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Article © 2000 Lars Krutak

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.
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).

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 (1901-07: 108).

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 (1904-09: pl. xxx, fig. 4).

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.

Concepts of Tattooing in the Arctic

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

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

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).

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.

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

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

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.

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.”

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

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.

“Guardian” or “assistant” tattoos.

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

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.

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

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

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).

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

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

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).

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.’

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. After Bogoras (1904-09: 255).

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

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.

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)

Women’s Facial and Body Tattoos

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.

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 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).

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 paint-ed 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).

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).

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 symbol par 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).

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

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

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).


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).

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.

St. Lawrence Island Yupik facial and hand tattooing (igaq). Photographs © 1997 Lars Krutak.
St. Lawrence Island Yupik facial and hand tattooing (igaq). Photographs
© 1997 Lars Krutak.

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)

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

Medicinal tattoos observed by Nelson (1899).

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.

Punuk sculpture with medicinal markings near eyes. Sketch courtesy of the Rock Foundation.
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).

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).

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

The Pazyryk “Chief”

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).

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.

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

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

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 coincides with the acupuncture point Yang Pai ­– utilized to remedy frontal headache and pain in the eye (Chu 1979: 32):

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.
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.

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.”

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). 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).

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).

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).

Ammassalik breast tattoo, ca. 1897. After Holm (1914). : Ivory figurine from the Punuk culture displaying arm and breast tattoos. After Collins (1929: pl. 16).
Ammassalik breast tattoo, ca. 1897. After Holm (1914).

Ivory figurine from the Punuk culture displaying arm and breast tattoos. After Collins (1929: pl. 16).

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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Article © 2006 Lars Krutak

Various forms of labretifery from the Bering Sea area.

Various forms of labretifery from the Bering Sea area.

In 1741, the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller became the first European to describe the Native peoples of Alaska – Unangan or Aleuts on the Shumagin Islands: “One man had a piece of bone three inches long struck through crosswise above the chin just under the lower lip. Still another had a bone like it fastened in the forehead, and another, finally, had a similar one in each of the wings of the nose.”

Stretching 1,500 miles from Kamchatka, Russia to the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutian archipelago is a chain of windswept islands that has been inhabited for about 7,000 years. Traditionally, the term “Aleut” was used by Russian fur-traders to describe the indigenous peoples they met. Today, the Unangan (who speak the Aleut language) and Alutiiq (Kodiak Islanders) see themselves as distinct from one another culturally and linguistically. But with the invasion of the Russians in the 18th century, each group was gradually enslaved and organized into a collective force to labor for the Russian sea-otter fur trading empire.

A tattooed woman of Unalaska Island, 1778. Drawn by John Webber of the Cook Expedition. One Russian explorer described tattoo practices on Unalaska in 1790. “The women sew in their cheeks, and rub with carbon, two lines, running from the lower part of the nose to the middle of the ears, and one broad band from the lower lip to the chin, which when they heal assume a bluish color.”

A tattooed woman of Unalaska Island, 1778. Drawn by John Webber of the Cook Expedition. One Russian explorer described tattoo practices on Unalaska in 1790. “The women sew in their cheeks, and rub with carbon, two lines, running from the lower part of the nose to the middle of the ears, and one broad band from the lower lip to the chin, which when they heal assume a bluish color.”

Besides the dramatic decline in populations due to the introduction of foreign diseases after European contact, the indigenous cultures of the Aleutian Islands were disrupted to the point where many traditional practices almost disappeared by the time of the American occupations in the mid-19th century. Whether fueled by the Russian distaste of the “hideous” customs of tattoo and piercing or the Christian missionary’s efforts to eradicate aspects of dress, grooming, and ritual they found “deplorable” and “savage,” body piercing, labrets and tattoos were rarely seen after 1800. The early 19th century explorer and writer Georg Langsdorff, speaking of the Unalaska Islanders, wrote:

Tattooing was  at  one time very  much in use among them, particularly among the women. The neck,  arms,  and  chin  were, and a sort of coal-dust  mixed  with urine  rubbed  in;  at  present  these ornaments   are   rare,  and  chiefly  to  be seen  among  the  old  women;   Russians have made the young women understand that  they  do  not  consider  their  beauty increased  by  them,  and this  has  rather brought them into disrepute.

