Color & Design: American Indians

Color & Design: American Indians

Long before the United States was red, white and blue there was a whole different palette of colors that represented these great hills, plains and valleys. All across North America the culturally rich tribes of the American Indians lived to keep the upper world of the sky and lower world of the water in balance, and color was an important part of their art and design which is deep with symbolism of complex philosophical ideas.

Image from Little Green Dragon; As of 2000, the largest tribes in the U.S. by population were Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Sioux, Chippewa, Apache, Blackfeet, Iroquois, and Pueblo.

Traditions of Color

Color was important to add meaning to a design. Most Native Americans named four points of the earth, the four directions of the compass--north, south, east, and west--and assigned a color to each one. Among the Cherokee, north was blue, south was white, east was red, and west was black. Colors could also mean life or death, war or peace, female or male, night or day. For example, the Navaho thought black represented men and blue, women. The Hopi thought that the color blue was the most sacred and used it to honor their gods. Here are some of the other meanings attached to colors:

Color Symbolism

  • Blue: North, sky, water, female, clouds, lightning, moon, thunder, sadness
  • Black: West, night, underworld, male, cold, disease, death
  • White: South, winter, death, snow
  • Red: East, wounds, sunset, thunder, blood, earth, war, day
  • Green: plant life, earth, summer, rain
  • Yellow: sunshine, day, dawn

Natural Dyes

  • Blues: larkspur petals, alfalfa flowers, sunflower seeds
  • Blacks: wild grapes, hickory bark, alder bark, dogwood bark, mountain mahogany bark
  • Yellows: onion skins, goldenrod stems and flowers, sunflower petals, dock roots, marigold petals, moss, peach leaves, birch leaves, sagebrush
  • Reds: sumac berries, dogwood bark, beets, cranberries
  • Greens: moss, algae, lily-of-the-valley leaves, juniper berries
  • Browns: walnut shells, birch bark
  • Purples: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, rotten maple wood

Art & Design

Native Americans added color and designs with paint, beads, quill embroidery, and by carving and weaving. Sometimes a design or color was a symbol, that is, it stood for an idea or told a story. For example, among the Crow, the color black was a symbol for victory; arrow symbols might mean a hunt or a battle.

Photo by phxpma

Each group had its own set of meanings for colors and designs to use on ceremonial crafts. These symbols could be drawn on a leather pouch or a drumskin to retell a myth or relate an important event Sometimes the maker of a ghost shirt or some other ceremonial object had a dream that revealed what design to use. Designs that showed people, birds, and animals were usually created by men. Women worked more with geometric shapes.

Image from the DIA; Wearing Blanket ca. 1870; Navajo; Wool

This blanket was purchased from a Navajo woman by Captain Harrison Samuel Weeks in 1876 while he was stationed at Fort Union, New Mexico. It was meant to be worn around the shoulders with the large central panel falling vertically down the back. During the 19th century the introduction of new commercial dyes and yarns and the growth of a tourist market spurred by the opening of trading posts sparked creative experimentation with color and complex designs.

Image from the DIA

Shield; 1860-68; Southern Cheyenne; Buffalo rawhide, tanned buckskin, bells, feathers, corn husks, natural pigment.

This shield probably belonged to Little Rock, a Cheyenne man who was killed at the Battle of  the Washita in 1868. The power of the shield was evoked by its owner for spiritual and physical protection. The symbols and colors used on the shield present a complete picture of the spiritual world.

Image from the DIA

The light circle at the edge is earth with peaks of mountains in the four directions; the crescent moon above and the group of seven circles representing the star cluster of the Pleiades are set against the blue sky, with four birds circling a large Thunderbird.

Image from the DIA

Moccasins; ca. 1890; Eastern Sioux; Buckskin, rawhide, fabric, glass beads

Moccasins were created by women artists as  part of their traditional role of preparing clothing for their families. The floral patterns stem from a number of sources: European decorative arts, printed cotton textiles, or as a result of the training American Indian women received at mission schools.

Image from the DIA

Moccasins Bottom View

Regardless of origin, floral patterns employed by artists on clothing and domestic objects were reconfigured and then incorporated as symbols of American Indian identity.

Image from the DIA

Man's Shirt; 1860; Northern Cheyenne; Buckskin, buffalo hide, wool fabric, ermine skim, human hair, glass beads, pigment, porcupine quills.

The owner of this shirt painted red "power circles" arranged in a chain descending from the shoulders, from which a bolt of lightning strikes. The painted images of flying birds on the breast and back probably represent guardian spirits who offered blessings as gifts in a vision or dream.

Image from the DIA

Pouch; 1800-25; Eastern Sioux; Buckskin, mallard duck scalp, porcupine quills, tin cones, and dyed deer hair.

The Thunderbirds visible in the center correspond to the four cardinal directions and serve as powerful guardian spirits of the sky. The scalps of many mallard ducks are used for the rich green of the lower portion of the pouch, representing the watery underworld.

Photo by catface3

Woman's Buckskin Dress

Photo by catface3

Woman's dress

Photo by mharrsch

Flat carrying bag from the Lewis and Clark expedition 1804 to 1806

Photo by mharrsch

Flat carrying bag from the Lewis and Clark expedition 1804 to 1806

Header image from the Detroit Institute of Arts

Text quoted from Source. Art Info source: DIA.

"Treat the earth well, It was not given to you by your parents, It was loaned to you by your children." - American Indian proverb

Showing 1 - 8 of 8 Comments
We have the chumash in my area. It's cool, I met one.
cool article, thank you
I live close to the Seneca Reservation. I fill my gas tank there all the time.
Simply fascinating, thanks for this article.
It's funny, i was watching something on the history channel about (i don't remember the name, sorry!) some Indians, and they aren't on the map. I know they fought with they Apache all the time, so they're from the south, southwest. regardless, this is wicked cool. it really annoys me the europeans came in and destroyed practically everything. i won't go on with that, because i'll ramble. but this is still really awesome, thanks.
Cool post!!
Awesome post!

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