Colors and art have always played an important role in the traditional Native American worldview. The wise Natives used art and colors for aesthetic pleasure – there was no concept or even word for art in their languages. This indicates that art and colors were never considered separate from the other aspects of daily life. To explain simply: colors represented the Natives Americans’ practical, social, and spiritual aspects of life.
Colors helped tribes celebrate the ancient traditions and rich heritage. Their symbolism was especially important in shamanism – the traditional medicine or healing rituals used by the people, and also in war where warriors painted their faces in different color paints. As there were numerous tribes dispersed across North America, there were also different symbolic color meanings. Colors retained these traditional meanings even during the time of contact between the Natives and the British Colonists.
Let us find out what different colors meant and symbolized to the different Native American Indian tribes.
Different colors and their symbolic meanings in Native American culture
Red was the color of the Earth element and the mountains. Natives used this color in body and face painting. The Powhatan tribes used red along with white and black in pipes, masks, head dresses, body paint, face paint, warrior feathers, and jewelry. Surprisingly, the white-red-black triad which was so important to the Powhatan is also seen in West African cultures, possibly because these may have been present in Chesapeake around the 17th Century.
British colonists used the color red to symbolize wine. They also believed that it represented the “blood spilt” by the Natives. Soon, these elements mixed into the Native American way of life and the symbolic use of colors, in combination or alone, gathered diverse origins, disparate meanings, and cross-cultural associations.
The Coushatta tribe of Louisiana used red along with other colors on their flag. Each color on the flag played a symbolic role: red represented life-giving blood, orange stood for discipline, yellow for the sun, black for the night, and white for day.
Native American languages also show us the meaning of red color. The Montagnais and Ojibwas used the same words to refer to “red” and “copper” while the Ofo and Biloxi used the same word for “red and blood”.
It is interesting to note that the many Native American tribes did not necessarily share the same color symbolism. For some, red symbolized the sacred color of war, victory, and courage, for others; it brought death and defeat.
Yellow, gold and orange
Yellow, gold, and orange represented the South direction, fire, and even the season of autumn. Here are some symbolic meanings associated with these colors across different Native tribes:
- Yellow – the power of pollen, divinity, and perfect ceremonial control
- Orange – the power of the sun to create and recreate with its radiation.
- Gold – the beautiful shiny metal for which gold prospectors looted Native lands and shed native blood became the symbol of death and dying. Gold was also symbolic of the sun, pride, and confidence. For Natives, before their lands were looted, gold color brought luck.
The Natives also believed yellow to be the color of gold, fire, and autumn, as well as symbolic of ‘reason’.
Yellow colored face paint meant that the person wearing it was heroic, have had a great life, and was ready to fight to the death. It also represented intellect.
Peyote Art shows green objects that represent Mother Nature. Native Americans used green herbs and for them, the color sustained life itself. Green also stood for youth, utility, labor, fertility, freedom, and growth.
Tonto Apaches used green, black, white, blue, yellow, and red in their ‘seal’ and flags. They used the following meanings for these colors:
- Black for death and the west direction
- White for life, snow, and north
- Yellow for sun and east
- Blue for sky and south
- Green for the earth
- Red for fire and heat
To the Sac and Fox tribes, green symbolized life, peace, and spring and represented the “peace chief,” one of the three members of the tribal authority.
For many Native tribes, green color brought healing. Green face paint of warriors stood for endurance and represented that the warrior had great stamina. Shamans used green color to heal eyesight.
When war was imminent, some tribes would replace the white feathers of sacred tribal pipes with red feathers. Cherokees believed white was the color of the South, peace, and happiness. In ceremonial addresses such as green corn dance and ball play, people would partake white food, and after the dance or ball play, return along white trails to their white houses.
The natives also used white beads in bead conjuring and white was the color of the stone pipe used in ratifying peace treaties.
South was the direction associated with the color white and the White Spirit brought peace and happiness.
The Cherokee shamans believed that black was symbolic of the west direction and also the spirit of death. The shaman therefore invoked the Red Man (the spirit of power, triumph, and success) to the assistance of his ‘clients’ and consigned his (the client’s) enemies to the fatal influences of the Black Man of the West.
Brown has undetermined and unspecific meanings in Native American parlance. Mostly, it represents the color of the skin.
In certain Native tribal populations, purple represents wisdom. Purple and brown were never used in face and body painting as they represented animals and death.
For Native Americans, blue symbolized peace and heaven. However, for the Cherokee shamans, blue represented North and the Blue Man or Blue Spirit that brought defeat and trouble with it.
In South Eastern Native American tribes, there was a belief that blue color warded off evil spirits. They often painted their house doors in blue for this reason. Natives also used turquoise blue stone as the Stone of Protection.
There were many different Native Americans tribes, so it is only possible to generalize color symbolism, especially in terms of face paint, war paint, beads, feathers, art, pottery, jewelry, and in shamanism.
In general, red symbolized war, earth, success, blood, energy, and power. Black was an aggressive color that symbolized victory, triumph, and strength, but also death. White stood for peace, mourning, and also for heaven. Blue represented wisdom and confidence. Green represented harmony, healing, and endurance. Yellow was the color of death, but also of intellect. Purple and brown represented animals and death.
We hope you enjoyed this brief guide on Native American color symbolism.