Native Americans are comprised of hundreds of independent tribes that each had their own customs and rituals. Some tribes had tattoo chiefs, while other had tattooed warriors, and still others only had tattooed women. The styles are as varied as the languages they spoke.
Just like Polynesian tattoos is a broad title to describe the varied tattoos of several different Island cultures, so too Native American tattoos describes a wide variety of tattooing traditions. To further complicate matters, several other designs qualify as American Indian tattoos, like dream catchers, portraits of Indians, traditional weapons, and feathers. These are all important aspects and representations of Native culture.
There are many people who claim to have Native American ancestry, but either do not know their specific tribe affiliation or have been misinformed. The amount of people who claim to be of Cherokee heritage is often disproportionate to the actual number. This is, for example, one of the better known tribes. If you are considering a Native tattoo to represent your culture, it is imperative that you explore your history and be certain that the tribe style you have chosen to tattoo is accurate.
Many Native American tribes were at conflict with each other and it would be incredibly difficult to interact with members of your culture still active in the Native community if you sport a tattoo of another tribe, particularly of a conflicting tribe. If you are unsure of your heritage, it might be best to choose a tattoo style that is more neutral, so instead of choosing a tattoo design that is directly related to the suspected ancestral tribe, choose a design that is honoring of Native American culture in general. Most Indian cultures respected natures and animals, so choosing a Native American-inspired tattoo of an animal you personally feel connected with is a good approach. Finding a Native American artist is also a fantastic way to ensure authenticity.
Today, Native American tattoos includes several tattoo designs that are not found in traditional Indian culture. Although tattoos would not have included words, the writing systems of several tribes are now used as a font for Native American tattoos. These tattoos are popular both with those attempting to reconnect with a lost heritage or show pride in their ancestry and those who are attempting to reinvigorate their Native culture.
Many Indian languages have been lost over time, as the tribes have died out, and those trying to preserve the language and written forms of their dying culture sometimes get tattoos in order to generate interest. With these tattoos, it is best to speak with someone who understands the specific language, or at least has a good understanding of how it structurally works, because most indian languages do not use alphabets in the English sense. These writing systems usually use symbols that represent word syllables, so knowledge about pronunciation of words and an extensive vocabulary is vital to ensuring that a tattoo design is accurate and appropriate.
Obviously, if you are certain of your tribal history, getting a tattoo specific to that culture makes sense, but be sure that you understand the circumstances surrounding the design. In today's culture, it is usually considered acceptable to tattoo signs and symbols traditionally reserved for warriors or the powerful. Native American culture has changed a lot since Western expansion began to smother the cultures, but if you are uncertain or uncomfortable with a specific design and wish to ensure it is appropriate, contact the closest reservation or organization representing your culture.
They might also be able to tell you who, specifically, got that tattoo in history. Some designs were reserved for females of the tribe and would not be the ideal design for men looking for a tattoo design. That is, unless they were looking for a tattoo design that represented and honored a female relative who was a member of that specific clan. In this instance, the person, whether man or woman, might prefer a design traditionally designated as feminine.