Tattoos and War Paint

Chickasaw Culture Keepers

For centuries, Chickasaws have been ornamenting their bodies with tattoos and war paint, the cultural significance of which was at risk of being lost. However, with the help of historical records and researchers like Ladonna Brown and Dustin Mater, modern Chickasaws can learn more about their ancestors' traditions.

"Because it happened so long ago, we can't really say for certain what tattooing and body art really meant, but these are some things that we do know that has been handed down through the generations," Ladonna says. It's understood by scholars that different designs and details perhaps signified the status, clan affiliation or even personal style of the individual receiving the tattoo or war paint. For example, "Warriors would be wearing the woodpecker as a symbol of protection or good luck, invoking that spirit of tenacity and willpower," says Dustin. From woodpecker eyes to the designs of movement, water, the sun circle, four directions and more, every color and smallest detail of these ornaments retains meaning and is placed with a specific intention.

Creating these tattoos in ancient times required finding nearby tools and materials, specifically garfish teeth and yellow ash cedar. "We were also known to use needles like turkey spur and even bone," Dustin explains.

Artists today look toward the past for knowledge and inspiration that will inform their new artwork. "These are like love notes in a bottle that our ancestors left us, these shell carvings, petroglyphs, these underworld caves that we're rediscovering," shares Dustin. "While [today's artists] are reinforcing our cultural identity, they’re also bringing our cultural identity and establishing it into the modern day. It's a legacy that our ancestors left us with and it's a legacy that our artists today are developing on their own accord," says Ladonna.

As Ladonna and Dustin look toward the future, they're filled with feelings of hope and excitement. Ladonna says, "The Chickasaw Nation cultural identity is flourishing and it's thriving and it's going to go into the future."