Haida Tattooing


Haida peoples have been tattooing and wearing tattoos for a very long time. 

Before contact Haida’s not only tattooed but also had labret piercings, nose piercings and earrings or pendants. 

Body modification was used in ceremonies, to mark stages in ones’ life and to represent clans and lineage. 

In my opinion these modifications made Haida peoples even more visually striking then they already were. 


Tattoos told a story about the person who had them.

Tattooing was a way for us to express our identity through the crests we wore on our skin.

The designs that were used as tattoos were often acquired through an individual’s clan and lineage.

The Eagle and Raven clan’s and subsequent clans under the two main moieties each hold the rights to certain crests.


In the past tattoos were ceremonial and were given at potlatches.


The Haida had skilled and trained tattoo artists.

Haida tattoo drawings and photos show the popularity of form-line tattoo designs.

I love how much strength form line tattoos have and how well they aged.

They are very simple, elegant and strong. 


The materials used for tattooing early on included fish spines, sharp thorns or bones and later Copper. Tattooing machines were made of metal with three needle-points and the machines handles were made of ivory or bone. There are differing opinions on the types of pigments that were used, some of the materials mentioned include: charcoal of alder or buck brush, magnetite, gunpowder, India ink, or powdered charcoal, Chinese vermilion or hematite.


Lump of magnetite used for pigment.

The process of tattooing began with the design being drawn onto the person.

The design would then be pricked with needles and more pigment would be added.


After contact long sleeves often hid these tattoos.

What once was a symbol of pride for Haida peoples became linked to the pain of having our culture stripped from us.

A major part of that culture was the art of tattooing. 

It is believed that because of this what would have once been tattooed was turned into bracelet designs.


Pictured: Charles Edenshaw Bracelet

Bracelets were removable art and thus were more acceptable.

In the years since contact we have gone through many changes culturally, politically and spiritually. 

As a result of these changes we have gained strength in who we are and especially in our culture.

This strength has translated into a resurgence of art, singing, dancing and tattooing.

When I got my biggest tattoo I knew what it meant to me, a story that I am not quite ready to share with the world.



Pictured: One of my tattoos. Patrick Shannon Photo.

It is very easily hidden but it is also just as easily made visible.

Wearing our crests in this way makes us as readable as a totem pole. 

Those who see our tattoos are able to guess our stories. 

I have my next four tattoos planned.

I know the stories I have to share.

My body will someday be readable art.

This is a powerful concept.

Blog written by: Michaela McGuire, Project Officer at GNC & HHC, Photographer and new-ish Skidegate resident.

Sidenote: These are just my researched thoughts and opinions.



Add yours →

  1. In the past our ancestors had to plan a potlatch as part of the tattooing. The tattoos were privileged to the children of the Chief as he and his family (in the old days) were the only ones who had the resources (food, furs, other objects to be paid to the witnesses, the tattoo-er and the chief who had the person in his clan who could do the tattoos.


  2. “Wearing our crests in this way makes us as readable as a totem pole.” Beautiful! I’ve mentioned this post in one of my own, ‘Inspired by Haida Culture’. Thank you!

    post link: http://wp.me/p3nWoW-k2


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