Charcoal and fish teeth the Iroquois once used to make tattoos have given way to modern ink and needles, but many of today’s Native Americans have maintained historic cultural icons when it comes to body art.
Others have adopted more-modern symbols, and some blend both.
Curators traveled to a half-dozen Native American reservations in the months leading up to this year’s feature exhibit at the Iroquois Indian Museum and put together a unique display of both historic and modern ink and the themes behind the tattoos of the Iroquois.
“Indian Ink, Iroquois and the Art of Tattoos” brings a colorful array of paintings and artwork together with photographs of the tattoos today’s Indians wear.
Museum co-curators Colette Lemmon and Stephanie Shultes traveled to the Akwesasne Reservation in northern New York, the Onondaga Indian Nation Reservation south of Syracuse and others in an effort to capture a snapshot of the continually evolving form of personal art that dates back thousands of years.
“We really wanted to try to get out to as many communities as we could,” Lemmon said.
The early tradition of Native American tattooing began to fade in the 1800s as Christianity became more widespread, Lemmon said, but it’s been revived and is now growing as a way for people to express what’s important to them — much like tattoos for non-Natives.
Photographs of tattoos on display detail personally significant pieces of Iroquois history like the creation story and Great Turtle, the family, lineage, clans and treaties.
Lemmon said one fairly common thread she found when visiting the Iroquois was the reaction of some parents when it came to their daughters having tattoos.
“Some fathers were not exactly thrilled,” she said.
In most cases, those they visited welcomed the idea of highlighting Native tattoos.
“They wanted to tell you the story behind their tattoos,” Lemmon said.
Some tattoo art is dedicated to lost loved ones; only a few might hold a hint of cynicism or political ideas.
One tattoo on display shows the caricature of a “Cowboy” with several arrows in him, another depicts a “Red Devil” in the form of an Indian, another shows a “warrior flag” used during war time.
Others were far from political. One Iroquois woman shared her tattoos, one honoring her culture, the other honoring the firefighters that died on Sept. 11, 2001.
Shultes said the trip to find tattoos sometimes meant simply showing up and asking Indians on the reservations if they’d be interested in being part of the display.
Many were, and they would suggest another local with tattoos likely to participate as well.
“We really didn’t know what to expect,” Shultes said.
She said the new exhibit represents a departure from the museum’s more-typical, static displays of hand-crafted art on bone, wood and canvas. It’s one she expects will draw a new crowd to the Iroquois Indian Museum.
“People who have tattoos want to see what others have gotten.”