According to most historical accounts, tattooing among the Aleut was first practiced when women reached maturity. On Kodiak Island, it not only signaled adolescence, but social standing as well. One 1790 report stated:

The tattoo at the chin the girls receive it at their first cleaning [menstruation]. (Menstruation is said to start late among these people, close to or after their twentieth year)… women pierced themselves with needles made of seagull bones, and they blacken[ed] it immediately with coals.

A Chugach woman of Prince William Sound, 1778. Drawing by John Webber.

A Chugach woman of Prince William Sound, 1778. Drawing by John Webber.

In the Unalaska Island district, the Russian priest Veniaminov observed in 1840 that aristocratic women were more heavily tattooed than laypersons:

The Aleut women had the habit of tattooing different designs, by ‘sewing’ or pricking…They tattooed the whole chin, two bands from cheek to cheek across the nose, two bands on the sides of the face, and one below the nose. But all did not have the same designs. The pretty ones and also the daughters of famous and rich ancestors and fathers, endeavored in their tattooings to show the accomplishments of their progenitors, as, for instance, how many enemies, or powerful animals, that ancestor killed.

On the whole, ethnographic information on Aleut tattooing was limited to outside European observers. Just as tattoo methods and forms were widely scattered, so too were other forms of personal adornment. In an attempt to offer some rudimentary interpretation of the meaning and function of the tattooing itself, it is necessary to include in this discussion a description of the other forms of Aleut body modification including: nosepins, ear ornaments, and labrets. Aleut piercing and tattooing were natural symbols simultaneously linking nature, Aleut society and culture into one organic whole. Body adornment justified human existence by not only influencing the supernatural and the dead, but by influencing the wishes and actions of other living individuals in the community itself.


A man of Turnagain River, Alaska, 1778. Drawing by John Webber.

A man of Turnagain River, Alaska, 1778. Drawing by John Webber.

Man of Unalaska Island displaying labrets and

Man of Unalaska Island displaying labrets and nosepin.
Drawing by John Webber.

Nosepins were worn by all indigenous groups of the Aleutian chain, by both sexes, with the incision being pierced shortly after birth. The ornament might be an eagle’s feather shaft, a sea lion whisker, piece of bark, bone, or a leather thong with dentalium shells worn horizontally through the nose. Sometimes, women strung various beads of coral and amber on the nosepin and let them hang down to the tips of their chins.

More specifically, amber and dentalia were highly prized by both men and women. Although there were natural outcroppings of amber in the Aleutian Islands, most of it was obtained through trade from other indigenous groups living to the east. In 1814, the Russian sailor Urey Lisiansky noted that the Aleuts valued amber “in as high estimation as diamonds in Europe.” Among the adjacent Chugach Eskimo of the Alaskan mainland, Captain Cook’s crew recorded that “one pair of amber ornaments was worth two sea-otter skins ($90-100 a skin)” in the 1780s. Dentalia, however, were procured exclusively from indigenous traders living southeast of the Aleutian Archipelago in the vicinity of Hecate Strait near the Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada. Here the indigenous traders of the shell immersed “in the water the body of someone who has died, or of a slave killed specially for the purpose” to attract the worms that live in the shell casings. On Kodiak Island, a pair of dentalia was worth “an entire squirrel-skin parka” in 1805.

Ear Ornaments

Ear ornaments were another common form of adornment. Oftentimes, there were holes pierced all around the rim of the ear with dentalium shells, beads of shell, bone, and amber placed in each orifice.  An Unangan Attu Islander, before she was given to her husband in marriage, had ten sea lion whiskers pierced into each ear. Sea lion whiskers were considered to be very valuable and were regarded as trophies that indicated a good hunter, or the wife of a good hunter, since each animal has only four whiskers and “any number of them together must be a testimony of having captured a great many”. These whiskers also adorned the wooden hunting gear of Aleut men or were used as ornaments in the nose.

A Chugach man of Prince William Sound,

A Chugach man of Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1778. Drawing by John Webber.

A visitor to the Andreanov Islands in 1761 noted, “instead of earrings put into their ears the women wear eagles’ and geese feathers behind the ears”. In the Kagamil Island burial caves, the physical anthropologist Ales Hrdlička found numerous bird skulls, bones, the skins of hawks, dried bird wings buried with the mummies of children and even a bird feather “still stuck in the ear of one of the mummified heads.”

