Haida Tattoo Kit

Published: 04 May, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 125, September, 2005

The Haida are an indigenous people whose aboriginal homeland was the Queen Charlotte Islands in northern British Columbia. Today, they continue to occupy these lands as well as a portion of Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska. The Haida were among a small number of Northwestern Coast people that traditionally tattooed - others included the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Nootka. Only a handful of written tattoo accounts from the 19th century exist, and until recently our knowledge of Haida tattooing kits was extremely limited, if not entirely lacking. While under the employ of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I decided to investigate the possibility of finding such a tattoo kit. Luckily, with some persistence and investigative research, I uncovered at the Smithsonian what truly seems to represent one of the last authentic Haida tattoo kits remaining in the world. It was collected by ethnologist James G. Swan from Masset, Queen Charlotte Islands, July 1883. Swan authored two Haida tattoo articles for the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History) in the late 19th century, including the illustrated “Tattoo Marks of the Haida Indians of Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C., and the Prince of Wales Archipelago, Alaska.

The rediscovered Haida tattoo kit consists of a stone dish to mix magnetite (black) and hematite (red) pigments, cedar brushes with crests carved into each handle and four or five cedar batons with various configurations of needles, depending on the desired effect: shading, outlining, fill, etc. Before the advent of steel needles, sharp thorns, spines of certain fishes or slivers of bone were used. 


Haida tattooing seemed to be quite rare in 1885. Traditionally, it was performed in conjunction with the potlatch commemorating the completion of a cedar-plank dwelling and its frontal totem pole. Potlatches featured the distribution of personal property by the host (house-chief) to those who had performed important functions in the actual construction of the house. Each gift elevated the status of the house-chief and his family and especially benefited the house owner’s children. After the lengthy exchange of goods, each child of the house chief received a new potlatch name and a costly tattoo that accorded them high-ranking status amongst the tribe. 


One of the last Haida potlatches that featured tattooing occurred in the winter of 1900-01 in the village of Skidegate. It was witnessed and described by the anthropologist John R. Swanton as follows: “(On the second day) they called them to put the tattoo-marks on. At once they painted their faces. Those in the house shouted to the people to come in and look on. When the spectators were all in, they began dancing, and sang property-songs. Those who were to be tattooed began dancing. The wife (of the house-chief) stood at the end of the line, wearing a painted hat. When they had sung four songs, they put eagle-feathers on the dancers (for purification). The house was filled with eagle-feathers. Then they stopped. Those who put the feathers on them were given cotton cloth. When that was over, they had those who were to be tattooed sit down in front of the chiefs. Sometimes two took a fancy to be tattooed by the same (artist). Now they beat the ground with a baton, mentioned the chief’s name, and said, ‘So and so sits in front of you to be tattooed.’ Then they began to put on the tattoo-marks… All that day they spent tattooing… The nose, lower lip, and ears were also pierced by members of the opposite clan. They were paid a blanket apiece for doing this.”


Some of the tattoos depicted crests of the families and included land animals (Bear, Wolf), sea animals (Killer Whale, Halibut, Shark), birds (Eagle, Hawk, Thunderbird, Owl) as well as geographical features (Mountain, Iceberg), celestial bodies (Sun, Stars, Moon) and natural materials (Copper, Clay, Yellow Cedar). The possession of crests by a family, clan or house derive from events in which the Haida recount in their oral traditions, events that account for their unique identity as a group. The crests explain the Haida’s existence in this world: linking them to creatures or objects in the natural environment and to other clans. Crests also chronicle the origin of supernatural and significant events in the history of the clan, as in the case of a particular Haida woman seen in the 1860s with a “tattooed figure of a halibut, which was cut open, and the face of the chief of her tribe shown on the tail that would protect her and her kin from drowning at sea.”  Crests served as titles to the object on which they are placed and to the site and geographical region where these events occurred. Crests symbolize these special relationships and embody the spirit of themselves. Thus, the crest and the right to use it in stories or in tattoo rituals set the particular group and/or individual apart from other Haida groups while defining their position with respect to each. Therefore, the right to a crest and the right to use the emblem, was more valuable than any object or human body that represented it. 


Traditional Haida tattoos (ki-d) covered the arms, chests, thighs, upper arms, feet, and sometimes an individual’s back. Thomas Lockhart of West Coast Tattoo in Vancouver demonstrated that the Haida kit resembled that of the Japanese hand-poking tools, at least in appearance. “Upon first seeing photos of the Haida tattooing instruments, I was struck by the similarity to the Japanese tools, in particular, the paint brushes. The Japanese used a stick at least a foot long with needles poking straight out, firmly attached to the end with thread. It would be grasped at the end with the right hand, laid across the web of the thumb and, using this as a fulcrum, jabbed into the skin. The paintbrush would be held under the middle joint of the left hand, bristles hovering over the tattoo and offering a fresh supply of pigment for the tattooist to work from. However, the sticks the Haida used appear much shorter than the typical Japanese tools - perhaps half the length - and the needles were in a looser grouping, not flattened out. I surmise the Haida would have held them in their right hand, much as we would hold a spoon, simply pricking the skin repeatedly using a wrist action.”


Albert Parker Niblack, a naval officer sent by the U.S. National Museum to investigate the Indians of Southeast Alaska in the summers of 1885-87, noted that traditional Haida tattooing practices were different than the Japanese in some respects because “the design is carefully drawn in charcoal or lignite (ground in water) on the body and then pricked in with needles,” followed by more pigment. Lockhart believes that the Haida brushes were used for this purpose –adding pigment – although “this may not at first sound feasible, but it certainly would work. If, for instance, I tattooed a small yellow sun on the skin and then tried to tattoo in some blue background between the rays, simply smearing that blue as I wiped, the tattoo would force enough pigment into the fresh wound to give the yellow a greenish hue. The particle size of black tends to be relatively smaller, particularly if it is carbon-based (contemporary blacks are in the one to three micron range), and would be even easier to force under the epidermis.”


Although traditional Haida tattooing practices have vanished for now, the recent resurgence in Haida arts may well foster and provide new life for the ancient custom. With the assistance of renowned Haida carver Robert Davidson, it is our hope to complete the formal arrangements for a temporary loan of the kit from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to the Haida people themselves. Duplicates could be made and later utilized by interested artists. This effort would offer a permanent and lasting solution to the common legacy and historical roots of Haida communities separated by decades of artificial isolation from their indelible past. 


Text and Photographs: Lars Krutak


Skin Deep 125 1 September 2005 125