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Both Sacred and Secular: The Tattoos of Indigenous North Americans

For thousands of years, tattooing was an important form of cultural expression for Indigenous peoples across the Americas. Each society developed its own traditions: Tattoos often served to identify the wearer's family, clan, tribe or society. They could indicate social or marital status. Tattoos might mark important milestones: puberty, marriage, childbirth, a young hunter's first kill, a young woman's cooking skill. They might have been inspired by spiritual visions. Some tattoos were awarded for honor or prowess in war. Tattoos were used to treat disease and ward off misfortune and evil. Tattoos could link individuals with their ancestors or animal and spirit guides. They might also help individuals gain entrance to the afterlife.

Whether stitched, tapped or incised into the skin, tattoos served as an indelible record of the wearers' uniqueness, belonging and place in time.

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