Native American Designs and Colors | Print |

Note:  although the following essay was written in the past tense,
contemporary Native Americans are still using these techniques and natural materials.


Native Americans decorated most of their crafts to make them more beautiful. They added color and designs with paint, beads, quill embroidery, and by carving and weaving. Sometimes a design or color was a symbol, that is, it stood for an idea or told a story. For example, among the Crow, the color black was a symbol for victory; arrow symbols might mean a hunt or a battle.

Each group had its own set of meanings for colors and designs to use on ceremonial crafts. These symbols could be drawn on a leather pouch or a drumskin to retell a myth or relate an important event. Sometimes the maker of a ghost shirt or some other ceremonial object had a dream that revealed what design to use.

The decorative art on many everyday objects had no special meaning. Sometimes a geometric design might be called "butterfly" because the triangle shapes together on a basket looked like a butterfly. Usually, the only way to find out if a design was supposed to be a symbol with meaning was to ask the maker. Designs that showed people, birds, and animals were usually created by men. Women worked more with geometric shapes.

Color was important to add meaning to a design, too. Most Native Americans named four points of the earth, the four directions of the compass--north, south, east, and west--and assigned a color to each one. Among the Cherokee, north was blue, south was white, east was red, and west was black. Colors could also mean life or death, wax or peace, female or male, night or day. For example, the Navaho thought black represented men and blue, women. The Hopi thought that the color blue was the most sacred and used it to honor their gods. Here are some of the other meanings attached to colors:



Meaning for Native Americans



night, underworld, male, cold, disease, death



sky, water, female, clouds, lightning, moon, thunder, sadness



plant life, earth, summer, rain



wounds, sunset, thunder, blood, earth, war, day



winter, death, snow



sunshine, day, dawn


Native Americans used plant materials to make beautiful, soft colors to dye wool, cotton, and other fibers. They made almost every color, though shades of yellow were the easiest to produce.

Listed below are some of the plants Native Americans used for coloring. Experiment making natural dyes with these or other plants in your environment. As a general rule, if the plant part is hard, like bark or sticks, pound or grind it to loosen the fibers; if it's soft, like flower petals or berries, use it as is.

Wash the plant material first. Then put it, ground up or whole, in a large enameled pot and fill the pot with water. (Metal pots may change the color, though sometimes that produces an interesting result.) Boil until the color is a little darker than you'd like. Strain the dye material out and add a little salt and baking soda to the colored water, or dyebath. For a more permanent dye, add a teaspoon of alum, available from a hardware or crafts store.

To dye wool or heavy cloth, soak it in warm water before putting it in the dyebath. Let it boil in the dyebath for about an hour and then let it cool in the pot. To dye raffia, thread, or thin cloth, soak them in the dyebath for several hours.

Rinse all dyed materials several times in cold water. Then hang them up to dry--away from direct sunlight or heat, which may cause bleaching.



Plant Material



wild grapes, hickory bark, alder bark, dogwood bark, mountain mahogany bark



larkspur petals, alfalfa flowers, sunflower seeds



walnut shells, birch bark



moss, algae, lily-of-the-valley leaves, juniper berries



blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, rotten maple wood



sumac berries, dogwood bark, beets, cranberries



onion skins, goldenrod stems and flowers, sunflower petals, dock roots, marigold petals, moss, peach leaves, birch leaves, sagebrush

Source: Dunn, Helen. Indians of Nevada. Published by the Nevada Department of Education, 1973.