Certainly, particular birds were seen as protective animals in the afterlife and not surprisingly the early 19th century Kodiak Islanders raised eagles as pets, using their feathers in ritual festivals to honor the sun. Their beaks not only represented the power of predation and killing but also stood for the male procreative power. The speed, cunning, and accuracy of these birds were emulated by Aleut hunters who with their beak-like hunting visor, decorated with carved ivory “wings” and a “tail” of sea lion whiskers, became transformed into a powerful bird of prey whilst hunting upon the open seas in their kayaks. The hunter’s harpoon magically became a talon and bore sculptural forms of a fanged wolf-like creature that assisted in capturing game.


An inhabitant of the Alaska Peninsula with three labrets, 1827. Drawing by Pavel Mikhailov.

An inhabitant of the Alaska Peninsula with three labrets, 1827. Drawing by Pavel Mikhailov.

Yet when the Russians first made contact with the peoples of the Aleutian archipelago, the one custom that intrigued them the most was the insertion of various types of labrets into the lower lip and cheek. Captain Cook noted in the 1770s “what the men have thrust thro the hole in the underlip has the resemblance of 2 Boars tusk, and are 2 pieces of bone about 1 ½ Inch long joining in the middle of the lip, &  separating, by means of the tongue they can move these bones, & make them point up and down. Others have a single polished bone the shape and size of a large Stud”. Men perforated the lip by placing several studs of walrus ivory into separate holes that appeared to Captain Cook as representing “another row of teeth immediately under their own”. This style of labretifery was common on the Turnagain River of mainland Alaska and on Kodiak Island in the 1790s where “men wear up to ten garnets – white in back, blue in front – underneath their lower lip.”

The Russian naval officer Gavrila Davydov wrote in 1807 that Kodiak Island women made “several holes in their lower lip from which they hang a loop into which are placed beads and small white bones. These holes vary in number between two and six. Their lips are pierced by close relatives and there is a great deal of respect, therefore, for the girl islander who has the most.” Although labrets of this type were usually worn for decorative purposes, they also signified the social status, prestige, and age of the wearer.

Piercing Medicine

An Alutiiq man of Kodiak Island, 1817. Drawing by Mikhail Tikhanov.

An Alutiiq man of Kodiak Island, 1817.
Drawing by Mikhail Tikhanov.

Because tattoos, nosepins, earrings, and labrets were significant visual symbols tied to important realms of cultural experience, it is possible they were perceived as having medicinal value as well. The Aleut believed that a manipulable power resided in the body that persisted in the dead through mummification. In life, this power was regulated at crucial periods, mainly though joint-binding with sinew cords. Joint-binding was practiced when a young girl had her first menses, and when a husband or wife died. The Aleut also dismembered the bodies of enemies and dangerous persons at their joints as a way of protecting the living from the evil dead, because religious belief dictated that the soul of the departed remained on earth as long as the corpse was intact. The practice even extended to honored birds, such as the eagle and owl; creatures that were believed to embody supernatural power through their association with celestial bodies of both light and darkness.

A Tattooed woman from Unalaska Island, 1790.

A Tattooed woman from Unalaska Island, 1790.

The Aleut also practiced forms of medicine akin to acupuncture and moxabustion. In this sense, it is probable that they had some conception of Chinese yin/yang cosmology and attempted to regulate “good” and “bad” energies through the plugging of orifices. To this end, it would seem to follow that the Aleut had a similar concept in regards to body piercing. The anthropologist Grant Keddie has stated that “the labret may demonstrate one’s spiritual mastery over bodily entrances from which spirits enter and exit and therefore by analogy one’s power over the forces of nature.”

