Tattoos of the Hunter-Gatherers of the Arctic

[READER’S NOTE: The word “Eskimo” is used in this essay because it continues to be widely used in contemporary ethnological and linguistic literature focusing on Native Alaskan peoples inhabiting the coast and adjacent interior. In Alaska, the term is not considered to be as strongly tabooed as among the Canadian Inuit. In fact, “Eskimo” is sometimes used by certain Native Alaskans to describe themselves today, albeit with a hint of amusement or sarcasm. Of course, the autonyms Yupiit (“real people”) and Inupiat (“real people”) replace “Eskimo” in many regions of Arctic Alaska today. Thus, I simply use the term Eskimo here as a matter of convenience to help group together various northern peoples who share similarities in environment, subsistence, culture and language. For more information on the etymology of the word “Eskimo,” please see Krutak (2014: 16-17, 218).]

3,500-year-old ivory maskette from the Dorset culture representing the oldest known human portrait from the Arctic. Tattoos cover the face of the woman.
3,500-year-old ivory maskette from the Dorset culture representing the oldest known human portrait from the Arctic. Tattoos cover the face of the woman.
Tattooed Eskimo woman from the Bering Strait region, ca. 1910. Postcard from the collection of the author.
Tattooed Eskimo woman from the Bering Strait region, ca. 1910. Postcard from the collection of  the author. At Point Hope, Alaska (Tikigaq) a girl’s first tattoos were received after her first menstruation. And old woman (aana) drew a sinew thread soaked with lampblack (soot) through the eye of a needle. She then tattooed the girl’s chin with three vertical lines, because it is said that “[t]attoos and sexual bleeding tie her to the [celestial] sister. Tattooing is soot smears, fire-sparks, speckles, the sun’s streaking” (Lowenstein 1993: 70), and perhaps through such associations it symbolically transformed the initiate into a woman through a ritual process of “cooking” the flesh (cf. Saladin D’Anglure 1993: 29)

Archaeological evidence in the form of a carved human figurine demonstrates that tattooing was practiced as early as 3,500 years ago in the Arctic. Moreover, the remains of several mummies discovered in Bering Strait and Greenland indicate that tattooing was an element basic to ancient traditions (Krutak 1999). This is corroborated in mythology since the origin of tattooing is symbolically associated with the creation of the sun and moon. The naturalist Lucien M. Turner (1887: n.p. [1894: 102]), speaking of the Fort-Chimo Inuit of Quebec, wrote:

The sun is supposed to be a woman. The moon is a man and the brother of the   woman who is the sun. She was accustomed to lie on her bed in the house [of her parents] and was finally visited during the night by a man whom she could never discover the identity. She determined to ascertain who it was and in order to do so blackened her nipples with a mixture of oil and lampblack [tattoo pigments]. She was visited again and when the man applied his lips to her breast they became black. The next morning she discovered to her horror that her own brother had the mark on his lips. Her emoternation knew no bounds and her parents discovered her agitation and made her reveal the cause. The parents were so indignant that they upbraided them and the girl in her shame fled from the village at night. As she ran past the fire she seized an ember and fled beyond the earth. Her brother pursued her and so the sparks fell from the torch [and] they became the stars in the sky. The brother pursued her but is able to overtake her except on rare occasions. These occasions are eclipses. When the moon wanes from sight the brother is supposed to be hiding for the approach of his sister.

Tattoos and Symbolic Pigments

Ethnographically tattooing was practiced by all Eskimos and was most common among women (Krutak 1998, 2000b). While there are a multitude of localized references to tattooing practices in the Arctic, the first was probably recorded by Sir Martin Frobisher in 1576. Frobisher’s (1867 [1578]: 621, 628) account describes the Eskimos he encountered in the bay that now bears his name:

The women are  marked on  the face with  blewe streekes down the cheekes and round about the eies…Also, some of their women race [scratch or pierce] their faces proportionally, as chinne, cheekes, and forehead, and the wristes of their hands, whereupon they lay a colour, which continueth dark azurine.

These Canadian Inuit were kidnapped by French sailors in 1566. (Notice the tattoos that appear on the woman’s face.) This woodblock print is the oldest known European depiction of Eskimos drawn from life. After Taylor (1984: 510).

These Canadian Inuit were kidnapped by French sailors in 1566. (Notice the tattoos that appear on the woman’s face.) This woodblock print is the oldest known European depiction of Eskimos drawn from life. After Taylor (1984: 510).
Tattooed Inuit women from Baffin Island region.  After Boas
Tattooed Inuit women from Baffin Island region.  After Boas (1901-07: 108).

As a general rule, expert tattoo artists were respected elderly women. Their extensive training as skin seamstresses (parkas, pants, boots, hide boat covers, etc.) facilitated the need for precision when “stitching the human skin” with tattoos. Tattoo designs were usually made freehand but in some instances a rough outline was first sketched upon the area of application. A typical 19th century account provided by William Gilder (1881: 250) illustrates the tattooing process among the Central Eskimo living near Daly Bay, a branch of Canada’s Hudson Bay:

The wife has her face tattooed with lamp-black and is regarded as a matron  in society. The  method of  tattooing is to pass a needle under the skin, and as soon as it is withdrawn its course  is  followed   by  a   thin   piece   of   pine stick dipped in oil  and  rubbed in the soot  from   the bottom of a kettle. The forehead is decorated with a  letter  V  in  double  lines, the angle very acute, passing down between the eyes  almost to the bridge of the nose, and sloping  gracefully to the right and left before reaching the roots of the hair. Each cheek is adorned with an egg-shaped pattern, commencing near the wing of the nose and sloping upward toward the corner of the eye; these lines are also double. The most ornamented part, however, is the chin, which receives a gridiron pattern; the lines double from the edge of the lower lip, and reaching to the throat toward the corners of the mouth, sloping outward to the angle of the lower jaw. This is all that is required by custom, but some of the belles do not stop here. Their hands, arms, legs, feet, and in fact their whole bodies are covered with blue tracery that would throw Captain Constantinus completely in the shade.

