The journey of Olive Oatman demonstrates to me a global perspective on the idea of body art and modifications. You have different groups celebrating the decoration of Oatman’s chin for different reasons, and we have other groups that regard it as esoteric and odd. The markings clearly carry different social values between the Native American groups and the contemporary American culture of the time. The dichotomy in ideologies demonstrates why it is so difficult to say on a large scale whether or not body modifications are revered on a large scale.
The Oatman sisters were captured by the Yavapis Native Americans as their family was on a journey with other Mormon families. Olive and Mary Ann were the only two members of their family to survive the attack, but they were forced into a life that was drastically different from their own. The Oatman family was Mormon, which had traditionally American conservative values. Suddenly, they were thrust into a vastly different culture. The Yavapis Native Americans used body art as symbolism. In their culture, women got chin tattoos sometime between puberty and marriage. This marked a beginning of a connection to deceased relatives. Obviously, body art and modification was not something that was on many Mormon agendas. While the Oatman sisters felt very out of place, they grew somewhat accustomed to the Yavapis Native Americans and vice versa, which allowed them to gain a better understanding for each other’s cultures.
After about a year, the sisters were sent to the Mohave Native Americans. Again, the Oatman sisters were in for a culture shock. The Mohaves had highly sexualized rituals. Marriage was monogamous, but adultery was not necessarily frowned upon. On the concept of body art and modification, Mohave Native Americans wore masks, face paint, and mud slathered hair at feasts. Again, in terms of physical appearance and views on sexual practices, the Oatmans were out of place. However, Oatman’s chin tattoo visually integrated her into the tribe. Even though she felt out of place, the Mohave Native Americans did not necessarily view her as out of place.
An interesting question is whether or not the Oatman sisters being “rescued” was truly to their benefit. The Oatman sisters, as out of place as they were, had become accustomed to the new culture they had spent so much time with. Part of that becoming accustomed had to do with Olive’s chin tattoo. While someone who was essentially kidnapped could come back into the world and slowly get back into their own rhythm, Oatman had been physically altered in a way that was never before seen by most of the American public. Had the Oatman sisters just been rescued with no marks, they probably would have been highly cared for and essentially coddled by society back into American life. However, this was not the case, and Olive was put on the circus rounds because of her appearance. I find it interesting that just a mere chin tattoo turned Oatman from someone people would feel sympathy for into an object of voyeurism. Olive went from someone who fit right in to someone who was stared it, and that is when she was trying to get integrated back into her original culture.
The entire narrative is extremely interesting. When taken into the Native American groups, the Oatman sisters were not entirely respected because women did not have power. Even though they became fairly comfortable with their new groups, the truth is that women did not have the social clout to get out of many forms of body modification. While the chin tattoo was voluntary, Olive did not have much of a choice. Therefore, body modification, while making Oatman fit into the context of the culture, was a sign of dominance. When going back into the community that rescued her, she suddenly lost all sympathy because of something that was done to alter her appearance, that she was not necessarily in favor of. Her own culture did not try to learn about her experiences or try to understand, but instead turned her into an object. This dichotomy in body art perceptions is extremely interesting, and the layered nature of perceptions of body modification still exist today.