Transgendered Piercings and Tattoos

Aside from men’s and women’s personal ornaments, it should be noted that particular forms of depilation and tattooing were also practiced by transgendered individuals. The Russian naval Captain von Langsdorff observed in 1813 that on Kodiak Island, “Boys, if they happen to be very handsome, are often brought up entirely in the manner of girls, and instructed in all the arts women use to please man: their beards are carefully plucked out as soon as they begin to appear, and their chins are tattooed like those of the women.” Other Europeans writing in early 19th century suggested that the existence of transgendered individuals among the Aleut was influenced in some way by parental guidance, for it seemed that mothers who were “very fond of their offspring; dreading the effects of war, and the dangers of the chase; some of them bring up their males in a very effeminate manner, and are happy to see them taken by chiefs, to gratify their unnatural desires”.  Similarly in 1790 the Russian naval Captain Sarychev saw “among the arriving Kodiaks there was a 40 year-old, ugly fellow, clad in woman’s garb; his face was tattooed and there were beads in his nose. This man played the role of a wife for a young islander and did all the woman’s work.” Others agreed stating: “There are among these people men with tattooed chins, carrying on solely female work, living always with women, and similarly to these having one and sometimes even two ‘husbands’. They call these Achnućeks[kássaq]. These individuals are not only not looked down upon, but instead they are obeyed in a settlement and are not seldom wizards [shamans].”

Throughout the circumpolar region, shamans served as intermediaries between the living and the dead, between humans and animals, between the genders, and between the spirits and deities. They were considered “wise-men” able to forecast the future, the weather, and had the ability to purify or cure ailing individuals through physical and ritual diagnoses. Among the Inuit of Canada, mythology reveals that a transgendered shaman created all women and this was directly associated with his ability to straddle the procreative nature of the sexes:

They say that the world collapsed, the earth was destroyed, that great showers of rain flooded the land. All animals died, and there were only two men left. They lived together. They married, as there was nobody else, and at least one of them became with child. They were great shamans, and when the one was going to bear a child they made his penis over again so that he became a woman, and she had a child. They say it is from that shaman that woman came.

Tattooed Kodiak Island man, possibly a kássaq or shaman, 1791.
Tattooed Kodiak Island man, possibly a kássaq or shaman, 1791

Among the Aleut, however, shamanic powers came to Aleut individuals through apprenticeship or more readily through dreams. And from the time an Aleut kássaq reached adolescence he was greeted by “apparitions in the shape of animals or marvelous beings until they were bewildered and willing to submit to their inevitable masters”. A similar pattern held for Siberian shamans, especially among the Chukchi where “soft man being” or “transformed” shamans were commanded by the ke’let (spirits), who sometimes were female, usually at the critical age of early youth when shamanistic inspiration first manifested itself. Although there were varying degrees of transformation, the eminent ethnographer Waldemar Bogoras stated that the role reversal among the Chukchi was completed once the boy left “off all pursuits and manners of his sex…He throws away the rifle and the lance, the lasso of the reindeer herdsman, the harpoon of the seal-hunter, and takes to the needle and the skin-scraper. He learns the use of these quickly, because the ‘spirits’ are helping him all the time”.

Aleut Adornment

Kagamil Island mummy with feather pierced through the ear.

Kagamil Island mummy with feather pierced through the ear.

Aleut adornment not only satisfied the need for display, celebration, and accomplishment, it also embodied religious beliefs about the relationships between humans, animals, and the deities who controlled human destiny and the surrounding world. For the inhabitants of this broken island chain, body art was created not only to lure, please, and honor the spirits of animals; it also increased the social status, spiritual power, and beauty of the adorned by inscribing male, female, and transgendered personhood.

But Aleut tattoos and piercings also cloaked or camouflaged the physical body from supernatural forces that inhabited the maritime environment. This view, widely held for many indigenous societies around the world, falls into the long-standing tradition of prophylactic “magic” aimed at warding off penetration or possession by evil forces that targeted vulnerable body passageways: namely the natural openings of the body (eyes, ears, mouth, etc.). Because the fear inspired by spirits in the landscape was great, Aleut peoples were compelled to develop a complex of personal adornment to neutralize the advances of supernatural entities. And in this way, they attempted to project themselves beyond their everyday limits of space and time, and on some collective level, they perhaps envisioned supernatural control and, ultimately, their own immortality in the human bodies they manipulated.


Hrdlička, Aleš. (1944). The Anthropology of Kodiak Island. Philadelphia: The Wistar Institute.
–(1945). The Aleutian and Commander Islands and Their Inhabitants. Philadelphia: The Wistar

Langsdorff, Georg H. von. (1813-1814). Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World During the Years 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806, and 1807. 2 vols. London: H. Colburn.

