New England Native Americans cement tattoo at HarborArts

Mohegan symbol
One of the variations of a Mohegan identity symbol for the Mohegan people. The 4 domes represent the 4 directions, and the shape of traditional wigwam. The circle of 13 dots represents the 13 moons of the year. The sacred center circle represents the spiritual life force of the universe.

I decided to anchor this series project, right where the pier meets the land, with a gesture to the people who owned that land before us.

Some of the more prominent tribes of First Nations people in this area include the Abenaki, the Penobscot, the Pequot, the Mohegans, the Pocumtuck, and the Wampanoag. A group named the Massachusett lived right around Boston Harbor, but their people and culture didn’t survive the founding and growth of the city. Nearby, the Wampanoag occupied southeastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and have a presence in those areas today. The Mohegan and Pequot lands include Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Native Americans also featured prominently in the Yankee (Nantucket-based) whaling fleet, often making up half and sometimes all of the crew of whaling ships in the first half of the 1700s.

Motifs and Symbols:

The Wampanoag and other Northeast tribes had a mostly utilitarian material culture and used geometric elements easily derived from woven and beaded materials. I did a considerable amount of research to determine what iconographic elements might be appropriate to commemorate the original owners of this land. Many thanks to the research librarians at the Pequot Museum in Connecticut for their active help and for allowing me access to their collection.

  • Sacred Tree: Life force.
  • Four Directions: an encompassing sense of place
  • Thirteen Moons: the cycle of the year
  • Flowers & plants, Leaves & Curls: literal plants, a symbol of the land, or the healing properties or qualities of the specific plant.
  • Medallions: tribal identity. The center of a medallion was a place of the spirit, represented by empty space or a dot.
  • Domes: Curved line representing a wigwam. Often in groups for a village. Could also be the back of a turtle, or the dome of the sky.
  • Turtle: Grandfather Turtle upon whose back the earth was formed, a story of creation.
  • Dots: People, plants, animals, or spiritual forces.
  • Life Trails: The path one travels through life, containing other people and plants. Possibly used as symbolic record keeping in the 1800s.


Tattoo Practice:

Wampanoag style design at the start of the pier
The figure at the top is taken from a Wampanoag drum. It may represent house or tribe identity, and the 4 directions. The dots-in-a-line was used by Mohegans & Pequots to represent people’s path through life. I have turned this into a tree with roots in the land, to show their connection to this place.

Bressani wrote:
“In order to paint permanent marks on themselves they undergo intense pain. To do this they use needles, sharpened awls, or thorns. With these instruments they pierce the skin and trace images of animals or monsters, for example an eagle, a serpent, a dragon, or any other figure they like, which they engrave on their faces, their necks, their chests, or other parts of their bodies. Then, while the punctures which form the designs are fresh and bleeding, they rub in charcoal or some other black color which mixes with the blood and penetrates the wound. The image is then indelibly imprinted on the skin. The custom is so widespread that I believe that in many of these native tribes it would be impossible to find a single individual who is not marked in this way.”
— Quoted in full from: Vanishing tattoo: First Nations tattoos

“Early Jesuit accounts testify to the widespread practice of tattooing among native americans. Among the Chickasaw, outstanding warriors were recognized by their tattoos. Among the Ontario Iroquoians, elaborate tattoos reflected high status. In north-west America, Inuit women’s chins were tattooed to indicate marital status and group identity.”
— Quoted in full from Design Boom: Tattoo History


turtle design
The Wampanoag, like many other First Nations people, often refer to the earth as Turtle Island. The old medicine man of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe was named Slow Turtle.


Native Intelligence“: An excellent new article by Charles Mann in the Smithsonian on the true stories of early native/colonist interactions.

1491 by Charles Mann, on the sophistication of Native American societies prior to contact with Europeans.

Wampanoag culture:

Wampanoag Homesite at the Plimouth Plantation

Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center

Motifs from Mohican/Pequot basketry:

Mashpee Wampanoag Museum

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe 

“A Key to the Language of Woodsplint Baskets”, Edited by Ann McMullen and Russell G. Handsman. Published by the American Indian Archaeological Institute, Washington, Connecticut, 1987.


Installation Crew:

Design & Sketch: Liz LaManche
Inking: Liz LaManche, Brian Browne
Surface Protectant: Liz LaManche, Brian Browne