THE KWAPA (COCOPAH)
The Kwapa (Cocopah) along the lower Colorado River basin are among the many Native American groups in the American Southwest and Mexico who once tattooed using thorns and spines from cacti and other native plant species. Those traditions were mostly suppressed and extinguished by the early 20th century as a result of Colonial and Christian influences.
These mesquite spines were used by the Kwapa for tattooing around 1885, when they were collected for the Smithsonian. They would be tied in a bundle of 2 or 3 spines, and after the skin was pricked charcoal would be rubbed on the wounds. Kwapa tattooing was done exclusively by women, on women.
Girls were tattooed on their chins around their first menstruation in a community event accompanied by songs and dancing. The drawing here shows several different chin designs. These tattoos marked women as adults, but were also essential for the afterlife: It was believed that the presence of tattoos granted a woman’s soul access to the ancestral realm. At death an untattooed woman could not reach the next world. Instead her soul would be scratched by beetles and sat bent over on the spirit path, so that other souls stepped on her back as they passed by. These same trials also faced those with unpierced ears.
Images: Smithsonian catalog E76156-0; drawing after Gifford (1933) “The Cocopa.”