Native American Face Paint; Customs, Colors, Designs
For thousands of years, cultural groups from all over the world have participated in ceremonial face painting for a variety of reasons. However, the amount of available scholarly information regarding ceremonial and cultural face painting is scarce. Furthermore, face painting traditional customs, colors, and designs, have either been passed down orally through storytelling, or have been documented by white explorers and journalists who may not have had the cultural sensitivity to fully understand and relay the authentic spiritual symbolism and meaning behind the various colors and designs. Therefore, by combining information from Native American websites with scholarly resources, my aim is to give a respectful and general description of traditional Native American face painting; including the significance of colors, designs, and rituals, of a variety of Native American cultures such as California, Great Basin, Northwest and Northeast Coast, Southeast and Plains tribes.
Native Americans commonly viewed face painting not only as an act of social distinction and cultural heritage, but as a significant aspect in cultural and spiritual ceremonies and rituals. Ceremonial paint was also used to hide ones identity, as well as to obtain power from the creature or spirit represented. ( Lewis, 2009) Colored paints were used for decoration and ornamentation, but most importantly for spiritual power, and “at times constituting a prayer to a super natural being.” (Densmore, 2006) The design and color of face paint was an individual choice, chosen to “harmonize with the individual’s attire, purpose, dreams, or visions.” (Densmore, 2006) Face paint was also used to intimidate an adversary, such as when Tecumseh and his warriors met with William Henry Harrison, the warriors were all wearing war face paint, which undoubtedly struck fear amongst the US soldiers who witnessed the event.
The common link between nearly all Native American tribes was the brotherhood with nature, the earth, and animals, and the belief that the natural materials used in making the paint also had the ability to impart animating powers to the paint, which would then be conveyed to the recipient. (Zedeno, 2008) When paint was applied to an object it became a person, and likewise, paint applied to a person transformed that person with a gift of extraordinary characteristics and powers, such as courage, strength, stealth, health, etc. (Zedeno, 2008) As Nicholas Black Elk, an Oglala holy man stated; “By being painted, the people have been changed. They have undergone a new birth, and with this they have new responsibilities, new obligations, and a new relationship.” (Brown, 1953)
Among the various tribal Nations, specific colors were used symbolically. Several of the colors have universal meaning, yet variations are common tribally, as well as individually. For the individual, “a kaleidoscope of paint colors and designs held special meanings, portraying secret mystical messages or visions.” (Palmer, 2006)
Face and body paint was an essential component in Plains culture. Plains warriors painted their faces with protective colors and patterns before engaging the enemy; this is where the term ‘war paint’ originated. (Holmes, 2010) Because the Plains warrior deemed his paint as a protective talisman, he would not only paint his face, but his body and horse as well. And in times of war, the Plains women would streak their noses, cheeks, and foreheads with paint. (Densmore, 2006)
Pawnee men often painted their body with red or yellow stripes, and painted the tips of their eyelids red. At other times they painted their entire face, or the upper half red. (Paterek, 1994) Similarly, the Osage painted red around their eyes and hairline. (Paterek, 1994) The Pawnee also sacrificed a young girl for the Morning Star ceremony, and painted half of her body red and the other half black. (Paterek, 1994) And, Pawnee scouts were known to paint their faces white in order to gain stealth and tracking abilities from the wolf. (Paterek, 1994)
Currently, there is no indication that Southwest tribes developed warrior face painting traditions, yet they did use ceremonial face paint, as well as black and white masks. (Paterek, 1994)
In the Northeast, the cultural tradition was to rub fish oil and bear fat on the skin for protection and also to keep the skin smooth. Both men and women of the Northeast applied red paint on their foreheads and cheeks for certain occasions. (Paterek, 1994) Similarly, most Great Basin tribes applied basic designs for ceremonial gatherings; the favorite colors were red, black, yellow, and white. However, Shoshone tribes painted more complex patterns, such as “snakes, bears, wavy lines, and horse shoes.” (Paterek, 1994)
Face paint was extremely popular with California tribes, where red, black, yellow, and white were used for ritualistic ceremonies. The Chumash considered face paint to be an integral part of ceremonial dress and were known to utilize a variety of designs, such as “zig-zags, stripes, and checkers.” (Paterek, 1994) The customary colors were black, red, brown, and white; and some dancers covered their faces with red then added black and white dots. To the Chumash, “color and design indicated status.” (Paterek, 1994)
Body and face painting was a daily routine for the Mohave. Each day they would paint themselves in black, red, and white, and are recognized as having painted themselves more than any other California tribe. (Paterek, 1994)
