Alex Hamer
Ganondagan, a museum and former village site of the Seneca Nation, held its Tattoo Traditions of Turtle Island event on October 15th in Victor, NY to showcase Iroquoian and other nations traditional tattoos.- Elli Carr, Mohawk receiving his tattoo by a traditional artist.

Ganondagan Museum Explores Traditional Tattoos of Turtle Island

Alex Hamer
10/24/16

Ganondagan, a museum and former village site of the Seneca Nation, held its Tattoo Traditions of Turtle Island event on October 15th in Victor, NY to showcase Iroquoian and other nations traditional tattoos. The event contained presentations on historical tattoos and a live demonstration.

Michael Galban, Washoe/Paiute, curator at Ganondagan opened the event with a presentation on customs of the Northeast Woodland Natives, with an emphasis on Haudenosaunee tattoos, but also touched on Delaware and Cree tattoo traditions.

Ink, and a container of willow bark tincture for the subject to sip in order to help reduce inflammation during the tattooing. Photo: Alex Hamer

Galban noted a lack of oral history and recorded evidence showing that the Haudenosaunee women wore tattoos. He explained that because men’s tattoos often reflected skill on the battlefield, clan identities and other accomplishments and were worn in view, they made their way into history.

Tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak gave a presentation on traditional tattoos in the Arctic. Having traveled the world documenting Indigenous tattoo practices for nearly 20 years, hek explained that until the early 20th century the majority of Alaskan Native women wore tattoos.

Lars Krutak in front of a slide depicting tattoos of men from the Seneca. Photo: Alex Hamer

“It was also the women who were the tattoo artists,” said Krutak, who also explored the practice of skin sewing. “A needle with thread soaked in ink is pulled through the skin and the ink disperses as it heals. What starts out as dots not connected ends up a solid line.”

After his presentation, Galban’s traditional tattoo demonstration of the stick and poke method on recipient Elli Carr (Mohawk), drew a crowd. Using modern ink instead of ground charcoal, Galban applied ink with a sterilized needle that was fastened to a piece of birch tree. 

Gun powder and charcoal were once used to mark the body with tattoos. Clan symbols of the Haudenosaunee were often worn on the chest. Photo: Alex Hamer

Galban invoked old customs by using a lightning struck tree. Haudenosaunee tattoo artists did so traditionally to instill the power of the Thunder Beings.
Elli Carr, Mohawk receiving his tattoo. He said it was a more comfortable experience than getting tattooed with an electric tattoo machine. Photo: Alex Hamer

After the demonstration, Carr said it was a much better tattoo experience versus getting inked with a tattoo machine. showing his tattoo to the crowd, Carr says he also noticed that there was less blood and swelling.

An avid fisherman, Elli had a traditional fish adorned upon his body. Photo: Alex Hamer

Ganondagan hosts many events throughout the year; more information can be found here.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page