Body Art Religion in Historical Perspective

Editor's Note: I'm delighted to post a contribution from my former student Sue Ann Marasco, who has recently completed her PhD at Vanderbilt and been a Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University. Sue was one a group, including some of our own contributing editors here, who participated in a Roundtable On Religions Along the Mississippi River: Region and Space in American Religious History, which we blogged about below; Sue's paper there was entitled "Mapping the Gods and Monsters of the River: Sovereignty, Cosmology, and Contact along the Mississippi, 1680-1743." Sue also contributed the article "Cosmology" to the textbook that Phil Goff and I put together, Themes in Religion and American Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Here, Sue describes and analyzes some eighteenth-century body art that she encountered in doing her research.
I expect ya'll to demand further contributions from Sue in the future.

Tattoo You
Sue Marasco

I had the opportunity to research a project that brought the religious aspects of tattooing to my attention. In this case, it was French descriptions of tattooing practices of Native Americans along the lower Mississippi River c1700. In particular, I was intrigued by the description of the Akansa (also know as Arkansas or Quapaw) people tattooing a French soldier Jean-Bernard Bossu in the 1750s.

He wrote:

The Akanza have adopted me; they have acknowledged me as a warrior and a chief, and have given me the mark of it, which is the figure of a roebuck imprinted on my thigh. I have willingly undergone this painful operation, which was performed in the following manner: I was seated on a tyger’s skin; an Indian burnt some straw, the ashes of which he diluted with water; he made use of this simple mixture to draw the roe-buck; he then followed the drawing with great needles, pricking them deep into the flesh, till the blood comes out; this blood mixing with the ashes of the straw, forms a figure which can never be effaced. I smoked the calumet after that…they danced before me crying out for joy; they told me afterwards, that I could go to all the people who were their allies, present the calumet and show my mark, and I would be well received; that I was their brother and that if any one killed me, they would kill him; now I am a noble Akanza. (M. Bossu, Travels through the part of North America… 1 vol of 2 vols, [London: T. Davies 1771], 107-108.)

I read this process as very carnal and visceral. It is a painful ceremony that results in Bossu’s irrevocable and very public connection to the Acansa. It was a ceremony literally, “of the flesh.” Yet, there is a less tangible aspect of this ceremony that suggests a religious dimension to this tattooing. The smoking of the calumet can be read as a signaling of the Frenchmen’s adoption to the Acansa’s deities. There is arguably an aspect of the associated pain and mingling of ash that suggests a mortification of the flesh that is seeking for a transcendent state of being or consciousness.

There is also the permanent marker of belonging to a specific group. In his recent article, “Tattooing and Its Role in French-Native American Relations,” Arnaud Balvay describes a tattoo given to French officer Dumont de Montigny’s tattoo as a cross of St. Louis. An essentially French symbol delivered by Native American technique that tied de Montigny to the French monarchy rather than any North American tribe. Like Bossu, de Montigny’s tattoo is a marker of group identity, but I wondered if the experience of the tattoo created a bond with the group that marked him. Is it the experience or the symbol that makes the tattoo significant? (French Colonial History, Vol. 9, (2008)).

These descriptions of tattooing along the early Mississippi necessarily evoke a larger question about tattoos and religion. In her article on contemporary tattooing practices among Native Americans, Maureen Trudelle Schwarz interviewed Native Americans and non-natives about their tattoos and found that both groups, “ Find their tattoos a suitable medium for marking and expressing spirituality. It is worth noting, however, that the spirituality of non-Natives tends to be more individualistic and self-defined than that of Native American consultants, which tended to be firmly grounded in the established religious cosmology of the Native Nation from which they descend.” (Visual Anthropology, 19, 2006)

I am not arguing that all tattoos have a religious connotation, but when they are religious in nature, are tattoos earthly practices, marking the body to an earthly community? Or, are tattoos a signposting to some larger cosmology? Is a cross tattoo a commitment to the community of a church on earth or an individual relationship with God in heaven? Do they link the corporeal with the supernatural or the eternal? Are they infusing the body with some other power through the experience of pain, and the mixing of ink with skin? I continue to seek a means of interrogating tattooing in my present work because tattoos were an important marker of identity along the Mississippi River. However, their persistence throughout history and their prominence in popular American culture makes me pause and wonder if I am not missing a larger narrative about their significance to the person and the world(s) around them.