Likewise, Northwest Coastal tribes painted their faces daily, and like the Northeast tribes, their purpose was for protection from the sun and wind, as well as for additional warmth. Black, white, and red face paint was applied for ceremonies, and stamps were used for repeated patterns. Crushed mica was also added to give a glitter effect to the paint for special occasions. (Paterek, 1994) Makah followed the coastal tradition of daily painting; using blue, black, and white. Makah often painted as much as twice a day, using different designs in the morning and afternoon. Animal and checkerboard patterns were customary, although the Makah warriors and chiefs painted their entire face with black paint that had been mixed with glittering mica flakes to create a “terrifying effect.” (Paterek, 1994)
Tattoos and masks were the most popular Southeast traditions. Nevertheless, face paint was used as a “masculine adornment” during festivals. (Paterek, 1994) Red, black, russet, and yellow, were the most common colors, and white was used on the last day of the festival. (Paterek, 1994) The Southeast Ojibwa were also “fond of face painting.” (Paterek, 1994) The most common colors were red and black, and they used simple designs such as bars, patches, and dots. It was also customary for the Ojibwa to plaster his back with white clay and have figures or designs painted on it. (Paterek, 1994)
Throughout the vast number of Native American cultures, color and design symbolism varies, yet there are some striking similarities. And although there is controversy over the symbolic uses for black paint, most sources agree that black face paint was often used by numerous cultures for mourning the dead. When a loved one died the face was covered with black, or black lines were painted for the death of a distant relative. (Palmer, 2006)
In many tribes it was also customary for the returning warrior to paint his face black; yet the Plains warriors were known to leave the tips of their noses unpainted. (Densmore, 2006) Crow warriors believed that a face painted black symbolized “quenching the fires of revenge,” (Holmes, 2010) and “Lakota men painted their face black to signify victory, not to signify going to war.” (Neihardt, 2008) On the contrary, in 1973 when Lakota tribesman Lame Deer was asked about the colors on the staff placed on top of Mt. Rushmore, he replied, “The lower part of the staff is painted black, which stands for night and darkness. It is the black face paint of war.” (Banks, Erdoes, 2004)
Densmore explained another black face paint tradition in Teton Sioux Music; “It was said that if a party of warriors attacked the enemy and killed several men, the first warrior who killed the enemy had the right to wear the black face paint. Thus many of the warrior’s songs contain the words, ‘the black face that I seek’.” (Densmore, 2006)
Black Elk also described a diverse cultural and spiritual use of black face paint when he stated; “By going on the warpath, we know that we have done something bad, and we wish to hide our face from Wakan-Tanka” (The Sacred Pipe, 92n.4; Neihardt, 2008) Interestingly, Rice stated that a “culturally informed audience would know that black face paint implied victory, struggle, courage, and survival.” Rice continued by stating that it was the “Christianized version, in which warriors wore black paint because they were ashamed of killing.” (Rice, 1994)
The significance of red paint is a notably common element of Native American cultures. For instance, Black Elk described his vision and the importance of using red paint for the ghost dance; “This sacred man [The Messiah] gave some red sacred paint and two eagle feathers to Good Thunder. The people must put this paint on their faces and they must dance a ghost dance that the sacred man taught to Good Thunder, Yellow Breast, and Brave Bear.” (Neihardt, 2008) Black Elk frequently spoke of a new world coming and often referred to the people’s faces as having been painted red; and when Black Elk described the Heyoka ceremony he said, “We had our bodies painted red all over and streaked with black lightning.” (Neihardt, 2008)
Red was often thought of as the color of war, and was a favorite color of many Native American tribes. Black Elk expressed the use of red paint as preparation for the battle at Wounded Knee when he stated, “I painted my face all red.” On other occasions, the color red could also be applied to represent festivity or joy, or the sun, light, life, energy, or power. (Lewis, 2009) Columbia Plateau tribes desired red paint more than any other color and often fought with the Blackfeet over possession of the rich iron clay sources near Helena, Montana. (Paterek, 1994) (Neihardt, 2008) Another common Native American tradition was to paint the part of the hair red, symbolizing the earth and fertility. (Densmore, 2006) And in Ojibwa Warrior, Dennis Banks referred to red paint as a symbol of empowerment and cultural pride; “At Wounded Knee…they began to feel good about being Sioux, Cheyenne, or Ojibway. They put on red face paint…” (Banks, Erdoes, 2004)
Nearly every Native American tribe used green face paint as an aid to night vision. (Palmer, 2006) Blue represented the sky or the water, and was often painted on peace pipes as well as the face. (Palmer, 2006) “White represented peace, or peaceful endeavors.” (Palmer, 2006) White also symbolized the “spirit of the wolf which gives strength”, and was also used in rite of passage ceremonies. (Palmer, 2006) Yellow was considered the color of “death, or deadly encounters”, and symbolizes that “the warrior is ready to die”. (Palmer, 2006)
The day before the Battle at Little Bighorn, Black Elk was called upon by a medicine man to help with a healing ceremony; “He [medicine man] painted my body yellow and my face too, and put a black stripe on either side of my nose from the eyes down. Then he tied my hair up to look like bear’s ears, and put some eagle plumes on my head.” (Neihardt, 2008)