Around Bering Strait, the tattooing method reveals continuity in application, as observed by Gilder, yet the pigments employed were more varied. On St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, tattoo designs were usually made freehand but in some cases a rough outline was first sketched upon the area of application. In 1926, the University of Alaska archaeologist Otto W. Geist (1927-34: n.p.) noted:

Tattoo marks on arms and hands are drawn from life. Some of the St. Lawrence Island women and girls have beautifully executed tattoo marks. The pigment is made from the soot of seal oil lamps which is taken from the bottom of tea kettles or similar containers used to boil meat and other food over an open flame. The soot is mixed with urine, often that of an old woman, and is applied with steel needles. One method is to draw a string of sinew or other thread through the eye of the needle. The thread is then soaked thoroughly in the liquid pigment and drawn through the skin as the needle is inserted and pushed just under the skin for a distance of about a thirty-second of an inch when the point is again pierced through the skin. A small space is left without tattooing before the process is again repeated. The other method is to prick the skin with the needle which is dipped in the pigment each time.

St. Lawrence Island joint-tattooing, ca. 1900. Sketch  by Mark Planisek.
St. Lawrence Island joint-tattooing, ca. 1900. Sketch  by Mark Planisek.

Tattooing an individual in the traditional manner required extensive knowledge of animal products, pigments, and natural substances suitable for indelible marking (Krutak 1998: 22-27). Lampblack was the primary pigment used to darken the sinew thread because it was believed to be highly efficacious against “spirits”  (Bogoras  1904-09:  298).  However,  fine  dark  graphite (tagneghli) was also used. Tagneghli was a magical substance obtained through barter from the Siberians, and it was considered to be the “stone spirit” which “guards” humankind from evil spirits and from the sicknesses brought by them (Hughes 1959: 90). Traditionally, it was used to protect children from possessive spirits that were “awakened” as a result of a recent death in the village (Silook 1940: 105-108).

Tattooing needles were made from slivers of bone, but as time passed, St. Lawrence Islanders (Sivuqaghhmiit) began using steel needles for “skin stitching.” According to elder Mabel Toolie of Savoonga, one of the last women to wear traditional facial tattooing, a very small bag of seal intestine was used to hold the tattoo needle: “they don’t use this needle for anything else, they just keep it in there and nobody else is supposed to touch it except the one who used it” (Krutak 2003e: 14). In unpublished field notes, Geist described that the tattoo needle is laid aside and not used again until the tattoo heals. This seems to indicate that the tattoo needle was a dangerous object and “when any Eskimo is injured either accidently [sic] or willfully by any instruments, those instruments, including tattoo instruments [needles], are not used again until the wound is healed up again. If death occurs on account of the injury or if sickness results the instrument will be taken with the body of the dead or will be otherwise destroyed” (Geist 1927-34: n.p.).

Siberian Yupik woman  “stitching  the  skin”  at  Indian Point, Chukotka, 1901. After Bogoras

Siberian Yupik woman  “stitching  the  skin”  at  Indian Point, Chukotka, 1901. After Bogoras  (1904-09: pl. xxx, fig. 4).

The sinew (ivalu) used for tattooing usually came from reindeer tendons and sometimes from the tendons of sea mammals, like bowhead or gray whales (Krutak 1998: 23). Reindeer ivalu was made available by neighboring Siberians through trade. In the reindeer, a bundle of tendons (ivalungelqughruk) lie underneath the skin on either side of the vertebrae or along the muscles of the back legs (Krutak 1998: 23). These fine strands of reindeer ivalu were utilized in the tattooing of women. The ivalu procured from the back of the bowhead or gray whale was used in the tattooing of men, since, its coarseness was likened to that of a man’s skin (Krutak 1998: 23). Sometimes whale ivalu was used to tattoo women, but only when they served as a pallbearer at a funeral.

Urine (tequq) was also considered to be an apotropaic substance suitable for tattooing, perhaps because it came from the bladder: an organ considered to be one of the primary seats of the life giving force of the soul (Oosten 1997: 88). Waldemar Bogoras (1904-09: 298), the late 19th century ethnographer of the Chukchi and Siberian Yupiit, recorded that if tequq was poured over a spirit’s head, it froze upon contact immediately repelling the entity. In this connection, it is not surprising that some St. Lawrence Island elders have said that tequq was poured around the outside of the traditional nenglu house to insure the same effect, because “many years ago, urine was…a very special. It scared away the evil spirit” (Krutak 2003e: 15). Another St. Lawrence Island elder told me that one night he was walking outside of Gambell village when he was a young man. He heard a buzzing sound in his ears and was scared that a spirit was following him on the trail. He did not want to turn and look back, so he quickly began to urinate and the spirit disappeared immediately! But urine had other more practical uses. Because it has high ammonia content, it helped reduce the scabbing of a new tattoo and promoted healing.

