American Indian Signs and Symbols

Man follows the Earth. Earth follows Heaven.
And so sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind.


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The young man awoke as the first colors of dawn crept over the mountains, casting small shadows all around. The sounds of the new day filled the camp, and there would not be silence again until nightfall.

As he lifted himself from sleep and from the thick, warm hides upon which he slept, he thought about the long journey that awaited him. Contemplating the room and its contents, he looked deliberately and thoughtfully at each object in an attempt to commit to memory its placement and purpose, should he not return. He studied the arcs and angles of light that stretched themselves over the smooth walls of the tepee. He listened to the bird-songs that lingered in the still air, wrapped around the camp, and then drifted gently upward toward the sun.

When he stepped out of the shelter and into the morning, he noted particular shapes and colors in the clouds, and thoroughly studied any patterns in their movement. Delicate swirls in the fine dirt near the camp's edge revealed a slight northeasterly breeze, and tiny finch tracks in the soft mud of the riverbank, to the west, marched across the dampness then disappeared back into their secret morning.

Pondering the nuances of all that surrounded him, the young man decided the day was filled with good signs, and it was a good day for beginning the journey.

American Indian cultures have long relied on symbolisms and signs for guidance and instruction in various capacities of everyday life, and to document important events, including celestial and other natural phenomena, various rites of passage, the creation stories and history of the tribe. Regarding their surroundings with the greatest attention to the smallest of details, they coaxed life out of the often-hostile conditions of the Great Plains and Prairies. Reading cloud formations and changes in wind patterns, they anticipated changes in weather and tracked the movement of game and fowl, as well as that of coexisting tribes, accordingly. Certain birds and insects indicated the presence of particular plants, which in turn revealed springs of clear, mineral rich water. Changes in the angles and intensity of light, in the soft hum of frog and coyote songs, in the placement of dewdrops on the low-lying grasses, and in the sound of rushing reeds near the river's edge were all details of subsistence.

Having prepared his belongings the day before, he needed only to ready his horses. Finding that they were happy and eager, he was assured of the journey's success, and he knew in his sacred place of knowing that it would be as such. The parting words he spoke to his people were words of gratitude, as it was they who had found him so many years before; wandering far from his own camp as it lay in sleep, he had reached the edge of their settlement by daybreak, whereupon he stood crying in the dawn. The cold wind carried the sounds of his crying into the camp, and into the lodge of a young woman. She followed them to the camp's edge and found the boy alone in the early light. She lead the boy through the camp and to the lodge of the head council, where it was discerned, according to the few words he spoke, his clothing and hairstyle, and various other identifying characteristics, that he must have come from one of the camps to the north.

A party was organized to escort the boy back to his people; the glow of a clear sky held promise for his successful return, but its light was soon veiled by incoming clouds that smelled of snow. Thin layers of frost covered the ground, and dense grey fog rose from the river and floated over the camp. The weight of the impending storm saturated the air, and the clouds grew darker and pulled themselves downward toward the earth. Snow, ice and freezing northern winds made travel impossible without great risk. Days passed before the weather broke, and the boy's people had already moved camp for the winter. Any attempt to return him would have to wait for spring.

As the basic survival of many tribes depended heavily upon their ability to negotiate the environment and interpret the information contained therein, learning to read signs and symbols was a fundamental part of the American Indian experience during the time of the great chiefs. It provided knowledge of one's tribal history, thereby encouraging the development of one's own cosmology, and ensuring the continuum of culture. Of course, reading the signs and symbols only went so far. One had to interpret them carefully, and act accordingly. Poorly strategized hunts, battles and camp-moving ventures rarely resulted favorably, and were often due to a misinterpretation of nature's signs.

But his people never did return to their spring and summer camp, and so the boy remained with his new family without knowing this truth, until now . . . when he began to have dreams of his wandering, and of becoming lost in the darkness. He dreamed of places he seemed to know, places beyond the mountains, where rain fell in thick, cool sheets during summer, and elk songs filled the night air in winter; he dreamed of people he recognized but could not place, and in his dreams he spoke words and sang songs in a language at once unknown and instinctively familiar. He began to feel he was somehow connected to something different than what he knew. The journey would bring him truth. And so it would begin.

Moving north along the edge of the blackish-green river that separated what he knew from what was unknown, he listened to the water roll over its rocky bed, its sound changing from one moment to the next as it passed over stones of varying sizes and densities, tossing them into each other as it tumbled past him and downward. As he moved farther away from the vast summer plains over several days, he considered the beauty of all that was about him, and what it revealed about this unfamiliar place.

