American Indian Symbols Dictionary


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We are often asked by customers what the meaning of designs used in American Indian arts, particularly jewelry and pottery, mean.  While it is true that many design symbols represent specific ideas or things taken from the cultural context, it is also true that many are only peripherally related to the culture or religious beliefs. These are simply the artist's personal creation which may relate to their culture... or not.
IMPORTANT NOTE:
The unauthorized use of these pages or these images by unscrupulous manufacturers of knocked-off jewelry or other offshore crafts copies does not signify our condoning these practices.  It is our position that these images represent cultural property which belongs to the artists and members of a specific American Indian Nation and not to anyone who wishes to use them to turn a fast buck.  We have used them with the deepest respect for the traditions involved as an educational sevice to those interested in American Indian cultural issues.

 

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  • We have assembled a group of  44 symbols which are common in the work of Navajo, Hopi and Zuni artists and also found in Pueblo Pottery.  Most of these images are copyrighted, and may not be distributed or used without permission of the owner (see bottom of page). The descriptions and definitions have been assembled through direct contact/interview with both artists and a variety of reservation traders, and substantial reading.  There are as many other symbols used in American Indian arts as there are different American Indian artists.  We have only attempted to describe the few that are most common in the Southwestern USA.
  • We also investigate the meaning of new designs we receive regularly, by speaking to the artists or to people with long-term contact.  In some cases, symbols are taken directly from religious beliefs.  We try to approximate the meaning, as it is considered very rude to ask pointed questions about religion of most traditional American Indian people.  We keep our ears open, and when the time is correct, we may overhear some information, or we may be told in contecxt with a conversation.  We are serious, however, about showing respect for their beliefs, honoring their trust by not publishing anything considered "sensitive" by their religious leaders.
  • The symbols are grouped by their major descriptives. In the arts, symbols are often combined, and embellished or abstracted, sot hat it may be very difficult to determine the exact source of an image.  It's important to realize that the artists are usually more concerned with your reaction to an image he or she creates rather than any "textbook" meaning.  As such, these symbols are components of their personal expression.
  • We have just added an image of the Cherokee Language Syllabary, or alphabet designed by Cherokee teacher Sequoyah in the 1700s. It will be found under the Symbol Dictionary


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American Indian Symbols Dictionary...

Arrows...
 
Arrows There are many different depictions of arrows. They usually connote direction, force, movement, power and direction of travel, also, as seen in the bear and deer images below, the pathway of the breath, the life-force of the animal spirit, called the "heartline"



Feathers...
 
Feathers, depicted in many, many ways, are symbols of prayers, marks of honor or sources of ideas.  They represent the Creative Force, and are taken from birds connected with the attribute for which they might be utilized: goose flight feathers to fledge an arrow because of the long flights of the geese; Eagle feathers for honor or to connect the user with the Creator, Turkey feathers to decorate a kachina mask. As design elements, they mau appear plain, banded, barred, or decorated.
Pahos or Prayer Sticks, are carefully notched and painted cottonwood or cedar sticks with specific feathers attached to catch the wind.  They are planted in the ground at religious sites, and at springs to carry specific prayers to the Creator or to the Kachinas.  Their forms are found in many Pueblo and Navajo designs.
Circular Feather Arrangements are found on pottery, in masks, prayer fans, dance costumes and on Plains "war bonnets" They are also used in decoration on buffalo hide "counts", or story depictions in paint recounting war honors, times of historic contact and other important periods of time.  In a circular arrangement, they are related to the sun, and therefore, to the Creator.

Animals...
 

Frog, water animal, connotes renewal, Spring and fertility
Bear, Directional Protector (West), physical strength, leaderrship, also frequently mentioned as "first helper", in creation/emergence stories.
Deer, Hunting prey animal, sacrifice and also mentioned as "first helper" in some emergence stories, family protection and speed.
Horned Lizard, represents lizards.  Also significant in some Navajo stories connoting perseverance and keeping ancient secrets.  Some say "they'll steal your eyes if you look at them too much!" They also are found in Coyote stories as ones who annoy Coyote.
Tadpole, immature frogs also connote fertility and renewal.  Because they change, they are considered very powerful.
Turtle, water animal, strength, female power fetish animal, fertility, long life, perseverance. Considered to be able to defy death, and is also an annoyance to Coyote.
Coyote, the trickster is also a powerful hunting prey god and fetish.  keen ability to find things, and is often considered an omen that something unpleasant might happen. This whimsical, new style, is an outgrowth of the popularity of the Santa Fe style, during the early 1990's.  This howling style with bandana is a copy of a cottonwood folk-sculpture first created by Santa Fe artist Ricardo Rodriguez and later mass-produced ad nauseum by anyone who wanted to sell something to the tourists.