Oldest known European depiction of a Siberian Yupik woman, ca. 1795.
Oldest known European depiction of a Siberian Yupik woman, ca. 1795.

Concepts of Tattooing in the Arctic

Inuit (or Eskimos generally) and St. Lawrence Island Yupiget, in particular, like many other circumpolar and indigenous peoples (Schuster 1951), regarded living bodies as inhabited by multiple souls, each soul residing in a particular joint (Krutak 1998: 28). The anthropologist Robert Petersen (1996: 67) has noted that the soul is the element that gives the body life processes, breath, warmth, feelings, and the ability to think and speak. Accordingly, the ethnologist Edward Weyer (1932: 321) stated in his tome,The Eskimos, that, “[a]ll disease is nothing but the loss of a soul; in every part of the human body there resides a little soul, and if part of the man’s body is sick, it is because the little soul had abandoned that part, [namely, the joints].” Thus, if one of these souls is taken away, the member or limb to which it belongs sickens and possibly dies (Holm 1914: 112)

Men’s fluke tail tattoos. After Gordon (1906: pl. ix, no. 3).
Men’s fluke tail tattoos. After Gordon (1906: pl. ix, no. 3).

From this perspective, it is not surprising that tattoos had significant importance in funerary events, especially on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Funerary tattoos (nafluq) consisted of small dots at the convergence of various joints: shoulders, elbows, hip, wrist, knee, ankle, neck, and waist joints (Krutak 1998: 32). For applying them, the female tattooist, in cases of both men and women, used a large, skin-sewing needle with whale sinew dipped into a mixture of lubricating seal oil, urine, and lampblack scraped from a cooking pot. Lifting a fold of skin she passed the needle through one side and out the other, leaving two “spots” under the epidermis.

Paul Silook (1940: 105), a native of St. Lawrence Island, explained that these tattoos protected a pallbearer from spiritual attack. Death was characterized as a dangerous time in which the living could become possessed by the “shade” or malevolent spirit of the deceased. A spirit of the dead was believed to linger for some time in the vicinity of its former village (Nelson 1899: 422). Though not visible to all, the “shade” was conceived as an absolute material double of the corpse. And because pallbearers were in direct contact with this spiritual entity, they were ritualistically tattooed to repel it (Krutak 1998: 34). Their joints became the locus of tattoo because it was believed that the evil spirit entered the body at these points, as they were the seats of the soul(s) (Krutak 1999: 231). Urine and tattoo pigments, as the nexus of dynamic and apotropaic power, prevented the evil spirit from penetrating the pallbearer’s body.

Inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island, ca. 1816. After Choris (1822: pl. IX).
Inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island, ca. 1816. After Choris (1822: pl. IX).

Similarly, nearly every attribute of the human dead was also believed to be equally characteristic of the animal dead, as the spirit of every animal was believed to possess semi-human form (Buijs and Oosten 1997: 7; Nelson 1899: 423; Oosten 1976: 72-74; Rasmussen 1929: 191, 1931: 181). Men, and more rarely women, were tattooed on St. Lawrence Island when they killed seal, polar bear, or harpooned a bowhead whale (aghveq) for the first time (Krutak 1998: 34). Like the tattoo of the pallbearer, “first-kill” tattoos (kakileq) consisted of small dots at the convergence of various joints: shoulders, elbows, hip, wrist, knee, ankle, neck, and waist. The application of these tattoos impeded the future instances of spirit possession at these vulnerable points.

"Guardian” or “assistant” tattoos. In the Siberian Yupik language these marks were called yugaaq or “powerful person.” Drawing after Bogoras (1904-09: 343).
“Guardian” or “assistant” tattoos.  In the Siberian Yupik language these marks were called yugaaq or “powerful person.” Drawing after Bogoras (1904-09: 343).

However, kakileq were also important to other aspects of the hunt. One of the old hunters in Gambell village told me that “one reason for [the tattoos] is to hit the target, sometimes they don’t [and] I think these are for that purpose, to hit the target” (Krutak 1998: 35). This is not entirely surprising, since the anthropologist Robert Spencer (1959: 340) remarked that tattoos on the North Slope of Alaska and other forms of adornment doubled as whaling charms, “serving to bring the whale closer to the boat, to make the animal more tractable and amenable to the harpooner.”

Tattooed labret, ca. 1890. After Nelson (1899: 52).
Tattooed labret, ca. 1890. After Nelson (1899: 52).

This type of sympathetic magic was also manifest in the stylized “whale-fluke” tattoos adorning the corners of men’s mouths (Gordon 1906). Fittingly, these symbols were applied as part of first-kill observances among the Yupiget of St. Lawrence Island and the Yupiit of Chukotka (Hawkes n.d.: 22), as well as by other groups in the Arctic (Gordon 1906; Stevenson 1967: 39).

