Tattooing of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw

Tattooing was a traditional art in many Native American communities, and in recent years many tribes have been reviving these customs.

I’ll focus primarily on Coos Bay, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw (CLUS) tattoos in this post, along with what information I could find on tattooing among our nearest neighbors; how they were similar or contrasted with our own tamahlis/nishchama’muu (‘customs’ in the Coos and Siuslawan languages, respectively)

Tattoos are called xam in both Coos languages (and is also supposed to refer to moles, the brown ‘freckles’ on skin, and were said to be tattoos made by birds when people slept outdoors), and pishchii’i in Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua. Among the CLUS, Alsea and Tillamook people tattoos were created mainly using some sort of needle and a thread coated in charcoal. The charcoal was often made from willow. According to Annie’s niece Lottie Evanoff, willow made the only tattoo ‘ink’ that would not fade. Needles were anything sharp – Annie described it as a ‘thorn’, but sharpened bone needles were used by some people (like the Kalapuyans). When black glass bottles were introduced, tattooing tools were made from these too.

So far as I have been able to find, all people in western Oregon had a line tattooed on their upper arm to measure strings of dentalium (as mentioned in my previous post). In Melville Jacobs’ interview with Annie Peterson in 1933, he noted that she had that mark on her left arm and drew a rough picture of it:

Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.01.44

Annie said it had been made so early in her life she did not even recall getting that tattoo. On her right arm she had two rows of dots:

Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.11.30

Jim Buchanan said there used to be several measuring lines to denote different values. In a 1909 interview he said a string going to the elbow was worth $20, higher on the arm $200 and to the shoulder, $1200.

Apparently these lines of dots were common on the arms of CLUS women at least. Both men and women had these arm tattoos. But for men of the CLUS tribes, that was usually the only tattoos they had.

At their puberty ceremony (which was similar among the CLUS and Alsea), young women received rows of dots near their wrists. According to Coos and Alsea informants, this was done to symbolize that a young woman was ready to cook on her own and have hands strong enough for all her tasks. Annie Peterson said of this part of the ceremony:

The 10th day the men folks and the same mot’edon [shaman] comes, but no women folks except the immediate women relatives who do the cooking for this feast. The mot’edon this time brings out the girl from her compartment, takes her out to the fire, he calls for the tattoo woman [this is woman’s work when a girl is tattooed], who is paid by the girl’s folks for this; the mot’edon gives the girl newly made split wood fire tongs betl’ [Hanis & Milluk] which he has made for this occasion; She stirs around in the charcoal now with the tongs, and henceforth can do her own cooking: that is what this symbolizes. But before she can stir the fire, she is tattoed by this woman [Hanis] naxmáha huuu’mis, the tattooing woman, Milluk naxáama’a huumis.

Xamt ii’la, she is marked first.

She mashes up charcoal, tso’ye, puts it in a little dish a ki’nak’ Empire clam shell, mixes it with elk tallow, hechilyeu dzu’wetl [Hanis], kitsdi dzuutl [Milluk].

Then she takes a threaded needle (sinew thong in a long thin type of thorn that has its end bored for a needle)-the thread is all black from the charcoal paint, and puts it through in stitches about ¼ inch.

Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.07.34

Leona Ludson, Alsea, said their ceremony was similar – at the end of the first five days, an old woman put tattoo lines (as rows of dots) on the backs of the young woman’s hands “to see if they going to be tough.”

Melville Jacobs wrote of Annie Peterson’s wrist tattoos that she had “11 dots on her first back row of dots. Each month another row of black marks is put on the back of the hand, and row after row is thus made. First one month one hand, the other hand the next month, and so on, until the backs of the girl’s hands are fairly covered with black dots.” Annie’s niece Lottie Evanoff also had these tattoos. When she worked with JP Harrington in 1942, he noted “the Coos tribe had one band transverse tattoo on each hand-back. [Lottie] has these.” It is interesting he noted Lottie had one band, whereas Annie had three. Lottie was about a decade younger than Annie – for whatever reason, the “tattoo woman” was around for or hired for only one row of dots for Lottie, while Annie apparently got 3 rows on each hand.

