earth. It comprises 200,000 square miles and most of the Basin is in present day Nevada and Utah. Also parts of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado are included. The Utes, Paiutes and Shoshoni were the main tribes and were linquistically related although they could not understand the others’ languages. Sacagawea was a famous Shoshoni girl who trekked 4,000 wilderness miles with Lewis and Clark. White people en route to the California goldfields in the 1950s were appalled by these people who went about nearly naked, subsisted on a diet of insects and rodents, and who seemed to have no organized society as such.

A Mohave woman with extensive facial tattoos. Mohave (or Mojave) women went bare-breasted and continued to tattoo themselves well after contact with whites. This drawing was done from a photograph taken in the mid-1880s.


California had everything the Great Basin lacked. The climate was mostly mild, there was abundant rain and food was plentiful. Some people say there were as many as 300,000 Indians living there by the time the first white men appeared. They differed in size, appearance and language but the cultural patterns they developed were similar. More than a hundred distinct languages and dialects were spoken and the three major languages were Athapascan, Shoshean and Penutian. With the exception of the Mohaves in the south, these tribes were among the least warlike of all Indians. The majority of these tribes are extinct. The most famous of these aborigines was a man named Ishi. In the early 1900s, a small band of California Indians of the Yahi tribe resisted the fate that had all but wiped out their tribe, violent death at the hands of the white invader. Most of the Yahi were massacred by white miners in 1864. The survivors realized they could only survive by being a hidden people, In 1911, Ishi stumbled exhausted and starving into the town of Oroville. He was in middle age and the lone survivor of his tribe. Everyone who met him said he was a loving, gentle and dignified individual—as were probably the vast majority of the people in these vanished tribes.

The Yurok lived along the coast near the mouth of the lower Klamath River and their name means “downstream” in the Karok language. They are probably Algonquian in origin. From an estimated 2,500 people in 1770, there were less than 700 of them left in 1900. Tattooing was widely practiced among the women. When a girl was five years old, she was tattooed with a black stripe extending from both corners of the mouth to below the chin. To this line was added another parallel line every five years, so that it was easy to determine the age of every Indian. Some women had their chins tattooed solidly, also, to denote tribal affiliation (or to hide their ages, ha ha!) The Yurok felt that an untattooed woman looked like a man when she grew old. The men had marks tattooed on the arms for the purpose of measuring the strings of dentalium shells.

The Tolowa Indians lived in northwestern California and their language is sometimes referred to as Smith River Athapascan. These Indians are one of the few groups of Athapascan speaking people whose territory included a substantial stretch of seacoast. Tolowa girls were tattooed before puberty with three parallel and vertical lines on the chin. Another extinct, or nearly so, Indian tribe of northwestern California, the Wiyot, used solid tattooing on their women instead of vertical line tattooing. The men were not tattooed.

The Hupa Indians lived along the lower course of the Trinity River in northwestern California. Hupa women has three broad vertical bands tattooed on their chins, and sometimes marks were added to the corner of the mouth. Dentalium shells were used for money in the Hupa tribes, and standardized ways of measuring the “coinage” included matching five strung shells of equal size with one of a series of marks tattooed on the inside of a man’s left forearm. Fortunately for the Hupa, they lived in a secluded valley that was far from the missions and their valley contained little or no gold, so they remained isolated from the barbaric white people. In the late nineteenth century, when California was setting up reservations, one was established in the Hoopa Valley, so the Hupas did not have the problem of being displaced like the other tribes. Today they are the largest of the California tribes, possessing a strong ethnic identity and a stable economy.

Karok Indian women were tattooed with the same three vertical lines on the chin. Women were also tattooed on their arms. Chimariko Indian women started tattooing early in life, and it was done with a stone knife on the chin, cheeks, arms or hands. Shasta Indians used the same chin tattoos on women. Cahto Indians had optional tattooing in perpendicular lines on the forehead, chin, chest, wrists or legs of both sexes. Aboriginal natives like the Yukis were tattooed similarly. All of these tribes were aboriginal.

