It’s a pretty dry sounding name for a tattoo but the naming of indigenous peoples is part and parcel of what tattoos of them embody, so let’s not skip it.
Think of it as a case of mistaken identity. When Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492, he had really been trying to reach the East Indies, an area of the globe that today we’d call Southeastern Asia. By his reckoning, it was going to be a much shorter trade route to the spice riches there than going overland through Arabia. He couldn’t have more wrong. Even so, when he landed, he called the indigenous people Indians after his geographical mistake of thinking he’d landed in the Indies.*
The term Native Americans isn’t that much better, though it manages to avoid the geography error. Why is the name important? It’s the experience of indigenous people the world over writ small. Among other things, it’s a name that doesn’t come from their native languages, lumps many disparate peoples together, and is imposed from outside their cultures. The holiday celebrated in the United States as Columbus Day is a day often questioned, rued, and protested by indigenous people here.
Tattoos of the indigenous peoples of the New World tend to focus on bust portraiture of various Great Plains groups, notable for their feather headdresses. Whether these tattoos draw on well known western art images (such as James Fraser’s famous bronze statue “End of the Trail”, with the emaciated horse mounted by an exhausted Indian brave, both with heads drooping low) or are generic representations of “American Indians”, they are often romanticized attempts to depict the heroic and tragic struggle of these indigenous peoples to maintain their cultures and simply survive.
Although many tattoo devotees likely intend their Indian tattoos as poignant and even patriotic symbols, there is an irony there that can’t be overlooked. Like many other aspects of their cultures, images of indigenous peoples have been co-opted into an Americana in which they were not necessarily willing participants.
* In his life, Columbus would never acknowledge that he had not landed in the Indies. It’s an oft assumed fact that Columbus discovered North America but, in his four voyages to the New World, he never set foot on the continent.