Tattooing in the Marshall Islands

The Sources

Today traditional Marshallese tattooing is no longer practised and the meaning of most of the ornaments and ornament fields is no longer known. In fact, only very few Marshallese of the 1990's can remember having seen people with full traditional tattooes. Thus we have to turn to historic sources. Aspects of tattooing in the Marshall Islands are described by a variety of ethnographic sources mainly of the late 19th and early 20th century, which have been canvassed for this study. [14] Since at present there is no comprehensive treatment of the topic, the following is based on this survey of sources.

An in-depth reading of these sources made it clear how little information had in fact been recorded at a time when a large number of people still wore tattoos and knew their meanings, as well as the traditions related to the motifs and the chants sung at the ceremonies. Then, there were still people who knew how to tattoo, although with the progressive impact of the Christian faith the ceremony itself had become more or less extinct. Language problems, and possibly also psychological aversion on behalf of the Marshallese, probably due to Christianity - induced guilt complexes, may have been inhibitive factors in the transmission of knowledge.

Based on archaeological evidence, the first people to settle on the atolls which now make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands arrived between 1000 and 500 B.C. Over the centuries they maximised the horticultural potential offered by the scarce land on the atolls and developed a complex social system with little emphasis on permanent structures. Transmission of information was oral, by word of mouth; a reliable method to hand down one's skills, information and social regulations, but subject to as much intentional modification and alteration of content as is provided by modern news coverage.

Over two milennia after settlement the first European visitors arrived on the scene and the first written accounts appear. Most likely the first Europeans to touch upon the atolls of the Marshall Islands were members of a Spanish expedition under the command of Alvaro de Saavedra, who arrived in October 1529 on a return voyage from the Philippines to Mexico. Saavedra encountered a northwestern atoll of the Marshall Islands, possibly Ujelang. A brief encounter with the heavily tattooed natives seems to have impressed the Spaniards so much that they named the entire island group "Los Pintados" - the painted. No details of the appearance of the tattoos are known. [15]

The observations of several subsequent visitors, Spanish, British and American, do not touch on tattooing. The earliest more detailed descriptions we have of Marshallese tattooing stem from members of the Russian Exploring Expedition under the command of Captain Otto von Kotzebue, who visited the northeastern Marshall Islands first in 1816 and 1817, and then again in 1824. [16]

After the Russians left, little ethnographic work was done in the Marshall Islands for over half a century.

Figure 3. The first illustration of a Marshallese woman's tattoo (by L. Choris on Kotzebue's visit to Wotje in 1816).

Figure 4. The first illustration of a Marshallese man's tattoo (by L. Choris on Kotzebue's visit to Wotje in 1816).

Another very early, but not very instructive source, contemporary to the Russian accounts stems from the observations of Lay & Hussey who stayed on Mile for well over a year. [17]

The later part of the 19th century saw the Marshall Islands becoming drawn into the German sphere of commericial interests and ultimately in 1885 a German protectorate.Subsequently a great number of German scholars, priests and administrators dealt with Marshallese ethnography in general and Marshallese tattooing in particular either in passing or in greater detail. The traders Hernsheim [18] and Hager [19] provided short summaries of Marshallese life and custom for an interested audience in Germany, but mainly dwelt on the potential economic importance of the atolls of the Marshall Islands for fledgling German colonial aspirations.

The descriptions of the scholars Finsch [20] and Kubary [21] are more detailed than those of the traders although the descriptions especially of Finsch, contain some misconceptions, possibly caused by the inability to speak Marshallese. Some other information dating to the late 19th century is provided by accounts of shipwrecked people, such as Eisenhardt [22] or Humphrey. [23]

German colonial administrators and doctors [24] filed a number of formal reports, most of which were published in the official organs. [25] The administrators, their spouses as well as naval officers and civilian visitors also published a number of informal articles in colonial newspapers and magazines, which contain additional information although mainly of a more general nature. [26]

Soon after its establishment in 1904, the Catholic mission in Jaluit began to compete with the Protestant missionaries who had been well entrenched for almost half a century. The Catholic fathers collected traditions and ethnographic information, as well as worked on the Marshallese language. Father Erdland published a comprehensive ethnography and a dictionary, both of which discuss tattooing at length. [27] Erdland's dictionary lists a number of terms for tattooing on body parts, some of which seem to refer to motifs commonly used on that body part or ornament zone.

Figure 5. An early illustration of a Marshallese tattoo., [28]

Following his two months sojourn in the Marshall Islands in 1897/1898 Augustin Kr€mer [29] wrote a paper on mat weaving and tattooing in 1904, and included tattooing in a monograph on his trip published two years later. In 1910 Kr€mer again visited the Marshall Islands, this time with the German South Sea Expedition, and published the entire ethnographic material together with Hans Nevermann in 1938 as a volume of a series covering the 1910 expedition. Tattooing is again reviewed, and all other German sources are commented upon.

Following the outbreak of World War I, Japan seized the Marshall Islands from Germany in October 1914. Her possession of Micronesia was formalised in 1922 by the League of Nations. [30]

Subsequently a number of Japanese ethnographers worked in the Marshall Islands, some of whom dealt with the topic of tattooing. [31] The main Japanese work on Micronesian tattooing was first done by Matsamura [32] and later especially by Hasebe Kotondo. [33] Hasebe published a paper on Marshallese tattooing in 1930, wherein he discussed contemporary tattooing motifs and the decline of traditional Marshallese tattooing.

In 1945 following Japan's defeat in World War II the Marshall Islands became a Trust Territory of the United Nations, under administration by the United States of America. Ethnographic work conducted immediately after World War II shows that traditional tattooing was no longer practised.

The Marshallese tattoos consists of general designs, different for men and women, and of individual motifs which make up the design. While the design is rather standardised, the deliberate use of the motifs make each design a unique tattoo.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Tattooing in the Marshall Islands Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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