Native Body Painting: A Sacred Art
Updated: May 7
Paint was Power, Protection & Prayer
In Native American cultures, paint was power—spiritual power, physical power. And the act of body painting was a sacred act, like a prayer to the creator or to nature to unify strength and spirit, hopes and visions. It was a prayer for survival too, in battle, in hunting, for the well-being of family members, or the tribe. Sometimes painting honored the dead or the brave, gave thanks, or celebrated personal, family or tribal milestones.
Paint was used to conjure strength, as the mighty Shawnee Chief Tecumseh appeared with his warriors in full war paint before the future President of the United States to inspire fear as he tried to build a massive native confederation against invading whites.
Although the symbolism of body painting and war paint was not monolithic across native cultures, there were some broad prevalent themes. The most common link was the belief of kinship with nature, the earth and all its animals, and the conviction that nature imparted a vital power in the paints that was transferred to the wearer. The earliest materials were derived from animals, plants or mineral sources. Colors held significant meanings:
RED symbolized strength in battle and hunting, power, success. And because hunting and success in battle meant survival of the tribe, it also symbolized happiness and beauty. Red paints were made from iron oxides, roots, berries, beets, and ochre.
BLACK was made from charcoal mixed with bear grease or other liquid, was the color of battle and meant strength, coup in battle, and returning to camp victorious. Sometimes, black could mean mourning. The Crow blackened their face to show the fire of revenge had been vanquished with their enemy.
WHITE was the color of peace, prosperity, safety. But it could also mean mourning. Made from gypsum, limestone, clay, eggshells or seashells. Pawnee scouts painted their faces white to acquire the hunting power of the wolf.
GREEN, not surprisingly, was the color of nature, of harmony, of survival, and healing. Made from moss, flowers, berries, algae, or copper ore.
BLUE was associated with the sky and water, and evoked wisdom and confidence, hope. It was created often from duck manure, but also sunflower seeds, flowers, or oxides.
YELLOW had different meanings. It could mean death and that the warrior was willing to fight to the death. It also symbolized intelligence, a strong heart and that the warrior lived a good life. In the Southwest, yellow was created from the Bixa shrub near Mexico. Plains Indians used buffalo gallstones to produce yellow.
PURPLE was associated with magic, mystery, and spiritual power and was not generally used for battle or hunting, but by shaman and medicine men and women for spiritual ceremonies. Blueberries, coneflowers, and wild hibiscus were used for purple pigments.
Very early on, native tribes began to trade with fur traders and valued certain pigments that they could provide. The Osage, Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw traded in the mid-1600s near St. Louis for Chinese vermilion, a very bright mercury sulfide face paint. They also traded looking glasses, which enabled tribe members to paint themselves. Previous to having mirrors, they relied on painting each other and regarding their reflection in water.
Face painting and war paint is a vibrant contemporary art among Native tribes today and showcased especially at powwows. Many of the ancient ancestral symbols have taken on new and powerful meaning in contemporary Native culture. For example, photo #14, symbolizing the return of the warrior, today is used to honor Native American veterans who have returned from war in the U.S. military.
PHOTOS: (1) Early frontier illustrator George Catlin’s portrait of The White Cloud, head chief of the Iowa tribe (1845) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Red was a favored color of the Iowa and many Plains Indians. The painted hand across the chief’s mouth signified his success in hand-to-hand combat. (2) Algonquin traditional war paint used red, black and white geometric designs with vivid effect. Red and black were both colors of war and victory. Hail symbolized a prayer for misfortune on the enemy. (3) George Catlin’s 1832 depiction of Nez Perce brave, Rabbit Skin Leggings, in full regalia, painted red war paint, magnificently feathered and beaded and with a dramatic upright roach atop his head. (4) A modern Nez Perce brave echoes the traditional trappings of his ancestors. (5) An 1899 photograph of Oglala Sioux brave, Last Horse, in full war paint. (6) A scene from the PBS series Jamestown, about the early American frontier and the Pamunkey, the first federally recognized Indian tribe in Virginia and descendants of the Powhatan, Pocahontas’s tribe. The Pamunkey often painted their bodies in swaths of red and green. (7) Traditional Mohican war paint. A white line painted across the face with spikes on either side sometimes symbolized tusks of a bear. (8) The famous native actor, Wes Studi, in Last of the Mohicans, dressed in full war regalia, with magnificent roach, and shaved head painted red, white and black. Movies like Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, Little Big Man, and the PBS series, Jamestown, have brought attention to historical accuracy of Native adornment. (9) A Zuni brave of the Pueblo tribe in the Zuni River Valley in New Mexico. (10) A Cherokee warrior and his horse. War ponies were adorned in paint as elaborate as their riders. A circle around a horse’s eye enabled the horse to foresee danger. (11-20) Native American painting symbols. (11) Sun & earth represent harmony & balance in spirit and the natural world. (12) Shaman Eye represents knowledge, north, south, east & west & the spirit world inside (13) Crossed arrows meant war (14) Return of the warrior. This symbol is used today for returning Native veterans of the U.S. military. (15) Success in hand combat (16) Star symbol indicated gallantry or other major life accomplishments (17) Hoofmarks signified a successful horse raid on the enemy (18) Four stages of life: childhood, youth, middle age, and wisdom of old age (19) Lightning symbolizes the Thunderbird to bring power and speed to the warrior (20) Hail to rain down damage on the enemy and defeat them.
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"Native Body Painting: A Sacred Tradition" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on June 19, 2019
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