I was very excited to receive my copy of Drawing with Great Needles, a new compilation of essays published by the University of Texas Press on Native American tattooing in North America. The book claims to be “the first book length scholarly examination into the antiquity, meaning, and significance of Native American tattooing in the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains.” Despite my initial eagerness to delve into the volume, I felt that as a whole, Drawing with Great Needles suffered from methodological and thematic issues. Although I am neither a tattoo expert nor an anthropologist and cannot speak to the accuracy of the historical sources presented in its many essays, I did take issues with some of the broader claims of the volume and the evidence used to make them.
Some of the issues in the book become apparent in its introduction. In the summary of Chapter 1, editors Aaron Deter-Wolf and Carol Diaz-Granados explain how Antoinette Wallace’s essay “compiles ethnohistorical documentation and art historical evidence of Native American tattooing…These accounts from European and Euro-American explorers, settlers, and artists provide an essential window into the extent and variety of indigenous tattoo traditions that existed prior to European contact.” The notion of reconstructing a practice as it existed pre-contact by using post-contact, often biased colonial documents seems to me a problematic exercise, and, frankly doesn’t accurately reflect what Wallace does in her essay. In fact, Wallace thoroughly acknowledges the problems inherent in using colonial sources in her synthetic study of colonial texts and images. Some of the other essays in the volume do, however, un-critically use these kinds of sources in analyses of tattoo motifs and iconography without accounting to the historical specificity of tattooing and the documents that record it.
Another pattern that bothered me was the nonchalance of cross-cultural comparisons. Benjamin A. Steere’s essay, for example, tried to make a case for the plausibility of Swift Creek paddle designs being used as tattoo designs. To set a precedent for this “admittedly speculative” (by his own admission) claim, he discussed the tattooing and craft practices of tribal people in Africa and Borneo. I felt, however that this type of comparison neglected the cultural and historical specificity of tattooing in each place, reducing what could have been an in-depth analysis of Native American practice into a essentializing and reductive argument about “primitive” people across the world. For example, his discussion of anthropomorphic pottery in Africa provided some culturally-specific evidence behind the intersection in pottery and tattoo designs that did not exist in his discussion of Native America. His suggestions for further research, however, were very intriguing, and I hope they are followed through. As someone who studies art history, I was personally confused by F. Kent Reilly’s invocation of both Panofsky and “Myer [sic] Schapiro,” neither of which were examined in their full complexity and specificity (and even necessarily correctly, though perhaps that’s misreading on my part).
I do not want to discount some of the important work presented in this volume. Surely, the synthesis of colonial documents and prior scholarly work in the field is a worthwhile endeavor. Deter-Wolf’s essay, which used comparative archeological evidence to present a means of identifying tattoo instruments was very helpful. Furthermore, many of the essays presented here, especially Lars Krutak’s chapters suggest further thematic points of study. Not only does he contextualize tattooing motifs within Native American culture, but his thoughts regarding facial tattooing and the mouth as a “liminal zone” interested me by discussing the tattoos within context, on the body. Many essays in this volume established the aesthetic precedents for tattooing in other types of artistic practice, so I appreciated Krutak’s thoughts on why tattoos were placed where they were. I also found his photographs of ornamented deer skins intriguing, and wonder about the connection between the many sets of tattooed skin.
Essentially, I feel like this field of study requires a shift in focus, from trying to reconstruct traditional or “ancient” meanings and practices to thinking about the complexity of these practices after contact. If tattoos did have ritual functions, how did these functions change after the introduction of metal tattooing needles rather than the faunal instruments used previously? What can colonial interactions and the critical examination of colonial texts on tattooing tell us about the people who were observing as well as the people being observed (and what about the interaction between the two)? Furthermore, I think that scholars will need to grapple more strenuously with the issues and complexities created by the historical specificity of their sources, including images, which were often stylized or staged. Hopefully that will allow a more fruitful investigation into this interesting body of work in the future.
If anyone else has read the book (especially tattoo experts/anthropologists/historians), I’d love to hear your thoughts.
In 1991, two German hikers stumbled upon a 5300 year old mummy nestled in the Ötzal Alps. The mummy, later extracted from the ice and dubbed the “Tyrolian Iceman,” sported over 50 simple charcoal tattoos, from lines on his wrists to hatching on his back and a cross on his knee. The purpose of these tattoos, however, remained mysterious until eight years later when Austrian researchers published a (somewhat disputed) paper noting the striking correspondence between the mummy’s tattoos and “trigger sites” in Eastern acupuncture. Radiological studies confirmed that the mummy had suffered from myriad deformities and illnesses during his life, including missing ribs, whipworm and arthrosis in his joints; many of his tattoos appeared in spots that were most afflicted by these illnesses, suggesting a therapeutic rather than aesthetic function.