From the preceding remarks, it seems that the issue of death, whether human or animal, cast into symbolic tattooed relief important cultural values by which circumpolar peoples lived their lives and evaluated their experiences. As noted, physical contact with the dead, human or animal, was met with apprehension. This was because the spirits of great animals (e.g.,polar bears, whales) or humans were believed to be imbued with a personhood that was considered to be equivalent or superior to that of the living (Mousalimas 1997: 8; Oosten 1997: 98). As an individual matured, his or her education revolved around the increasing awareness of the natural and supernatural worlds, and the prescriptions and proscriptions for proper behavior within them (Fienup-Riordan 1986: 263). The supernatural was met everywhere in the landscape and places along hunting or travel routes became sacred because they embodied local spirits or manifested the presence of higher divinities including animals and deceased ancestors (Hultkrantz 1965: 308). Therefore, it was here, within the landscape of sea, ice, and frozen tundra, that the everyday, elusive and unobservable experiences, rituals and rites of passage took place circumscribing the identity of the people by linking them to a collectively shared and experienced sense of place (Nuttall 2000: 42). Indeed, humans, animals and everything in the natural world shared the same fundamental spiritual essence (Nuttall 2000: 37), and in this sense “persons” were constituted of multiple personal attributes extending beyond the human domain.

Eskimos wearing labrets from Kotzebue Sound, Alaska.
Eskimos wearing labrets from Kotzebue Sound, Alaska. After Choris (1822).

In this connection, specific forms of tattoos recalled an ancestral presence and could be understood to function as the conduit for a “visiting” spiritual entity, coming from the different temporal dimensions into the contemporary world (Krutak 1998: 37). For example, in many shamanistic performances in the Arctic, the human body was altered (via masking, body painting, vestments, or tattoo) to facilitate the entry of a “spirit helper” (Bogoras 1904-09: 457-60; Campbell 1988, 1989; Eliade 1964: 165-68; Lissner 1961: 272-74; Lommel 1967: 19; Segy 1976). Tattoos and other forms of adornment acted as magnets attracting a spiritual force – one that was channeled through the ceremonial attire and into the body.

Tattoo foils. After Bogoras (1904-09: 255).
Tattoo foils. After Bogoras (1904-09: 255).

The tattooing process involved iconographic manifestation of the “other side,” acknowledgment of the manifestation’s power, and harnessing that power within the corporeal envelope of human skin. On St. Lawrence Island, men and women tattooed anthropomorphic spirit helpers onto their foreheads and limbs (Krutak 1998: 38). These stick-like figures, sometimes appropriately named “guardians” or “assistants,” protected individuals from evil spirits, disasters at sea, unknown areas where one traveled, strangers, and even in the case of new mothers, the loss of their children (Bogoras 1904-09: 343; Collins 1930a: 79; Krutak 1998: 38, 2003e: 18-19; Moore 1923: 345). In Chukotka, murderers inscribed these types of tattoos on their shoulders in hopes of capturing the soul of their victim, thus transforming it into an “assistant,” or even into a part of himself (Bogoras 1904-09).

Two young girls from Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, ca. 1930. Photograph by Dr. Leuman Waugh.
Two young girls from Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, ca. 1930. Photograph by Dr. Leuman Waugh.

Apart from such concepts, there seems to have been some relationship between labrets and tattoos, at least in the Bering Strait region. Adelbert von Chamisso (1986 [1836]: 172), a naturalist with Kotzebue’s expedition of 1815-1818, noted that labrets were rare among St. Lawrence Island men and often replaced by a tattooed spot. Edward W. Nelson (1899: 52), a naturalist working for the U.S. Army Signal Service in the late 19th century, also suggested that these circular tattoos were a relic of wearing a lip-plug or labret. Bogoras (1904-09: 256) believed that this was probably true, though their position did not quite “correspond to the usual position of the labret. These marks are now intended only as charms against the spirits.” Dewey Anderson and Walter Eells (1935: 175), two sociologists from Stanford University who visited St. Lawrence Island in the 1930’s, recorded that “a small circle on the lower lip under the corners of the mouth [was tattooed] to prevent a man who has repeatedly fallen into the sea from drowning.” Similarly, a Diomede Islander from Bering Strait was seen at the turn of the century with a mark tattooed at each corner of the mouth. He explained it as a preventive prescribed by his mother against the fate that had befallen his father – death by drowning (Gordon 1906; Weyer 1932: 316-17).

Siberian Yupik woman with fluke tails (veghaq) tattooed on her cheeks, 1901. Photograph by Waldemar Bogoras.

Siberian Yupik woman with fluke tails (veghaq) tattooed on her cheeks, 1901. Photograph by Waldemar Bogoras.

St. Lawrence Island woman with intricate facial tattoos, 1901. Photograph by R.N. Hawley. After Jackson (1902: 28).

St. Lawrence Island woman with intricate facial tattoos, 1901. Photograph by R.N. Hawley. After Jackson (1902: 28).

Henry B. Collins, a Smithsonian archaeologist who worked on St. Lawrence Island in the 1930s, didn’t necessarily believe that drowning was the danger. After interviewing Paul Silook, he was told that angeyeghaq (orphan walrus) was the problem:

Walrus are believed to eat seals, and even humans, in addition to their usual food of seaweeds and mollusks. Paul Silook’s father tells of two times he was chased by a walrus. It is believed that walrus that thus depart from their customary diet were left motherless when very young and so did not learn the proper method of eating. (Collins 1930b: n.p.)