Sarychev, Gavriil A. (1806-1807). Account of a Voyage of Discovery to the North-east of Siberia, The Frozen Ocean, and the North-east Sea. 2 vols. London: J.G. Barnard.

Veniaminov, Ivan E.P. (1840). Zapiski ob ostrovakh Unalashkinskago otdiela [Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District]. 3 vols. St. Petersburg: Russian-American Company.



Article © 2008 Lars Krutak

Ainu family, ca. 1900.

Ainu family, ca. 1900.

The indigenous people of northern Japan call themselves “Ainu,” meaning “people” or “humans” in their language. Recent DNA evidence suggests that the Ainu are the direct descendents of the ancient Jomon people who inhabited Japan as early as 12,000 years ago. Astonishingly, the Jomon culture existed in Japan for some 10,000 years, and today many artistic traditions of the Ainu seem to have evolved from the ancestral Jomon. As such, this artistic continuum represents one of the oldest ongoing cultural traditions in the world spanning at least ten millennia.

Ainu women with tattooed mouths, ca. 1900.
Ainu women with tattooed mouths, ca. 1900.

Ainu women with tattooed mouths,
ca. 1900.

Jomon culture, like that of the Ainu, was based on a hunting-and-gathering economy. Exploiting natural resources from riverine, terrestrial, and marine ecosystems, the Jomon achieved stasis through active and continual engagement with their surrounding environments. Archaeological evidence in the form of ceramic sculpture supports this view, but it also suggests that particular animals (bears, whales, owls) were highly revered and possibly worshipped as deities. Among the Ainu, all natural phenomena (including flora, fauna, and even inanimate objects) are believed to have a spiritual essence, and particular animals (e.g., brown bears, killer whales, horned owls) continue to be honored in ceremony and ritual as “spirit deities” called kamuy.

Apart from zoomorphic sculpture, Jomon artisans also created anthropomorphic figurines (dogū) that were probably used by individual families for protection against illness, infertility, and the dangers associated with childbirth. Markings on the faces of many of these dogū likely indicate body painting, scarification, or tattooing, and similar figures carved more recently as rock art or into masks by indigenous people of the lower Amur River basin of the Russian Maritime Region suggest an ancient and unbroken tradition of personal adornment and ritual practice.

Ainu Tattooing

Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing lending support to the argument that the ancient Jomon employed the custom in the distant past. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother” of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi.

Chikabumi Ainu woman with child, about 1930

Chikabumi Ainu woman with child, about 1930

Because tattooing represented an ancestral custom derived from one common female ancestress, it was continued down through the centuries in the matrilineal line. Viewing tattoo practices through the lens of kinship, it is not surprising that the position of tattoo artist was customarily performed by grandmothers or maternal aunts who were called “Tattoo Aunts” or simply “Tattoo Women”.

At various times in history, Japanese authorities prohibited the use of tattoos by the Ainu (and other ethnic peoples under their authority like the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) in attempts to dislocate them from their traditional cultural practices and prepare them for the subsequent process of Japanization. As early as 1799, during the Edo Period, the Ezo Shogunate issued a ban on tattoos: “Regarding the rumored tattoos, those already done cannot be helped, but those still unborn are prohibited from being tattooed”. In 1871, the Hokkaido Development Mission proclaimed, “those born after this day are strictly prohibited from being tattooed” because the custom “was too cruel”. And according to one Western observer, the Japanese attitude towards tattooing was necessarily disapproving since in their own cultural system, “tattooing was associated with crime and punishment whereas the practice itself was regarded as a form of body mutilation, which, in case of voluntary inflictment, was completely averse to the prevalent notions of Confucian filial conduct”.

Edo Period drawings of Ainu tattooing, ca. 1800.
Edo Period drawings of Ainu tattooing, ca. 1800.
Edo Period drawings of Ainu tattooing, ca. 1800.

Edo Period drawings of Ainu tattooing, ca. 1800.

An Ainu tattoo knife or makiri.

An Ainu tattoo knife or makiri.

Of course, the Ainu vehemently evaded these laws because tattoos were traditionally a prerequisite to marriage and to the afterlife. One report from the 1880s describes that the Ainu were very much grieved and tormented by the prohibition of tattooing: “They say the gods will be angry, and that the women can’t marry unless they are tattooed. They are less apathetic on this than on any subject, and repeat frequently, ‘It’s part of our religion.’” One Ainu woman stated in the 1970s, “I was twenty-one years old before I had this little tattoo put on my lips. After it was done, my mother hid me from the Japanese police for five days. I wish we could have retained at least this one custom!”

