Published on March 13, 2014 by Amy
Red for war, white for peace, yellow for death—they were a few of the symbolic colors the Seminoles used when they streaked earthen pigments on their faces.
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Reserved for the most important occasions, they used red ochre and other products of the natural environment to bring out their inner powers, according to authors David Mott and Rick Obermeyer.
The Seminoles were one of many Native American nations that incorporated face painting into their cultures.
Much like women today who put on make-up in the mornings, some Native Americans practiced the same daily ritual. In some cases, the role switched genders, according to author Paul Campbell.
For some, it was a way of self identification. For others, it was a part of courtship.
“A young Kumeyaay man, for example, would approach a young woman and say ‘Do you see my face is painted?’” Campbell told a PBS affiliate in 2009. “And she’s ‘Oh, yes.’ And he would say ‘Do you like it?’ She says ‘Yes, I do.’ And he’d say ‘Well, let’s go.’”
Paint markings served as status symbols in some Native American nations. A Lakota man who drew two black lines on his right cheek was the marshal of a war party. But if a man had one black stripe on his right cheek, it meant he was a marshal of a camp, according to the website Lakota Writings.
Muscogee leaders used face paint to separate themselves from other leaders. A peace-time leader would paint his face white. A war-time leader would paint his face black, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report.
Many Native Americans believed earthen pigments could enhance inner powers.
Mojave men, Campbell told PBS, used red paint for the dead or for spiritual dances with shamans. The color represented blood, a life force.
Seminoles, whether they were heading into battle or lying on their death beds, used yellow face paint, according to Mott and Obermeyer. Yellow meant a person was ready to die.
Native Americans used face paint symbolically during wars, such as the Seminoles use of yellow paint, as well as to intimidate enemies during battles.
According to First Nations History, South Carolina slave traders used to use Catawbas wearing war paint to intimidate slaves out of running away. “Catawba warriors had a fearsome reputation and an appearance to match: ponytail hairstyle with a distinctive war paint pattern of one eye in a black circle, the other in a white circle and remainder of the face painted black,” the website states. “Coupled with their flattened foreheads, some of their enemies must have died from sheer fright.”
There is a misconception that traditional Native American art forms, including face painting, are “something of the past,” said author Diana Lindsay, who joined Campbell in the PBS interview.
“Their traditions are alive, and it’s being passed on to future generations so it is not something out of the past,” she told PBS. “It is something that is evolving because they’re a living people, and just as all of us, you know, things evolve with time and change, but they are still the same people and they’re still here with us.”