Birds...
Water Bird, symbol of renewal of life, wet seasons, rivers distant travel, long vision, wisdom.  often inaccurately called "thunderbird", which is not a Southwestern tradition, but rather one of the plains people.  In that context, connected with lightning, thunder and visions.  Those who dream of the thunderbeings must become Heyokas -- those who live out their dreams backwards (Lakota tradition) The image has also been modified and used as the symbol of the Native American Church, founded by Commanche Quannah Parker around 1910.
Hummingbirds (paired), also sometimes waterbirds, or quail, symbolized in mated pairs as symbol of devotion, permanence and eternity, life cycles.  These are often modified in many, very simple forms.  Hummingbirds are particularly known to be ferocious fighters and defenders of their territory -- many times stroger than their small size would indicate.
Parrot, connected with both the sun and with the coming of the rains.  Parrots were considered carriers of these specific prayers and would confer blessings.  Kept for their feathers and color, by many Pueblo people (secured through trade with people to the far South), and also considered a very expensive posssesion thereby denoting prosperity.
Crane, also connected with water and the end of summer, images of migratory fowl like Sandhill Cranes are common in pottery and  petroglyphs from the Mimbre culture in Southwestern New Mexico.
Turkey, and important food source, also is mentioned in several Tewa Pueblo stories. Its feathers have many ritual uses.
Owl, among the Zuni and Keres Pueblo people, the owl is respected as the guise of departed, wise elders and leaders' spirits.  A silent hunter, the owl is connected with darkness and night as well as keen eyes and skillful hunting.  Among most other cultures, the owl is considered a bad omen, portending death.
Eagle, the master of the sky, is considered a carrier of prayers. Many Indian Nations honor this bird as possessing courage, wisdom, and a special connection to the creator.  This is often confused with the "thunderbird" image concept. Eagle is also a Directional Protector(the Sky) spirit, and an image associated with spirits and visions

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Snakes...
Snake, found in many healing and fertility rituals, is connected with lightning, the male organ, speed, and being able to move undetected. He is usually depicted with his tongue extended. He is also considered a hunter, and in some emergence stories is "first helper", although his nature is usually more ominous.
Avanyu, the feathered skysnake.  Frequently found in Tewa, Keres and Zuni pottery and in some jewelry.  He is the storm bringer, the changer of seasons.  Connected with lightning, thunderstorms and violent, sudden change.


Insects...
 
Dragonfly, connected with water and Springtime, fertility, renewal; considered a messenger.
Dragonfly, this is an abstract of the dragonfly symbol, which has been used as a talisman, particularly among the Southern Pueblos, notably at Isleta where it became a double armed cross.  This was worn as a symbol of both Catholic conversion and respect for older traditions. 
Cricket, the singer, is connected with Springtime, fertility and water and is often one of the ways Kokopelli, the Seed Bringer is depicted


Botanicals...
 
Plants, primary foodsources, tools, materials for basket making, healing provide many images.  Flowers are usually connected with the sun. Common ones such as corn, symbol of life, squash, beans, beansprouts and seeds are very often found in pottery.  The image here, is from a Navajo healing sandpainting, and each plant corresponds here to a compass direction as well.  One unusual symbol, the open flower at the end of the "Squash blossoms" on Navajo necklaces, were not originally from squash at all.   They were symbolic of the pomengranate, brought in by wealthy Spanish colonial settlers, and symbols of the new prosperity the Spanish introduced.  As squash blossoms were already symbols of plenty, the new image took hold easily.  Other plant images include trees, weeds (such as Devils Claw or Jimson Weed) and seed shapes.
Whirling Logs, an ancient symbol from many cultures, the North American symbol depicted the cyclic motion of life, seasons and the four winds.  Taken from the image of a tree in a whirlwind, this image is found in Navajop sand paintings frequently. It is considered a powerful medicine.


Animal Tracks...
Badger or Bear Paws, (badger seen here -- longer claws) usually considered a way of summoning the power of the animal spirit, or as an indication of the presence of the spirit.  Badgers are revered as healing animals and as tenacious hunters.  Their tracks may signify health and strength. Bear Paws/Tracks are also symbols of authority and leadership.
Wolf Tracks, or any other predators tracks usually signify a direction rather than simply the spirits presence.  These also are a clan short hand indication of kinship -- "wolf clan", for example.  Also symbols of authority and leadership.
Deer Tracks, are symbols of prosperity, safety, shelter, and also of the proximity to prey.  Also used as a directional indicator, and as a clan symbol.


Natural Forces and Objects...
 