Some Indians used obsidian to make the incision, and rich pitch soot was rubbed into the wound. If a bluish-green color was desired, dye from a certain grass or spider web was rubbed into the wound. The Maidu tattooed by puncturing the skin with fish bones, pine needles or bird bones. Then a red pigment was rubbed into the skin. Men were more often tattooed with patterns of vertical lines on the chin or a single vertical line rising from the root of the nose. Tattooing was also applied to the breasts, arms and abdomen. The Konkow Maidu tattoo designs were made by cutting the skin with a sharp flint or obsidian, then rubbing the area with charcoal or a reddish pigment. Women were more elaborately tattooed with three, five or seven vertical lines on the chin. Lines or dots were occasionally applied to the backs of the hands. Nisenan women were tattooed with the juice of a blue flower.

The Miwok lived along the coast north of San Francisco Bay, in the southern basin of Clear Lake and on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas—the Coast, Lake or Central, and Interior or Eastern Miwok, respectively. They were the first of the California Indians to come in contact with English-speaking foreigners in 1579. Francis Drake spent five weeks among the Coast Miwok. During the Mission Period and after, the Miwok were often kidnapped for slave labor at the nearby missions and local ranches. The appearance of miners, settlers and new diseases added to their destruction, and today, the Miwok and their cultures have virtually disappeared. Tattooing appeared with both sexes, especially exhibiting vertical and zigzag lines on the chin and cheeks and in some cases on the neck. Some older people had the chest tattooed. Green oak galls made a blue-black ink for the color, which was applied with a sharp piece of bone or a sliver of obsidian. Tubatulabal women tattooed themselves using a cactus spine to prick out the design and charcoal for the dye.

The Pomo (earth people) lived north of San Francisco Bay along the coast and inland to the coast range. They were far enough away from the missions to avoid being kidnapped, most of the time. They are famed for their basketry—some of the finest in the world. They are active today in the Indian Rights movement, including the dramatic occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969-1971. Tattooing was done sparingly. Many women displayed the vertical lines on the chin. Few of the Pomo men were tattooed. However, there’s a story of a warrior who tattooed a fine representation of a sea otter on his chest, which was unusual for California because designs were almost always geometric. Another person, a woman, tattooed a crude picture of a tree or other object on her abdomen.

The Costanoans (Spanish for “coast people”) inhabited the seacoast from Point Sur to the Golden Gate and inland to the San Joaquin Valley. There is a great deal of information about them because of several artists who depicted them in the early 1800s. However, by 1816, these Indians were virtually wiped out by the half dozen or so missionaries in the area. (Kill them with kindness!) In 1971 the descendants of these people formed the Ohlone tribe of today. Face and body paint was heavily used, including cinnabar from nearby mines, which is a poisonous mineral. Men painted the arms, legs and chest with white vertical and horizontal lines as well as other designs. A girl was tattooed in designs of red, blue or green hues at the time of her first menstruation. The dots and lines had special significance—proclaiming her lineage and tribal relationships that were of importance in establishing which mate she could marry, for she could not marry within certain relatives the tribelet. The women sometimes tattooed a collar around the neck, and both sexes often tattooed a line from the chin down onto the chest. Some men had measuring marks tattooed on the arm in order to measure accurately the strings of clamshell disks used in trading. A watercolor, done by a painter in 1816, shows a Costanoan woman at the San Francisco Mission with a half dozen bands of straight and zigzag lines tattooed around her neck and upper body—like a necklace. She also had tattoos on her shoulders and chin, and two straight lines running from the “necklace” down between her breasts to her lower body.

One Response

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  1. Ishita said, on September 14, 2010 at 12:09 am

    In young generation tattoo is very hot trend. It has also a sense of traditional essence.
    It reminds about the history. Thanks a lot for this information…..

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