Certain plants along the water's perimeter were noted for their early blooms, indicating an abundance of spring rains and possible early frosts, while the faint scent of damp moss, wild parsnips and mushrooms breezed down from near the oak groves on the river's opposite bank, disclosing a moisture- and nutrient-rich food source. Occasionally he came upon a stone-bordered fire pit, the skinny, weather-bleached limbs of a meat- and fish-drying rack, or the dried, spiny remnants of a pumpkin or squash patch.

These were the places of which he had dreamed. And these were the signs that would lead him home.

Over time many tribal symbols were incorporated into various forms of creative artistic expression, worked into and onto everything from objects of religious, ceremonial and historic significance, to those of more ordinary, domestic value, such as hide paintings, war shields, clothing, horse-trappings, ceramic wares, baskets, cradle-boards, arrow quivers, textiles, and lodge, tepee and kiva walls.

Though there did exist a common thread which tied symbolisms from different tribal groups to more pan-tribal and universal themes, many of them were very tribe-specific, read and deciphered much like a written language. To the ancient societies of the Cheyenne and Sioux, the buffalo symbolized an abundant food source, as well as strength and leadership; among the Osage, an open hand was a symbol of friendship, and a sign of peace; the bear paw, an indicator of nearby water, became a symbol of nature's life-giving forces for the Pueblo people; and among the Nez Perce the horse represented wealth and mobility.

Other symbols, some found in the centuries-old petroglyphs and observatories of the desert southwest, in the elaborate and colorful totem carvings of the northwest coast, in the winter-count bundles of the far north, and in the intricate beaded patterns of the eastern woodlands, represented things of greater profundity: astronomical events such as comets, eclipses, meteor showers, cycles of the moon and inter-planetary relationships; significant geological occurrences, weather patterns, planting and harvesting cycles, the births and passages of great leaders; possible contact with or knowledge of other-worldly beings.

Signs from nature were always thoughtfully regarded among all tribes, and were more general and survival-based than the regionalized, often more esoteric, symbols; broken branches, flattened leaves, or a strand of hair caught in a branch revealed the recent presence of someone, while sudden winds and a certain change in the angle of light meant the weather would bring rain. Fate-oriented signs were also important; owl and magpie sightings were believed to precede an ill fate, and the swastika-like symbol, made by the whirling motion of a log or branch caught in the currents of a river, was considered good luck.

As he traveled into denser, cooler wilderness, the young man began to recognize distant rock formations and tall groves of trees to the east, where the river bent around sandstone canyons, and reflected the colors of the surrounding cliffs. He watched the gentle movements of the yellow wind-tossed aspen leaves, and considered the smoothness of their white-barked branches. He brushed past still-blooming cactus and thick vines of round, full berries of great variety. And he remembered this place.

He raced against the waning moon for several days, eventually parting from the river when its banks became impassable. Turning toward the aspen trees and still-denser forests, he rode without rest for many miles. Following the jagged granite cliffs that sprung forth from a gentle slope in the forest floor and rose up into twinkling leaves and clouds of all colors, he entered a wide canyon lined on either side with plump oak trees, and slender white birch. At dusk he camped on the flat ground close to where the cliffs began ascending from the canyon floor, and when night came he studied the stars and their positions in the sky, charting out his next leg of travel accordingly. The darkness also brought silence, in which he heard the faraway calls of birds and animals, the slow, rhythmic flutter of the forest trees, the flute-like songs of rushing wind, and the distant echo of the river swimming south.

The night brought many recollections, and sleep again brought dreams of the mysterious people to the north. The young man awoke several times during the night, each time after dreaming of running through a large clearing in a wood for many days, back into childhood, back to what he had known, and back to his people, whose fall and winter camp was peaceful and warm. The dream dressed him in beaded moccasins, bright red with one small yellow star on each, and led him further into memory. Before waking, he reached down to retrieve a loose bead from his right moccasin. Holding it up into the sunlight, it glowed and cast tiny spheres of red light all around. It fell from his fingers into the soft dirt near his feet, sending a tiny cloud of dust spiraling upward. It spun and swirled, and slowly settled into the earth, and as the tiny cloud of dust cleared, the bead was at last still, and as the boy returned to his camp and approached the large, hand-print covered tepee of his family, the young man awoke in the forest at sunrise, the embers of his campfire glowing softly beside him.