Preparation for creating the assorted colors of paints, required gathering several resources; plants, berries, tree bark, and colored clays. (Palmer, 2006) White paint was commonly made from white riverbed clay. Red paint was prepared with various resources; crimson colored clay, or by baking yellow clay over hot ashes. Sometimes red corn was boiled and poured over crushed red berries to achieve the desired color. (Lewis, 2009) Unfortunately, bright red cinnabar, which was mined in California and traded extensively throughout North America, contained sulfide of mercury, which is thought to be the cause of diseased remains that have been found at many Native American burial sites. (Paterek, 1994)
Yellow paint was created from yellow riverbed clay and buffalo gallstones, and the Plains tribes often used cottonwood buds to mix this color. (Palmer, 2006) Black paint was crafted by crushing charred wood and sometimes mixing it with black clay. (Palmer, 2006) Green paint was made from either copper ore or plant leaves, although green was also frequently created by combining yellow and blue. Blue clay was difficult to acquire, could only be found in certain areas; Lusk, Wyoming was the best source of blue clay. (Lewis, 2009) Duck excrement was sometimes used as a substitute for the rare blue clay. (Palmer, 2006)
Prayers were offered over the paint while it was stirred and were believed to transfer special blessings and powers onto the wearer. (Holmes, 2010) Once the colors were created, dried, and crushed into powder, they were stored in small buckskin bundles and then placed into a larger decorated bag which contained an applicator and sometimes a small mirror. (Palmer, 2006)
The paint was applied either dry, or mixed with buffalo tallow, bear grease, or water to achieve the desired effect. Oftentimes special songs were sung when the paint was applied. Some warriors painted themselves and some preferred to be painted by a holy person or medicine man. (Holmes, 2010)
Customary designs were often used, although as mentioned earlier, designs were also an expression of the individuals dreams, visions, and personal taste. Each Tribal Nation had its own design which was respected by other tribes, (Palmer, 2006) and the face was often divided into two halves by painting different colors and designs on each side, with each half symbolizing a different message. “The Painted Hand was revered both as a symbol of great bravery and honor to the warrior who counted coup by touching the enemy with his bare hand. (Daniels, 2011) And at times, “red stripes were painted on the face and then down the arms to the hands.” (Palmer, 2006) “Plains warriors often painted a line on the forehead to represent a thunder storm in the horizon, and a line from jaw to jaw with two spikes on either side of the mouth to represent grizzly bear tusks.” (Zedeno, 2008)
Artwork by K. Henderson http://www.khenderson.com
With the influx of Europeans, Native Americans began using powdered paints obtained from white traders. (Lewis, 2009) Today, many Native Americans still apply traditional face paint for spiritual ceremonies, as well as events such as pow-wow competitions. Pow-wow dancers, who choose to wear face paint, use theatrical make-up. (Lewis, 2009)
The tradition of face painting has been a part of Native American culture for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. Across the continent, from the Makah tribe in the far Northwest, to the Ojibwa in the Southeast, a wide range of colors, painted in various designs on the faces of warriors, tribal citizens, and leaders, bestowed protection and supernatural power onto the people; gifts from the spirit of the earth and its creatures.
Native American Art by K. Henderson http://www.khenderson.com
Banks, R., Erdoes, D. (2004). Ojibwa warrior. Dennis Banks and the rise of the American Indian
Movement. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.
Brown, J. (1953). The sacred pipe: black elk’s account of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux.
Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.
Daniels, C. (2011, July 6). Rough stock rodeo set for august. Yorkton This Week, Retrieved from
http://www.yorktonthisweek.com on July 24,2011.
Densmore, F. (2006). Teton Sioux music. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing.
Holmes, J. (2010, September 29). Face painting traditions among men of the plains. Retrieved
Lewis, D. (2009, July). The power of the painted face chronicled by Reginald and Gladys Laubin.
The Montana Pioneer, Retrieved from http://www.mtpioneer.com/2009-July-face.html
Neihardt, J.G. (2008). Black elk speaks. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
Palmer, S. (2006). Face painting practices. Retrieved from http://www.manataka.org
Paterek, J. (1994). Encyclopedia of American Indian costume. New York and London: W.W.
Norton & Company.
Rice, J. (1994). A ventriloquy of anthros: Densmore, Dorsey, Lame Deer and Erdoes. American
Indian Quarterly, 18(2), 169. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Zedeño, M. (2008). Bundled Worlds: The Roles and Interactions of Complex Objects from the
North American Plains. Journal of Archaeological Method & Theory, 15(4), 362-378.
doi:10.1007/s10816-008-9058-4. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Posted on February 9, 2013, in Anthropology, Native Americans, Uncategorized and tagged anthropology, Black Elk, Costume, Culture, Face Paint, history, Indians, Native Americans. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.