Annie said that when still a teenager (near or not long after the puberty ceremony) that many women went in for lower leg tattoos, again made by an older woman who knew how to make tattoos. The designs were inspired by nature. Fern was symbolized by a vertical line for the stem, butterfly designs, trees with butterflies, and flowers. Unfortunately Jacobs did not make any sketches of these designs.

Annie did not say much about women’s facial tattoos (and unfortunately no one else mentioned them) but some women also went in for facial tattoos. Jacobs made a rough sketch and said they consisted of “various lines of dots, five to eight or ten dots in a line, dots spaced about a quarter of an inch apart in the line, tattooed on the cheeks and forehead, but probably not very many dots on any one face.”

Screenshot 2016-08-15 13.40.25

Melville Jacobs asked both Annie Peterson and Frank Drew if any CLUS men had facial tattoos. Neither could recall any who did. So it seems CLUS men only had the arm tattoos for measuring strings of dentalium.

Annie said she recalled two Indian men with facial tattoos. One was a Lower Coquille man named Candy Johnson, who had 3 parallel vertical lines on his chin. This sounds similar to the chin tattoos common among Athabaskan-speaking and other tribes of southwestern Oregon that women in those tribes earned in their puberty ceremonies. Why Johnson had these tattoos, Annie did not seem to know. The second man was an Alsea man who had a single vertical line on his chin. His Coos nickname was ‘with chin’ (Hanis nts’mehe, Milluk nts’ome) meaning ‘marked chin’.

However, apparently some Alsea men had special tattoos on the inside of their arms, denoting an individual’s spirit power. Among the Tillamook people, women doctors who had Wild Woman* as a spirit power had special tattoos on their breast (some men doctors also had Wild Woman as a spirit power, but they did not tattoo themselves).  When a person was going to get tattooed, both the artist and recipient were supposed to avoid sexual intercourse for 5 days, otherwise the tattoos would become infected and they would fade.  If the tattoos became infected anyway, they were treated with a salve made from boiled fat and pitch.

Women of the southwestern Oregon Athabaskan speaking tribes (Upper Coquille, Tututni, Chetco), Takelma, southern Kalapuya,  and northwestern California all shared a custom of tattooing 3 parallel lines on young women’s chins at the time of their puberty ceremony.  Unfortunately due to my limited library, I don’t have much information on this practice.  One woman, Lucy Metcalf, who lived on the Siletz reservation said the tattoos were to make girls look good.  Among the Shasta people of northern California and the Bear Creek watershed in southern Oregon, girls who did not receive facial tattoos were thought unattractive and mocked with names like ‘leather face’.

Lottie Evanoff says her Rogue River friend Ione Baker told her that Rogue River Indians made tattoos using ‘needles’ made from black glass bottles (and before that, likely obsidian or other sharp objects were used) and again, willow charcoal was the ‘ink’.  She said “When doing the work, a handkerchief is tied over the mouth of the person being tattooed on the chin so the person won’t get cold”.

In Hanis, women with tattooed chins (and perhaps facial tattoos generally) were called nts’mehe’me (literally with-chin-person).  According to Siuslaw-speaker Clay Barrett, they were called kwá’tsahiich, which literally meant ‘painted person’ rather than ‘tattooed person’.

There is a renewed interest in traditional tattoos, along with revivals of puberty ceremonies.  I think we will begin to see more and more tribal women proudly wearing traditional tattoos, in honor of their ancestors and tradition.

*To learn more about Wild Woman, she appears in many stories told by Clara Pearson (a gifted Tillamook storyteller) recorded in “Nehalem Tillamook Tales”, edited by Melville Jacobs.


Drucker, Phillip. 1933. Ethnographic Field Notes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Frachtenberg, Leo J. 1909. Coos Fieldnotes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Holt, Catharine.  1946. Anthropological Records 3:4: Shasta Ethnography.  University of California Press, Berkeley CA.

Jacobs, Elizabeth. 2003. The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography, edited by William Seaburg. OSU Press, Corvallis, OR.

Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.

Juntunen, Judy Rycraft, May D. Dasch, Ann Bennett Rogers.  2005. The World of the Kalapuya: A Native People of Western Oregon. Benton County Historical Society and Museum. Philomath OR.

Youst, Lionel and William Seaburg.  2002.  Coquelle Thompson: Athabaskan Witness, A Cultural Biography. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK.

About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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