Maybe   then,   Bering   Strait   people   designed   labret-like  tattoos  to  repel  the  aggressive orphan walrus called angeyeghaq? Aspects of St. Lawrence Island folklore recorded by Paul Silook suggest that labret-like tattoos recalled in symbolic form the appearance of a killer whale (mesungesak):

Killer whales are said to have a white spot at each side of the mouth like the labrets of the mainland Siberian natives. [Killers] are said to have a white strip, ring, running obliquely from around the neck to beneath the flipper. Like the St. Lawrence Island leather strip with charms [uyaghqutat] worn by men. (Collins 1930a: 90)

Therefore, if the concept of labrets, or labret-like tattoos, represented the killer whale, then the man that wore this tattoo might have believed he would become transformed into one, extending his safe passage through dangerous waters. On the other hand, the art historian Ralph Coe (1976: 111) believes labrets, and by extension labret-like tattoos, mimicked walrus’s tusks, especially since many labrets were carved from walrus ivory:

The ivory seems to stand for the interchangeability of the animal or human, his soul[s], and the recipient, just the Eskimo himself thought of wood as a symbol of strength: ‘to the Eskimo, dwarf willow is a symbol of strength and suppleness against an overwhelming Arctic background, where survival depends upon a man’s ability to contend with the forces of nature, while at the same time yielding to them and conforming with them.’

Tattooed Chukchi woman with fertility tattoo on cheek and tattoo-foil near mouth, 1901. Photograph by Waldemar Bogoras.
Tattooed Chukchi woman with fertility tattoo on cheek and tattoo-foil near mouth, 1901. Photograph by Waldemar Bogoras.
Chukchi woman with fertility, chin, and nose markings. After Cantwell (1902: 212).
Chukchi woman with fertility, chin, and nose markings. After Cantwell (1902: 212).

Adopting the anatomical characteristics of the walrus (tusks) through tattoo may have captured the essence of its aggressive behavior or transformed the hunter into this creature. This would not be surprising since the concept of transformation – men into men, men into animals, animals into men, and animals into animals – permeates all aspects of life in the Bering Strait area and is expressed on all kinds of objects including carved ivory sculpture (Fitzhugh and Kaplan 1982: 186). No doubt this deceptive “tattoo foil” subverted the attention of the foe and safeguarded the hunter from malicious attack.

Tattoo foils, or “guardian” tattoos, were not only confined to labret-like tattoos. Instead, men and women were variably tattooed on each upper arm and underneath the lip with circles, half-circles, anthropomorphs, or with cruciform elements at both corners of the mouth to disguise the wearer from disease-bearing spirits. Paul Silook (1940: 68) explained, “[y]ou know some families have the same kind of sickness that continues, and people believed that these marks should be put on a child so the spirits might think he is a different person, a person that is not from that family. In this way people tried to cut off trouble.” Similarly, Paul Silook’s father had a small figure of a man tattooed on each upper arm. He put these on after four of his sons had died, “to change his luck in this regard.” Other families tattooed small marks at the root of a child’s nose if he or she cried too much. Since a crying child was thought to be an indication of future misfortune: specifically that a family member would soon die.

Facial tattoo of a St. Lawrence Island woman. Photograph
Facial tattoo of a St. Lawrence Island woman. Photograph  © 1997 Lars Krutak.

The multiplicity of these types of “guardian” tattoos suggest, in all probability, that specific tattoo “remedies” were believed to differ from individual to individual, or more appropriately, from family to family. An account from a Siberian Yupik man visiting Gambell, St. Lawrence Island in 1940, reveals that this was the case, at least in Mainland Siberia:

I was the oldest child in my family. In trying to save my brothers and sisters my father ask[ed] some woman to have me tattooed. The woman had all kinds of prayer when she tattooed me. While [a] woman [is] tattooing a person, every stitch as she goes has something to say with. My father[,] trying to save me as best he can, he put leather bands around my wrist and forehead, with beads hanging down all over my eyes, and beads on each sole of [my] stocking, stitched through…to save his child from death. Also on every joint beads are stitched, and sometimes little bells on elbows. My father sewed little pieces of squirrel’s kettle on the band around my shoulders and under [my] arm. Part of parents’ idea to save children.  (Leighton 1982 [1940]: 16-17)

King Island women displaying arm tattoos, ca. 1900. After Gordon (1906: pl. XX).
King Island women displaying arm tattoos, ca. 1900. After Gordon (1906: pl. XX).

Women’s Facial and Body Tattoos

There seems to have been no widely distributed tattoo design among Eskimo women, although chin patterns or “stripes” were more commonly found than any other (Krutak 1998: 45). Chin stripes served multiple purposes in social contexts. Most notably, they were tattooed on the chin as part of the ritual of social maturity, a signal to men that a woman had reached puberty. Chin patterns also served to protect women during enemy raids. For example, fighting among the Siberians and St. Lawrence Islanders took place in close quarters, namely in various forms of semi-subterranean dwellings called nenglu. Raiding parties usually attacked in the early morning  hours,  at or before first  light, hoping  to  catch their  enemies while asleep. Women, valued as important “commodities” during these times, were highly prized for their many abilities. Not being distinguishable from the men by their clothing in the dim light of the nenglu, their chin patterns made them more recognizable as females and their lives would be spared (Anderson and Eells 1935: 175). Once captured, however, they were bartered off as slaves.

