Inked in History

Professor Tells Stories Behind Her Traditional Tattoos

Ask Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner what her doctoral dissertation was about, and the assistant professor in the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies might just roll up her sleeves and show you.

The daughter of a citizen of the La Jolla band of the Luiseño Indians, Meissner has tattoos on her forearms depicting her thesis of the traditional craft of basket weaving as a metaphor for how to conduct research—along with foods, animals and symbols important to her tribe.

Here, Terp takes a guided tour of Meissner’s ink to learn the stories behind them.

oak leaves and acorns tattoo

Turned into pudding and flour, black oak acorns are a staple food of the Luiseño. “It takes 1,000 pounds of acorn to feed one person for a year, and we harvest enough for entire villages to be able to sustain themselves for multiple years,” she says.

tattoo of three quails

In one Luiseño story, a blind man lost in the mountains is guided home by the quail’s call. The story is a reminder that “if you can sit and center yourself and listen to teachings or your ancestral knowledge systems, those will guide you,” says Meissner. Her three quails represent herself, her mom and her sister, who share the same tattoo.

skin stitch tattoo

The tiny artwork on her wrist is an example of a method being revitalized by Coast Salish artist Dion Kaszas, in which a thread is dipped into ink, then sewn into the person being tattooed. Meissner got hers as one of 30 people tattooed during a ceremony. “He had all of us in a circle getting these tattoos that connected us.”

Spiderwoman tattoo

In Luiseño teaching, Spiderwoman doesn’t speak a human language, but is still able to transmit her knowledge of basket weaving. “I have Spiderwoman to remind me that even in moments where it seems like our communities might not be able to communicate (because we don’t speak the same language), that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a connection.”

four basket tattoos on arm

The four baskets on Meissner’s arm, depicted from a bird’s-eye view, represent the chapters of her dissertation:

Snake: Symbolizes how an Indigenous researcher can move “strategically and carefully” through academia.

Canoe: Represents Indigenous people as expert guides, leading researchers through the difficulties of translating Native languages.

Stars: Symbolize the Seven Sisters, a constellation that, in Luiseño teaching, is seven women sharing one husband; in Meissner’s view, it’s a feminist story about using different types of knowledge to work together.

Compass: References a Luiseño coming-of-age ritual, and reminds Meissner to be guided by the teachings of her elders.


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