Medicinal tattooing, however, extends far beyond the bounds of the Iceman’s life both geographically and temporally. The oldest tattoo, found on an Egyptian mummy, dates over 6000 years. And today, as researcher and tattoo enthusiast Lars Krutak notes, Kayan people in Borneo continue to tattoo sprained wrists, ankles, and knees to decrease swelling, and Kalinga people in the Philippines tattoo markings on their neck to cure goiter.
To read more on the discovery of the Iceman: NBC News
For more on medicinal tattooing in general: Smithsonian Blog
The 1999 scientific paper on the Iceman’s tattoos. (I should note that while this paper is an interesting read, I don’t possess the expertise to determine how solid its claims are.)
While traveling through Guatemala last month, I happened upon a Mayan woman who smiled to reveal two shining gold stars hovering in the enamel of her front teeth. As I continued to travel, I realized that cosmetic dentistry is quite common in Guatemala (perhaps because of a recent influx of processed and sugary foods). Even towns that are hours from the nearest hospital will have a handful of dentists, and everywhere I turned, I saw ads for braces or tooth whitening, but, most commonly, golden adornment. Men and women often combine starred inserts, caps that wrap around the tooth’s perimeter, and solid gold teeth to compose a gleaming mouth. As it turns out, tooth adornment and modification in Mesoamerica dates back over a thousand years, from 9th century Mayan skulls with tooth inlays of jade, pyrite and turquoise to teeth filed into points or incised with hatched patterns. I’ve never been too adventurous with my own teeth, but recently, I can’t get those stars off my mind…
(1st & 3rd images via Google, 2nd image my own, final image via Ancient Mesoamerica, vol.6)
A 1908 colonial photograph of the adorned hand of a Tinguian woman from the Dean Worcester collection. Worcester’s photographs, created during the heyday of physiognomy and anthropometry in Europe and the US, documented physical characteristics and measurements of tribal peoples with the goal of scientifically categorizing the world’s different races. The scarred “tattoo” in this photograph, however, is particularly intricate and beautiful.
I don’t feel at home in this world anymore: Film, stories and images from the Mississippi Records and Alan Lomax Archive
A film, music and aural presentation by Eric Isaacson of Mississippi Records, Portland, USA at Cafe OTO this Monday which will feature archival film, images & stories spanning 1890 to the present day, illustrating a history of underground music movements and bonafide individuals. The live footage performances are culled from rarely seen film shot during Alan Lomax’s North American travels between 1978 to 1985 and Mississippi Record’s own enormous library of folk blues, gospel, esoteric, international & punk music.
Mississippi Records, in a short time, has bypassed most antiquated record label conventions and has, through a few guiding principles and great taste, gained cult status, lots of sales and love and praise from all quarters.
The core footage from the moving image show will feature video footage from the 400 hours shot by Alan Lomax between 1978 & 1985 (an era that seems to have been overlooked by archivists). Highlights include the first R.L. Burnside moving image, Skip James’ buddy Jack Owens, Otha Turner leading the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band at one of his picnics, Boyd & Ruth May Rivers, the Hicks and Proffitt families of Beech Mountain, North Carolina (from whom the song “Tom Dooley” originally came), Quad-Split camera footage of the 1982 Holly Springs Sacred Harp Convention, a funeral parade with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Pretty White Eagle Mardi Gras Indians, Ernie K-Doe at Winnie’s in New Orleans, One String guitar playing, breakdancing & much more. This footage is remarkable because it shows folk cultures in full blossom during a time when pretty much no one gave a damn about them & barely anyone was bothering to record them. As is always the case with vibrant cultures, the blues, country, folk & jazz that Lomax was filming was rapidly mutating to fit the times, so the footage has a feel very contemporary to the late 1970′s & early 1980′s, yet it is very foreign to our popular mass culture image of what was happening during that period.
Beyond the Lomax footage there will be rare film of musicians associated with the Mississippi Records label such as one man band Abner Jay, angel channeling Bishop Perry Tillis, Rev. Louis Overstreet & his four sons, legendary folk singer Michael Hurley & many more. Each film segment will be introduced with brief stories about the musicians. There will also be a short slide show that tells the story of the underground music industry & Mississippi Records.
Monday 1 July 2013
Door Times : 8pm
Despite their name (from the Latin word pictus: painted, decorated), nobody knows for sure whether the Picts truly had tattoos. By the 16th Century, as colonization of “The New World” was underway, artists and writers began cataloguing descriptions and images of “primitive” tribal people, both across the Atlantic and at home (but, it’s worth noting, from many centuries prior). In 1585, Roanoke settler Thomas Harriot released A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia with illustrations by John White depicting Native Americans hunting, fishing, etc. A supposedly sympathetic work, the volume included engravings of the Celtic Picts, nearly nude and bodies covered with designs, to show “that the inhabitants of the Great Bretannie have been in times past as savage as those of Virginia.”