More generally, the chin stripe aesthetic was important to the Diomede Islanders living in Bering Strait. Ideally, thin lines tattooed onto the chin were valuable indicators for choosing a wife, according to anthropologist Sergei Bogojavlensky (1969: 158):

It was believed that a girl who smiled and laughed too much would cause the lines to spread and get thick. A girl with a full set of lines on the chin, all of them thin, was considered to be a good prospect as a wife, for she was clearly serious and hard working.

Siberian Yupik woman with fluke tails (veghaq) tattooed on her cheeks, 1901. Photograph by
St. Lawrence Island woman with intricate facial tattoos, 1901. Photograph by R.N. Hawley. After Jackson (1902: 28).
St. Lawrence Island Yupik facial and hand tattooing (igaq). Photographs  © 1997 Lars Krutak.

A full set of lines was not only a powerful physical statement of the ability to endure great pain, but also an attestation to a woman’s powers of “animal” attraction. For example, in the St. Lawrence and Siberian Yupik area of the early 20th century, women painted and tattooed their faces in ritual ceremonies in order to imitate, venerate, honor, and/or attract those animals that “will bring good fortune” to the family (Hughes 1959: 72). Waldemar Bogoras (1904-09: 359) added, “[i]t is a mistake to think that women are weaker than men in hunting-pursuits,” since as a man wanders in vain about the wilderness, searching, women “that sit by the lamp are really strong, for they know how to call the game to the shore.” Moreover, it was through the performance of domestic activities – butchering, cooking (turning hunted meat into edible “food”) and sewing (creating sturdy and beautiful clothing that attracted game) – that a woman’s ritual position as “wife the hunter” became solidified in Arctic culture (Bodenhorn 1990: 65).

In this connection, it seems that a woman’s facial tattoos assured a kind of spiritual permanency: they lured into the house a part of the land or sea, and along with that, part of its animal and spiritual life. Not surprisingly, an unusual event, such as the capture of a whale by a young woman’s father, was sometimes commemorated on her cheek(s) by tattooed fluke tails, which advertised her father’s prowess to members of Yupik society (Doty 1900: 218).

Slightly sloping parallel lines, usually consisting of three tightly grouped bands on the cheek, were also tattooed on women.  Bogoras (1904-09:  254) mentioned that childless Chukchi women “tattoo on both cheeks three equidistant lines running all the way  around. This is considered one of the charms against sterility.” There is a similar belief related in the story of Ayngaangaawen, a woman from the extinct St. Lawrence Island village of Kookoolok. Ayngaangaawen refused to get her tattoo-marks. She could not bear healthy children, and as a result, they all died as infants. Supposedly, “when she got some marks she had children” and they lived into adulthood (Krutak 1998: 49).

Medicinal tattoos observed by Nelson (1899).
Medicinal tattoos observed by Nelson (1899).

Other tattoos of St. Lawrence Island women have more cryptic functions. For example, two slightly diverging lines ran from high up on the forehead down over the full length of the nose. These tattoos were quite often the first ones to be placed upon pre-pubescent girls (six to ten years of age). Daniel S. Neuman (1917: 5), a doctor living in Nome, Alaska at the turn of the 20th century, wrote that these tattoos distinguished a woman “in after life from a man, on account of the similarity of [their] dress.” Chukchi myths illustrate that these same tattoos were the symbolpar excellence of the woman herself (Bogoras 1904-09: 254).

Tattoos also marked the thighs of young St. Lawrence Island women when they reached puberty. In Igloolik, Canada, some 2,500 miles east of St. Lawrence Island, the tattooing of women’s thighs ensured that the first thing a newborn infant saw would be something of beauty (Driscoll 1987: 198).

Intricate scrollwork found on the cheeks, and tattoos on the arms of women possibly form elements of a genealogical puzzle (Krutak 1998: 52). Most women of St. Lawrence  Island say  these   tattoos  are simply “make-up,” beautifying their bodies. Dr. Neuman (1917: 5) verified that this was the case, but he also believed that “[e]ach tribe adhered to their own design but with a slight modification for their own individual members. The designs on the hands and arms often combined tribal and family designs and formed, so to speak, a family tree.” On the arms of one of my female informants, rows of fluke tails extend from her wrists to the middle of her forearms. These symbols represent her clan (Aymaramket), an honored lineage of great whale hunters (Krutak 1998: 52).

Punuk sculpture with medicinal markings near eyes. Sketch courtesy of the Rock Foundation.
Drawing of a Diomede Islander with medicinal tattoos. After Gordon (1906: pl. IX).
Drawing of a Diomede Islander with medicinal tattoos. After Gordon (1906: pl. IX).

Although it seems as though a woman’s tattoo designs were individualistic, those tattoos found on the back of the hand (igaq) were not; possibly suggesting that these motifs marked the identities of women belonging to a cohort. For example,  the last group of St. Lawrence Island women to have retained igaq had identical tattoo patterns and it is these women who were the last age group to be tattooed on St. Lawrence Island, ca. 1920 (Krutak 2003e: 25).

Iceman.” Redrawn after SpindlerFrom Left: The Pazyryk “Chief” and “The Iceman.” Redrawn after Spindler
From Left: The Pazyryk “Chief” and “The Iceman.” Redrawn after Spindler (1994: 172, 173).
The 5000-year-old Iceman is the oldest known human to have worn medicinal tattoos akin to acupuncture. A 2500-year-old mummy of a Siberian Pazyryk chief also sported tattoos; markings that were probably applied for therapeutic purposes (Krutak 1999).


