Native American Painting
by Bob Ellal
Pictographs were probably the first form of Native American painting practiced by the indigenous tribes of the Americas. Most of these surviving pictographs and petroglyphs, images carved into stone, are on rock cliffs or the insides of caves.
Perhaps the most intriguing Native American painting is a pictograph painted on a rock cliff in Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest. It depicts the massive supernova of a star in the constellation Taurus in late June 1054 A.D. The supernova was 10 times brighter than Venus and could be seen in daylight. Its occurrence was confirmed by ancient Chinese and European sources.
In the tribes of the New England Native American painting was basically on clothes, baskets and regalia. Often the decoration held clan significance. Tribal members would paint their regalia, formal wear for celebrations, on the left shoulder with a picture of the clan they belonged to. Clans could be the deer, for leadership, or the snipe, representing building, or the turtle, representing knowledge.
The Indians of New England used plants for dyes for Native American painting. They used barberry root for yellow dye; barberries for blue dye; blueberries for blue dye; bloodroot was pressed to release the dark red dye called Indian paint and mixed with animal fat for body paint; dandelion flowers made yellow dye; golden seal also made yellow dye; huckleberry, wild indigo and pokeweed produced dark blue dye; creeping st. john’s wort produced yellow and green dye made from the herb; and even green pond scum was used to produce green dye for Native American painting in New England.
But Native American painting also includes the art of painting the face. Face painting wasn’t mere decoration; it was a way Native American Tribes drew upon the powers of the natural world to increase their strength. According to Edward Winslow, a colonial chronicler, when the Pilgrim settlers first encountered the Massasoit Ousa Mequin and his followers, they marveled at the colors of painted faces they encountered: black, red, yellow and white. Some of the Natives had crosses painted on their faces. More Tribes than just the Plains Indians engaged in face painting; it was a common practice.
A white man, J.G. Kohl, who lived among the Sioux in the nineteenth century, told of how Sioux warriors took great pains to paint their faces with eccentric designs. They would circle their eyes with yellow or black paint, and draw a semi-circle of green dots across their faces. Some would divide their faces across their noses; the top half black or dark blue, the bottom half white, yellow, or red, with lines crossing both sections in various patterns. These were wild forays in Native American painting!
The Indians of the northern plains of what is now the United States also recorded history with their Native American painting. On their tipis they would paint stories of their families struggles or some other events of significance. On their buffalo robes, worn in winter to protect against the cold, political or spiritual leaders would paint special markings to signify their positions.
Navajo Indians of the Southwest practice a now famous form of Native American painting—sand painting. Navajos use sand paintings in healing ceremonies. The medicine man directs the creation of a sand painting during a ceremony of intense chanting to help heal the patient.
The chants restore balance to the patient. The sand painting must be destroyed before dawn because if it isn’t it is believed bad things will happen to the participants in the ceremony. That’s because Navajos believe that the gods restore health when the ceremonies are finished properly. The sand painting holds power, and it must be destroyed because it’s served its purpose and its power is no longer needed. The odd thing is, if you look on the Internet, you can find this form of Native American painting, sand painting, available in kits for purchase—by the numbers!