Traditionally, tattooing in the Pacific Northwest was performed in conjunction with the potlatch commemorating the completion of a cedar-plank dwelling and its frontal pole. Potlatches entailed 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.
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 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 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 in tattooing, and finished it… The nose, lower lip, and ears were also pierced by members of the opposite clan. They were paid a blanket apiece for it.”
Tattoos depicted the crests of the family and included, for example: land animals (Bear, Wolf, Beaver); 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 derived from events that the Haida recount in their oral traditions, events that account for their unique identity as a group.
Crests explain Haida 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.
They serve as title 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 and being of and in themselves.
Thus, the crest, and the right to use it in stories or in tattoo ritual, 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, the right to use the emblem, was more valuable than any object, or human body, that represented it.
Traditional Haida tattoos (ki-da) covered the arms, chests, thighs, upper arms, feet, and sometimes an individual’s back. A typical kit consisted of a stone dish to mix magnetite (black) and hematite (red) pigments, cedar brushes with crests carved into each handle, and 4 or 5 cedar batons with various configurations of needles depending on the desired effect: shading, outlining, fill, etc.
Dr. Kudé (second from left) and other shaman of Masset pose for a photograph. Kudé wears the Chilkat blanket of a chief, a title that he had claim to, rather than the dance apron of a shaman. The figure on the left wearing the mask with a crooked mouth represents the wife of one of the other masked figures who was supposed to be dead; Dr. Kudé has just restored him to life. The man on the right is Chief Xa’na of Grizzly Bear House with tattooed hereditary crests, Masset, B.C., 1881. Xa’na has a grizzly bear tattoo on his chest, a seated bear on his shoulder, and possibly a killer whale on his forearm. This is the only known photo of Haida shaman wearing masks.