student resources
The Ioway Library
Ioway tribe today
links and list
search and site index
about this site

Ioway Cultural Institute : Culture :
Ancestral Ways of Life


Most of what I know about Ioway tattooing comes from Skinner's work (including old Ioway stories), some of his field notes (some had drawings), some stories I have heard in passing by both northern and southern Ioways, and some old historical journals. Following is a summary:

Tattooing was under the sponsorship of the Wind Deity, "Taje" or "Tache" (TAH-chay) (like the Lakota's "Tate", Dona). Tattooing or certain marks were not associated with certain clans, but with social status (either chief's families or war exploits). It was an important visible signal of social status. During the historic period only the highest status families had their daughters tattooed. One person said it was "like wearing a diamond." Besides young daughters of chiefly families, warriors of distinction were also tattooed. All tattoos were blue-black in color as it was charcoal made from willow that was the coloring agent. In later days they also used commercial blue pigment.

Girl's tattooing

Chief's daughters had a large dot between their eyebrows (about the location woman from India have theirs), and sometimes two. One dot meant that in the associated ceremony the girl's family gave away 10 horses, two dots meant 20 horses were given. In the older days before 1850, sometimes women had a trapeze/ladder type of tattoo from their throat, between their breasts, to the pit of the stomach. Some also had tattoos on the abdomen, breasts, neck, and legs from the thighs down. The marks were vertical lines or bands.

The girls sometimes had this done when very young, under 10, but before reaching puberty. It marked the social status of their family. There was a large ceremony, a Pipe Dance and visitation between tribes like the Omaha associated with this, in which the horses were given (as many as fifty total), a feast and dance, and the actual tattooing done by the old man who had the right. Among the Otoes (and presumably among the Ioway of an earlier day), the girl had a special lodge made of tree branches with leaves, of an inverted U-shape, open to the north, used as the approaching-puberty lodge where the tattooing was done.

In the girl's father's lodge, a bundle of sticks hung from the rafters, each stick signifying a horse given away. Tattooing was very expensive and could even help the father achieve higher social status.

There are two words that were used to describe this mark of honor, "krakeh" (KRAH-keh) or "pekitache" (PAY-kee-TAH-cheh).

Women were sometimes tattooed with diamond and star figures on the backs of the hands (this would be similar to the Omaha Chief's Society), but more often with dots, circles, or stars on the forehead between the eyes. Women also might have a star or diamond on the breast and a diamond-shape or four pointed star (morning star) on the back of the hand, with marks around the fingers that represented rings.

Warrior's tattooing

Men who had achieved the warrior rank of "Brave" or "Soldier" were tattooed in a different way. The most common tattoo for men was one or two bands around the wrists.

Warriors were only tattooed on the front of their bodies, never on the back. The reason is, the tattoo showed their warrior status to the potential enemy; the man was always supposed to face the enemy, and tattoos in the back implied you were "running from the enemy" (a coward), so that was never done. The tattoos of a warrior were worn in combination on the throat, sternum, chest, shoulders, and arms, and sometimes even the face. The designs were not clan-associated, but did signify various things and provided a spiritual protective purpose as well, especially for health and "sore eyes".

Designs for men included a single eagle feather on each cheek if a prominent warrior; stripes or spots on the arms signified exploits or scalps taken; a stripe, star or cross on the forehead or cheek; a heart-shape or diamond-shape on the chest. Heart and cross marks signified "a good person" while the diamond indicated a signal that one belonged to the tattooed warrior society. A young boy who achieved a war honor was also tattooed.

Tattooing bundle

When doing my thesis on Ioway bundles, I was privileged to see a tattooing bundle at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

The cover was of a finely woven mat envelope, with diamond designs. Inside were the objects used for tattooing within a fawnskin case. First, special roots were chewed and rubbed on the place to be tatooed, especially for little children, to anesthetize the skin. "Laying out sticks" were dipped in the pigment (willow charcoal or blue earth) and applied to the skin to mark where the tattoo would be and in what shape; if it was a round dot the cane would be used. Then the hollow cane segment was set over the spot. A bundle of commercial trade needles, tied tightly together with sinew and set in the end of a stick or a crane's primary wingfeather shaft was used to tap-tap-tap inside the hollow cane guide, pricking the pigments underneath the skin. Occasionally the welling blood would be wiped away with a bit of feather or buffalo wool (buffalo shed hair in the spring in great matted clumps), and then the tattooing continued. On the ends of the crane feather/stick tattoing needle were attached several small hawk bells which jingled as the tattooing went on.

There were songs and prayers during the application of the tattoo, wishes for the person to have all the good things in life (to be a good person, good health, a good husband or wife, good children, live to be old). Only certain chiefs could own such a bundle and had the right to tattoo.

In general a tattoo was called "wigrexe" (wee-GRAY-khay), "to make a mark."

Lance Foster

Return to top
Return to Ancestral Ways of Life page
Return to Culture main page

Copyright information | This site is hosted by NativeWeb.