In the previous sections, the apotropaic aspect of tattoo has been discussed, specifically as a remedy against supernatural possession. In light of the indigenous theory of disease causation – dangerous spirits – it is not surprising that tattoo was considered as a form of medicine against a variety of ills. This medicine was believed to act as a curative or as a preventative one.

Paramount to these concepts was the role of the preventive function. Circumpolar peoples were socialized and trained from their earliest days to build their bodies into pillars of strength through running, weightlifting, wading into frigid waters, etc. (Hughes 1960: 90). Therefore, when a biological disorder rose to life threatening levels, where “preventive” medicinal practice had failed the cure, it then became the responsibility of the shaman to summon his or her spiritual powers to safeguard and restore health. Disorders, as well as other inexplicable misfortunes, were attributed to supernatural agency and were believed to be curable through the use of tattoo (Krutak 1999: 230; Rudenko 1949). Oftentimes, shamans applied these types of medicinal tattoos, though not always.

Tattoo, as a curative agent, was often disorder-specific. Some maladies were cured with the application of small lines or marks on or near afflicted areas. Some examples from St. Lawrence Island are as follows:

  • A mark over the sternum, which is the shaman’s cure for heart trouble.
  • A small straight mark over each eye, the cure for eye trouble.
  • Various other small marks on the body used as remedies from time to time by the shaman. (Anderson and Eells 1935: 175)

Thus, two lines placed near the eye of a man from St. Lawrence Island observed by the Smithsonian ethnologist Nelson in the 1880s represented one of these types of medicinal marking. Such markings are even seen on ancient Okvik/Old Bering Sea (500 B.C. – 750 A.D.) and Punuk (750 – 1050 A.D.) culture ivory carvings from St. Lawrence Island. In the Bering Strait region, the ethnologist George B. Gordon (1906: 81) observed a Diomede Island man with tattooed marks on either cheek, close to the mouth, others on the temple and two more on the forehead. These three sets of marks on his face were explained as “medicine” and their presence was said to have directly benefited the wearer.

Reconstructions of the Qilakitsoq mummies, Greenland, 15th century A.D. Redrawn after Kapel et al.
Reconstructions of the Qilakitsoq mummies, Greenland, 15th century A.D. Redrawn after Kapel et al.(1991: 105).


But tattoo medicine was not only confined to the simple placement of the markings themselves, since traditional practices of tattoo and ritually induced bleeding were oftentimes interrelated and may have even overlapped to some extent. Around Bering Strait, shamans commonly performed bloodletting to relieve aching or inflamed parts of the body. Nelson (1899: 309-310) watched a shaman “lancing the scalp of his little girl’s head, the long, thin iron point of the instrument being thrust twelve to fifteen times between the scalp and skull.” Similarly, the Alaskan Aleuts performed bloodletting as remedies for numerous ailments attributed to “bad blood” (Lantis 1984: 173). On St. Lawrence Island, bleeding was resorted to in cases of severe migraine headache or as one elder said, “to release anything with a high blood pressure…the [ancestors] know that” (Krutak 1999: 231). The Chugach Eskimo treated sore eyes by bleeding at the root of the nose or at the temples. Then the patient was made to swallow the blood, which affected the cure (Fortuine 1985: 35).

From Left: Punuk and Okvik/Old Bering Sea doll-heads with tattoo-puncture at facial joints, ca. 500-700 A.D. Photograph courtesy of Rock Foundation. Drawing by Mark Planisek.
From Left: Punuk and Okvik/Old Bering Sea doll-heads with tattoo-puncture at facial joints, ca. 500-700 A.D. Photograph courtesy of Rock Foundation. Drawing by Mark Planisek.

It is also plausible that the release of blood functioned to appease various ills and spiritual manifestations. For instance, several St. Lawrence Islanders explained to me the importance of licking the blood that was released during tattoo “operations.” According to one elder, the female tattoo artist, who performed the skin stitching, licked the blood that flowed from the punctured skin, “because that helps, to aah, for them to have good sight” (Krutak 1999: 231). Evidently, “bad blood” released from the tattoo rite acted as a kind of supplementary healing agent remedying specific ailments. Reliance on this cultural practice might seem to have grown out of the impression that the expulsion of the evil spirit would be facilitated through the escaping stream of blood (Weyer 1932: 324). Thus, by harnessing blood orally, and/or neutralizing it with saliva, the tattoo artist transformed it into a sanctifying substance.

Tattooing as a Form of Acupuncture

Surprisingly, the Arctic shaman’s prophetic role in medicinal practice was closely paralleled by that of the Chinese acupuncturist (Krutak 1999: 231-232). Both were consulted to identify the causes of disease, by differentiation of symptoms and signs, to provide suitable treatments. In acupuncture, pathogenic forces are thought to invade the human body from the exterior via the mouth, nose or body surfaces and the resultant diseases are called exogenous disease (Compilation 1981). In circumpolar cultures, and especially on St. Lawrence Island, the primary factor determining sickness was the intrusion of an evil spirit from outside the body into one of the souls of the afflicted individual. These types of malevolent actions of the spirit upon the body were traced to disordered behavior, possession, illness (rheumatism), and sometimes death (Krutak 1998: 58; 1999: 231). Consequently, and as a form of spiritual/medicinal practice, St. Lawrence Islanders tattooed specific joints. As mentioned earlier, joints served as the vehicular “highways” which evil entities traveled to enter the human body and injure it. Thus, joint-tattoos protected individuals by closing down these pathways, since the substances utilized to produce tattoo pigment – urine, soot, and sometimes graphite – were the nexus of dynamic and apotropaic power, preventing an evil spirit from penetrating the human body.