The modern Ainu term for tattooing is nuye meaning “to carve” and hence “to tattoo” and “to write”, or more literally, sinuye “to carve oneself”. The old term for tattoo was anchi-piri (anchi, “obsidian”; piri, “cut”).

Ainu woman wearing attush garment with magical embroidery, ca. 1890. The embroidery, like tattooing, was believed to keep evil spirits from entering the body.

Ainu woman wearing attush garment with magical embroidery, ca. 1890. The embroidery, like tattooing, was believed to keep evil spirits from entering the body.

Traditional Ainu tattooing instruments called makiri were knife-like in form, and sometimes the sheaths and handles of these tools were intricately carved with zoomorphic and apotropaic motifs. Before the advent of steel tipped makiri, razor sharp obsidian points were used that were wound with fiber allowing only the tip of the point to protrude so as to control the depth of the incisions. As the cutting intensified, the blood was wiped away with a cloth saturated in a hot ash wood or spindlewood antiseptic called nire. Soot taken with the fingers from the bottom of a kettle was rubbed into the incisions, and the tattooist would then sing a yukar or portion of an epic poem that said: “Even without it, she’s so beautiful. The tattoo around her lips, how brilliant it is. It can only be wondered at.” Afterward, the tattooist recited a kind of spell or magic formula as more pigment was laid into the skin: “pas ci-yay, roski, roski, pas ren-ren”, meaning “soot enclosed remain, soot sink in, sink in”.

While this invocation may not seem important at first glance, it was symbolically significant nonetheless. Every Ainu home was constructed according to plan with reference to the central hearth and a sacred window facing a stream. Within the hearth was kindled fire, and within the fire was the home of an important deity who served as mediator between all Ainu gods – Fuchi. The fire goddess Fuchi was invoked prior to all ceremonials because communication with other kamuy (deities and spirits) was impossible without her divine intervention. Fuchi guarded over families and lent her spiritual support in times of trouble and illness or at times of birth and death. In this respect, the central hearth was a living microcosm of the Ainu mythological universe, because as a ritual space, it replicated and provided a means from which to actively intervene in the cosmos. However, it was also a space where Ainu and the gods grew wary of one another, especially if the fire was not burning at all times.

Ainu Tattoos, Girdles, and Symbolic Embroidery

Ainu forearm tattoos with three, five and seven-strand network patterns.

Ainu forearm tattoos with three, five and seven-strand network patterns.

Ainu forearm tattoos with three, five and seven-strand network patterns.

According to Romyn Hitchcock, an ethnologist working for the Smithsonian Institution in the late 19th century, Ainu tattoo was laid upon the skin at specific intervals, the process sometimes extending over several years: “The faces of the women are disfigured by tattooing around the mouth, the style of which varies with locality. Young maidens of six or seven have a little spot on the upper lip. As they grow older, this is gradually extended until a more or less broad band surrounds the mouth and extends into a tapering curve on both cheeks towards the ears.”

Of course, the tattooist encouraged her client to remain still throughout the painful ordeal, since it was believed that the ritual would prepare the girl for childbirth once she had become a bride. It the pain was too great, one or more assistants held the client down so that the tattooist could continue her work.

After the mouth tattooing, the lips would feel like burning embers. The client became feverish and the pain and swelling would keep her from getting much sleep. Food became an afterthought and when the tattoo client became thirsty a piece of cotton grass was dipped in water and placed against the lips for the client to suck on.

The completed lip tattoos of women were significant in regards to Ainu perceptions of life experience. First, these tattoos were believed to repel evil spirits from entering the body (mouth) and causing sickness or misfortune. Secondly, the lip tattoos indicated that a woman had reached maturity and was ready for marriage. And finally, lip tattoos assured the woman life after death in the place of her deceased ancestors.

Apart from lip tattoos, however, Ainu women wore several other tattoo marks on their arms and hands usually consisting of curvilinear and geometric designs. These motifs, which were begun as early as the fifth or sixth year, were intended to protect young girls from evil spirits. One motif, the braidform pattern, consisting of two rectilinear stripes braided side by side linked to a special motif, represents a kind of band also used for tying the dead for burial. Other marks were placed on various parts of the body as charms against diseases like painful rheumatism.