The air was cool and heavy, and would bring a summer storm by the following morning. There was a yellowish-green glow around the sun, which was veiled by a thin layer of silvery cloud, and as he greeted the new day, a large orange dragonfly fluttered near him with transparent, glass-like wings.

He decided the day was filled with good signs, and it was a good day for completing the journey.

Today, many artists use traditional tribal symbols in a diverse array of non-traditional, contemporary genres. From Pueblo designs on paintings and haute couture fashion, to northern Plains-style drumming on fast-paced, rhythm and blues tracks, American Indian tradition has caught up with its future.

At the same time, new symbols are being adopted by a number of notable artists in response to events of personal, social, political, national and international significance, and in accordance with contemporary theories of the universe. Multi-media artist Marcus Amerman and painter Mateo Romero place objects representing 21st century military and technological industry (contrail-emitting fighter jets and skyscrapers, for example) within large-scale works which also portray traditionally inspired images. Ceramic artists Autumn Borts and Diego Romero carve and paint traditionally made pots with designs of non-traditional origin, including scenes of aquatic life and floral patterns, animated characters and text, respectively. Sculptress Roxanne Swentzell creates expressive figures engaged in various activities, often pondering profound questions, such as stereotypes concerning of beauty, the concepts of self, and the role of community in the broader realm of modern Indian life.

The ancient prophesies of the Hopi, Lakota, Blackfoot and others speak of signs that will present themselves as the human race moves forward, into an uncertain future. Today's science warns of eminent and profound geological and atmospheric change, all readable through the signs scripted into the natural world.

Certainly many traditional symbols will survive these changes, while other fade into memory. Still others will fuse with symbols born of the new millennium, whereby they will be carried into a new future, and into a new past.

Continuing up the canyon until the sun loomed directly above him, he rode between the two gradually descending walls, which leveled out into a small patch of asters and sage. Thin red willows defined a small, winding stream, in which the young man saw his reflection, and that of his horses, as they crossed through a separation in the branches and rode toward the smell of smoke coming from afar. It led them through sounds and colors, and finally to the opening of a shallow glen, whose western border was dotted with tepees of varying height and circumference. Thin trails of smoke snaked through the tops of several of the animal hide shelters; children played in a large clearing adjacent to the camp, running up and down its edges, chased by each other and the fading light.

Standing atop the ridge, overlooking the somehow familiar scene, he felt the direction of the wind change, and noticed delicate plumes of cottonwood blooms floating above him. They hovered and twirled and were carried downwind toward the camp and its adjacent clearing. Approaching the assortment of tepees, he came to the periphery of the clearing. Glancing down he noticed something resting in the powdery dirt below him. Dismounting the blackish-brown horse upon which he rode, the young man saw that it was red in color, and he plucked the object from the ground. Dusting it off and holding it up into the sunlight, it glowed and cast tiny spheres of red all around.

The dogs did not bark, but moved aside as the young man inched closer to the camp. To his left he glanced at a small, undecorated tepee, which faced the east and was made of very fine hide. To the right sat a larger shelter, and behind that, one of moderate size, decorated with many brightly colored hand-prints, from which a woman emerged carrying a pair of children's moccasins. She walked over to him, and handed him the beaded shoes, which were bright red with a single yellow star on each.

A loose thread hung from the right moccasin, and there was a small space in a row of beads along its side, where the missing and now-found bead had fallen away. Still holding the dusty glass sphere in his hand, he held it up against this space where it fit perfectly and shone brightly, as sunlight hitting ice.

The woman offered her embrace, and spoke to him in the language in which he had dreamed. As she led him into her home, he recognized much of what lay about them.

And he remembered this place. And he remembered his people. And he knew he was home.

Thanks to RoseMary Diaz, an author, poet and freelance writer living in Santa Fe.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 17

Related Pages

Contemporary Native American Arts and Crafts article
Events at the Indian Pueblos article
Glossary of Pueblo Pottery Terms article
Glossary of Indian Art Terms article
A Sacred Place: Meditations on Corn

Historic American Indian Artifacts article
Poetry of the Pueblo Dances article
Traditional American Indian Paintings article
What Does This Indian Symbol Mean? article
Who are the Pueblo Indians? A Primer article

Collector’s Resources


House of the Shalako rem By Appointment in Peralta | 505-242-4579

Santa Fe

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery | 505.986.1234
Keshi - The Zuni Connection | 505-989-8728
Morning Star Gallery | 505.982.8187
Warrior Maiden Art pic 227 Don Gaspar | 988-4674


Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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