Iceman.” Redrawn after SpindlerFrom Left: The Pazyryk “Chief” and “The Iceman.” Redrawn after Spindler
Kiyalighaq mummy’s forearm tattoos, 4th century A.D. Redrawn after Smith and Zimmerman (1975: 435). Ammassalik, Greenland arm tattoo, ca. 1897. After Holm (1914).

In both Chinese acupuncture theory and St. Lawrence Island medicinal theory, it is believed that all ailments of the body, whether internal of external, are reflected at specific points either at on the surface of the skin or just beneath it. In acupuncture, many of these points occur at the articulation of major joints and lie along specific pathways called “meridians”. Meridians connect the internal organs with specific points that are located either on or in the epidermis, often in close proximity to nerves and blood vessels (Chu 1979: 7). Evoking the Chinese acupuncturists’ yin/yang cosmology, the body is in a perpetual state of dynamic equilibrium, oscillating between the poles of masculine and feminine, man and animal, sickness and health (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987: 12). Thus, relieving excess pressure at these points enables the body to regain its former state of homeostasis (harmony) within and outside of the body. As one can imagine, it is believed that there are many possible interrelationships and connections between organs, points, joints, and tattoos.

Analysis of traditional St. Lawrence Island tattoo practices suggests that several tattooed areas on the body directly correspond to classical acupuncture points (Krutak 1999: 232-244). In the recent past, these parallels were known to the St. Lawrence Islanders themselves. For example, one elder explained to me that one of the areas tattoos were placed upon

Grandparents, when they were pricking that [point when they] hurt from headache, when [they] thought that [the] eyes are bothering you…they use, aah, acupuncture.

Ammassalik breast tattoo, ca. 1897.
Ammassalik breast tattoo, ca. 1897.

Of course, this type of remedy is quite ancient. The earliest known reference to acupuncture analgesia of this kind is in a legend about Hua To (110-207 A.D.), the first-known Chinese surgeon, who used acupuncture for headache (Chu 1979: 2).

The Aleuts also utilized acupuncture in medical therapy. Acupuncture was resorted to in cases of headache, eye disorders, colic, and lumbago (Marsh and Laughlin 1956). Like the St. Lawrence Islanders, the Aleuts “tattoo-punctured” to relieve aching joints. The anthropologist Margaret Lantis observed that Aleut Atka Islanders, “moistened thread covered with gunpowder (probably soot in former times) sew[ing] through the pinched-up skin near an aching joint or across the back over a region of pain.”

Apparently, the efficacy of this potent medical technology was very great, because it was not only confined to the North Pacific Rim. For example, archaeological evidence in the form of tattooed mummies indicates that tattoo-puncture reached Greenland in the distant past (Krutak 1999). Radiocarbon dated to the 15th century A.D., the mummies of Qilakitsoq have revealed that a conscious, exacting attempt was made to place dot-motif tattoos at important facial points (Kapel et al.1991). Being that these dot-motif tattoos are suggestive of acupuncture points, and coupled with the fact that each actually designates a classical acupuncture point, cultural affinity must be suggested. Besides, Danish ethnologist Gustav Holm (1914: 29) reported that Greenlanders “now and then…resort to tattooing in cases of sickness.” Although we are not entirely sure if Holm was specifically referring to “tattoo-puncture” in his statement, several intriguing 1,500 year-old ivory “doll-heads” excavated from St. Lawrence Island illustrate ancient continuity spanning thousands of miles and hundreds of years (Krutak 1999: 244).

Ivory figurine from the Punuk culture displaying breast and arm tattoos.
Ivory figurine from the Punuk culture displaying breast and arm tattoos.

However, there are other similarities in the tattoo cultures of St. Lawrence Island and Greenland. In the early 1970s, beach erosion exposed the heavily tattooed, mummified body of an Okvik/ Old Bering Sea woman radiocarbon dated to 1,600 years ago at Cape Kiyalighaq, St. Lawrence Island (Smith and Zimmerman 1975: 433). Her forearm tattoos were very reminiscent of those seen in late 19th century photographs of East Greenlanders at Ammassalik (Holm 1914).

Other Ammassalimniut women displayed breast and arm tattoos similar to engraved female ivory figurines from the Punuk culture of St. Lawrence Island, suggesting that these practices not only persisted remarkably over the centuries, but stressed cultural unity for tattooing in the Eskimo area as a whole and, more specifically, of material culture from Greenland to ancient maritime cultures of St. Lawrence Island.

Considering the vast expanse of the Arctic culture area, the largest in the world, this may seem surprising. However, as circumpolar peoples were unified by environment, language, custom, and belief, the distinction is quite clear: as tattoo became part of the skin, the body became a permanent part of Arctic culture. Tattooing was a graphic image of social beliefs and values expressing the many ways in which circumpolar peoples attempted to control their bodies, lives, and experiences. As such, tattoos provided a nexus between individual, family, and communally defined forces that shaped perceptions of existence.


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