Published on March 9, 2013 by Amy
Many of the pictures and images of Native Americans depict the Indians in full war paint. Many tribes of Native Americans painted their bodies and faces for rituals, dances and for battle. The designs painted were believed to hold magic powers for protection. Colors and images were also used to make the warriors, chiefs and braves to look more ferocious. Their objectives were achieved! Native American Indians even painted their horses and ponies decorating them with with war symbols or symbols of power, see Horse War Paint.
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Native American Indians had a highly complex warrior culture, especially those who lived on the Great Plains. Their religion was dominated by rituals and belief in a spiritual connection with nature. In their religion they blended rituals by promoting and preserving their hunting and the survival of it’s people with showing respect to the spirit. Their beliefs were handed down from one generation to another. Experienced warriors were held in the highest esteem. The achievements of warriors were often reflected in the symbolic images of their war paint. The clothes, tepees and all of his belongings was decorated with the symbolism of his achievements and acts of heroism or his various spirit guides. Every mark on the face and body of an American Native Indian had meaning.
The American Indian Akicita were the Warriors and Elders who had considerable powers in policing and organizing some North American tribes. The war paint and insignia of an Akicita of the Lakota Sioux had specific meanings as to their roles and responsibilities. The marshall of a war party would have war paint depicting two black stripes on the right cheek. A marshal of an Indian camp had a black stripe painted on the right cheek from the corner of the eye to the jaw line. A ceremonial marshal who organised Pow-Wows and large council meetings had a red parallel stripe.
The following types of symbols can be see in the above picture depicting the War Paint on the Iowa warrior. Hand print meanings. The Hand Symbol indicates that the warrior has been successful in hand-to-hand combat.
The zig-zag line meaning across the forehead symbolizes lightning which was believed to add power and speed to the warrior.
The Great Plains Indians culture abounds with many more examples of this usage of symbols and their different meanings. For more, meanings, facts and info see Native American Symbols.
There were so many tribes of Native American Indians it is only possible to generalise the most common meanings of the colors and patterns of War Paint, Body Paint or Face Paint.
Red Color Symbolizes war, blood, strength, energy, power and success in war paint but might also symbolise happiness and beauty in face paint
Black was perceived as a “living” color and worn on the face to prepare for war. Very aggressive color. Black meant strength. It might also indicated that the wearer was a powerful warrior who had proved himself in battle. Black was also used to symbolize victory and might be applied before returning home to the camp
White Color Symbolizes mourning. White was also the color of peace when it was used as face paint.
Blue Color Symbolizes wisdom, confidence
Yellow Color Symbolizes the color of death. Yellow also indicated that the wearer was heroic, had led a good life and was willing to fight to the death. It also symbolised intellect
Green Color Symbolizes endurance. Green is associated with harmony and is a great healing power and believed to improve vision
The colors Purple and Brown were not used as face or war paint
For additional facts and info about colors see the article on Color Meanings Symbolism.
Native American Indians made use of Face Painting or Body Paint for various reasons:
War paint – war paint to intimidate their enemies when going into battle or during warfare – this where the term “War Paint” was originally derived
Marks of Distinction and Honor: War Paint, Face and Body paint for certain tribes would indicate achievements and success
Camouflage – Paint was used as camouflage for both hunting and warfare enabling the wearer to blend into the environment and exercise the element of surprise
Ceremonies, Dances and Rituals: Specific colors and patterns were applied
Visual Messages: Victory, Mourning etc were indicated by the application of face and body paint
Mental Preparation: Medicine Men often chose certain markings for warriors and that powerful magic was passed on during the application of the war paint helping the warrior to believe himself invincible. Paint was used as an element in Spiritual Healing
Power and Magic: It was believed that the application of certain symbols and colors afforded the wearer with ‘Magic’ for power and protection by drawing on natural powers and combining these with the power of the warrior. Symbols included stripes, circles and triangles
Protection: Paint was commonly used to protected the skin from insects, the sun, the wind and the cold. Red ochre was in plentiful supply so this was the most common application, hence the term ‘Redskins’
Decoration: War paint, Face paint and Body paint was applied as decoration, just as we use make-up today. Women of certain tribes also used face and body paints for decoration
The Native Indians made war paint from the natural resources that were available to them to make different colored dyes and pigments. Paint in its simplest form, consists of ground up pigment suspended in some sort of liquid, or binder such as urine, spit, egg yolks, animal fat and blood.
Red – Red clays containing oxides of iron, roots, berries, barks and beets. The Lachnanthes plant commonly known as redroot native to eastern North America Redroot and also used as red war paint. When the root is crushed it “bleeds” a reddish dye. Bloodroot plants are also used to produce red war paint. Red was predominately used for painting because of its availability
White – White kaolin clays, limestone, ground gypsum, eggshells or sea shells
Black – To create black paint coal or charcoal, mixed with spit or animal fat, was commonly used as well as wild grapes and the bark and ashes from various trees and shrubs including Devil’s Club
Yellow: A yellow pigment which was made from flowers, berries, barks, plants or moss. A yellow substance found in some internal organs of the buffalo was also used to produce the yellow paint
Blue – Blue paint was obtained from oxides, powdered azurite and lapis, sun flower seeds, duck manure, clays, berries and flowers
Green – Green paint was made from flowers, berries, moss or algae
Pink – Pink war paint was made from the juice of the Virginia Creeper, a woody vine, native to eastern and central North America
Orange/Yellow – The bixa, also known as annatto is a bushy shrub or small tree. Native Americans made a paste from annatto for a bright orangey-yellow war paint
Purple – Purple coneflowers, Blueberries and hibiscus all produced a purple pigment used as paint
War Paint – Application of War Paint, Body Paint or Face Painting
Native American Indians prepared the paint which was then dried and stored as a powder. The paint powder was kept in deerskin pouches which could be carried with them
Native American Indians first smeared their bodies with buffalo or deer fat and then rubbed on the paint. To add additional power the paint might be applied by the Medicine Man. War paint was applied with the fingers, animal bones, sticks or grasses. Plains Indians used a spongy bone from the knee joint of the buffalo which held paint just as the modern fountain pen holds ink. Chiefs and elders often worn different colors to their inferiors.