Weave structure of three, five, and seven-strand upsor girdles.

Weave structure of three, five, and
seven-strand upsor girdles.

As with burial cords, the braid-like weave structure of women’s plaited girdles called upsor-kut were embodied with a similarly powerful supernatural “magic” symbolizing not only a woman’s virtue, but her “soul strength”. First discussed by the Western physician Neil Gordon Munro, who with his Japanese wife operated a free clinic in Hokkaido in the 1930s, upsor-kut (“bosom girdles”) were objects worn underneath the woman’s outer garment (attush) and kept “secret” from Ainu men. They were made of woven flax or native hemp varying in length and width and in the number of strands. Composed of either three, five, or seven plaited cords (sometimes alternating with intersecting or overlapping lozenges or chevrons), they closely resemble the tattoo motifs that appear on the arms of Ainu women.

Interestingly, girdles were received upon completion of a girl’s lip tattooing just before or on the occasion of marriage. The design specifications of the girdle were passed down by the girl’s mother; she instructed her daughter how to make the girdle and warned that if it was ever exposed to any male, great misfortune would come to her and the family.

Dr. Munro recorded at least eight types of upsor with each form related to a different line of matrilineal pedigree and associated with several animal and spirit deities (kamuy), such as the killer whale, bear, and wolf crests. Thus aristocratic women, especially the daughters of chiefs (kotan), wore more powerfully charged girdles than common women, because their ancestry connected them more closely to the kamuy. Munro also observed that the daughters of Ainu chiefs were tattooed on the arms before any other women in the village, suggesting that these types of tattoos conferred prestige and social status to the wearer. In this sense, tattoos and girdles appear to be functionally related.

However, tattoos and girdles were connected on yet another, more metaphysical level. The Ainu believed that the fire goddess Fuchi provided Ainu women with the original plans for constructing the sacred upsor girdles. As noted earlier, Fuchi was also symbolized by the soot used in tattooing practice thereby linking the traditions of tattooing and girdling to Ainu mythological thought. And because each type of girdle was associated with a particular kamuy, it can be suggested that particular tattoos were perhaps associated with specific deities: “the wives of the deities were tattooed in a similar fashion as the Ainu women, so that when evil demons would see it, they would mistake the women for deities and therefore stay away”.

Ainu woman wearing attush garment with magical embroidery, ca. 1900.

Ainu woman wearing attush garment with magical embroidery, ca. 1900.

But the symbolic fortification of the body did not end with tattoos and girdles. It also extended to clothing. For example, Ainu embroidery seems to have had a related functional efficacy. Women embroidered simple double-stranded braid-like brackets around the neck, front openings, sleeves, and hem on the earliest

Ainu salmon skin and elm bark attush garments to keep evil spirits from entering the apertures of the body. The original designs, resembling braided rope, were nothing more than a solid color, usually dark blue similar to the color of tattoo pigment.

Among the indigenous peoples of the lower Amur River Basin (with whom the Ainu traded), similar design conventions embroidered and appliquéd onto traditional fish skin garments provided the wearer protection from evil spirits. Design motifs were placed on the borders around every opening in traditional robes (neck, arms, legs, front closure, and hem) and all borders had symbolic referents. For instance, the upper borders represented the Upper World and the patterns placed there offered protection in that direction; the hem represented the underworld or underwater world; and the middle parts stood for the world inhabited by humans. On one old indigenous Nanai fish skin robe I have seen in Vladivostok, avian designs represent the Upper World, fish patterns symbolize the lower realms and a Chinese inspired dragon completed the center.


Batchelor, John. (1901). The Ainu and Their Folk-Lore. London: The Religious Tract Society.
–(1907). Ainu Life and Lore: Echoes of a Departing Race. Tokyo: Kyobunkan.

Fitzhugh, William W. and Chisato O. Dubreuil (eds.). (1999). Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Hitchcock, Romyn. (1891). “The Ainos of Yezo, Japan.” Pp. 428-502 in Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1889-1890. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Munro, Neil Gordon. (1963). Ainu Creed and Cult. New York: Columbia University Press.