Regardless of location on the body, Native American tattoos were originally used to identify which tribe one belonged. They were also used to identify individual members within a certain tribe.
Regarding identification, Native American tattoos not only denoted which tribe one belonged to, but also their position within that tribe. Higher ranking members of Native tribes were adorned with special and unique tattoos. Some tribes used tattoos to symbolize specific deeds accomplished by a member. These tattoos informed others that this person had done something special.
Tattoos were also used as a way of invoking power. Many Native American tribes believed everyone had a spirit animal that acts as a guide throughout life. By having the image of a spirit animal tattooed on oneself, it was thought that one could then invoke the powers of that animal.
Feathers were also rich with symbolism and often used in Native American tattoo art. Feathers from different birds signify different attributes or ideals. For example, owl feathers were a symbol of death, while blue jay feathers were thought to contain healing powers.
Other tattoos that Native Americans used were totem poles, kokopellis and dream catchers. Totem poles generally symbolize a tribe or family and used animal designs that act as guardians. The kokopelli is a picture of a man playing a flute, and it is representative of fertility. Dream catchers are handcrafted wooden hoops containing sinew webs crisscrossed in the middle of eight points that symbolize the spider, an animal representing creativity and wisdom. Dangling feathers and gems were added for protection, and when hung near a bed, dream catchers were believed to filter out bad dreams, allowing only the good dreams to pass through.