Olive Oatman was kidnapped from her Mormon family in the Gila River (present-day Arizona) by the Yavapai Indians, while her family were traveling across the South West of America in 1851.
Most of her family were murdered but her and her sister, Mary-Ann were kidnapped by the Yavapai. After receiving harsh treatment by them for a year she was ransomed by a band of Mohaves. Olive went on to be accepted into the Mohave lifestyle and spent four years living with them. This was most famously acknowledged with her blue chin tattoo.
Mohaves considered tattoos to be a form of identification in the afterlife. The tattoo was secured by pricking the skin in small regular rows with a cactus pine until the skin bled freely. The cactus spikes were then dipped in weed juice and blue stone powder which was then applied to the pinpricks on the face. These chin tattoos indicated that the woman was ready to embark in adult tribal life.
Chin designs with the Mohaves were chosen by the tattooists and were based on the shape of the face. Narrow faced people usually wore designs of narrow lines or dots to accentuate the length of the face. Patterns for broad faces tended to have wider lines and cover more of the chin, making the face look even broader.
Olive was ransomed in 1856 by the United States Government at Ft. Yuma. On her discovery she was apparently found in nothing but a skirt made of bark which fueled suspicions of debauchery and sexual exploits. Considering her puritanical upbringing, Olive’s experience was deemed as outrageous. An ambitious Methodist minister named Royal Byron Stratton wrote a scandalous book about her story which was named Olive and Mary Ann. The book sold 30,000 copies, a huge best-seller for that era. Rumours of her mothering two children by the chief’s son circulated but she denied this thoroughly.
Her story gripped the country so much that in the 1880′s, the “tattooed captive” became a popular circus theme. Their stories turned provocatively, on the notion that people of colour could transform whites into people of colour ethnically and decoratively, as a means of exploitation and degradation.
Images and stories of Oatman’s tattoo fed the new America’s fear and ignorance’s towards the First World. In many ways Olive’s tattoo has captured a rather colonial view of the First World as terrifying primitives. Rather than a rather uplifting story of acceptance of this new culture and lifestyle bestowed upon her. Olive often proclaimed her love for the Mohaves in interviews and her brother indicated that she would weep night after night after leaving them. It has been said that she was the first white woman in America’s recorded history to have a tattoo.
Much material written about Olive appears to be confused and sensational but a comprehensive book, The Blue Tattoo has recently been written about Olive’s life. Check it out here.
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