Clouds, Rain and Lightning, in addition to representing themselves, are also important symbols  change, renewal and fertiltiy. Closely related is snow, which is considered even more of a blessing than rain.
The Morning Star, brightest star on the horizon at dawn, is considered an important spirit and is honored as a kachina among most Pueblos.  The Plains and Great Basin people honor it as a sign of courage and purity of spirit.  The Ghost Dance Religion used it as a symbol of the coming renewal of tradition and resurrection of the heroes of the past. Most other spirits are represented as stars under some circumstances.
The Sun, giver of life, warmth, growth, all that is good.  This is a style of showing the sun as the face of a kachina mask.  Similar styles are seen throughout the Southwestern Indian cultures.  May or may not also show "rays" signifying the four directions
The Zia, named for Zia Pueblo, who first used it, this is another symbol of the sun, and also of the four directions and the circle of life on earth.  It also may be connected with the place of emergence, the sipapu, in stories.  When New Mexico became a State, in 1912, the Zia was adopted as the symbol for the State Flag.  It appears as the sun in red, to honor the Indian Nations, on a yellow field (yellow was the royal color of the Spanish crown carried by the conquistador Coronado in 1540, the date of his entrance into New Mexico, at Zuni and the first recorded European contact with North American Indian people) and flys outside our gallery's front door
Life and Choice, depicted in this common symbol, "the-man-in-the-maze" was originally created as an illustration of an emergence story by the Tohono o'odham or Papago Indians of the Central Valley in Arizona. TRhe little man is named "U'ki'ut'l" in their language. It has been adopted by other people because it is significant of life's cycles and eternal motion and also of the choices we are confronted with. The right choices lead us to a point of harmony with all things, no matter how hard or long the road taken.  This symbol is especially utilized by Hopi silversmiths as a way to showcase the quality of their technique.

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Spirits...
 
Navajo Yeii Spirit, is a depiction of a irit considered by the Navajo to be a go-between between man and the creator.  Yeiis control natural forces in and on the earth, such as day and night, rain, wind, sun, etc.  A very special kind of yeii is the Yei'bi'chai, grandparent spirit or "talking God" who can speak with man, telling him how to live in harmony with all living things by following a few rules of behavior and using only the basic things he needs to survive.  A symbol of the harmony acheived is the "Rainbow Man", a yeii controlling the rainbow, who gives beauty to those in harmony.
Kokopelli, the seed bringer and water-sprinkler(a reference to his male anatomy), is a common fertility symbol throughout the Southwest.  His image is found in petroglyph art particularly in the fourcorners area and along the gorges of the San Juan River in Northern New Mexico and Colorado.  He is a personage who is honored as a kachina by most Pueblo cultures.  He is associated with fertility, the male principal and physiology, and the concept of the significance of protecting seeds.  Usually depicted as old, bent under his heavy load, he visits various communitys, impregnating the young women drawn to the tones of his flute playing.  He is also related to the cricket, or locust, whose natural music is connected with specific hunidity and seasonal temperatures.  There are many, very ribald stories of his various exploits.  When carved as a kachina doll, he usually has a staff, not a flute, but is also carved hunchbacked.  Before the missionaries came to the Hopi mesas in the 1930's, his kachina disguise and tihu doll also featured exaggerated male sexual organs although this practicve has been curtailed in recent years.  Today, he is considered the ambassaor of the Southwest, a much less colorful job, by tourists and visitors.
The Twins, depicted in almost every emergence/creation story among the Southwestern Indian people.  The twins are usually depicted as boys or small men who heroically overcam great odds to protect the people from monsters, drought, attack from other beings, animals, or many other problems.  They illustrate the concept of duality: in life, in the natural world, everything exists in balance -- male/female, large/small, light/dark, good/evil.  Here they are depicted as Father Sky/Mother Earth, from a Navajo sand painting
The Hand, represents the presence of man, his work, his acheivements, his legacy.  It also represents the direction of the creative spirit through a man, as a vessel for the Creators power. 

Patterns....
 
Weaving Pattern, (Klagetoh Community Style) Navajo weavers create beautiful, bold patterns which are at least partially derived from the physical limitations of the vertical loom.  These patterns are often found in other arts, such as jewelry or pottery.  They often combine many symbols of the natural world.
Weaving Pattern, (Storm Style), Navajo. Many of the Navajo patterns are followed closely by weaving families, while other designs are created fresh each time. Some designs are also similar to designs seen in Plains Beadwork and painting.
Border Patterns are used by weavers and silversmiths to establish boundaries and as designs in their own right.  The Hopi silversmiths, especially, have made great use of these foreground/background patterns in their overly jewelry. Many of the recurring spirals and whorls are connected with beansprouts, life springing out, cylces of life, and eternal renewal.  We call this one "Greek key".
Border Pattern, Spirals, whirlwinds, renewal, water
Border Pattern, kiva steps, or Clouds, direction and change
Border Pattern, Wedding Basket, Man/Woman, Cloud Points, Night/Day and Mountains/Sky
Border Pattern, Waves, spirals, water and cycles, life and renewal
Border Pattern, composite.  Many of these are combinations of many symbols, joined by the artist.  This one contains elements of water, birds, spirals and prayers. Complex designs like this, in repetition are showcases for the best Hopi silversmithing.

Sequoyah's Cherokee Syllabary....



New images and descriptions will be added from time to time. 

We thank RT Computer Graphics, of Rio Rancho New Mexico for allowing us to use many of the copyrighted images we have included here.  Send us images you have questions about and we'll attempt to determine their source meanings.

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