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What are Native American Symbols?

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  • Written By: Tara Barnett
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  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2016
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Native American symbols play a large part in the art and traditions of the culture. These symbols vary based on the lineage of the tribe, although tribes that have developed in close contact or from a common ancestor may share motifs. The manifestation of symbols for Navajo people, for example, is different from the depiction used by the Sioux. Despite these differences, most Native American symbols consist of a standardized way of representing certain objects, designs that represent a concept rather than a tangible item, or in some cases the combination of these two types of symbols.

Among the many Native American symbols depicting objects in many tribes, there is usually a codified way of symbolizing both the environment and animals. Environmental symbols may include the sun, the moon, and less concrete environmental features such as water or wind. The animals depicted are usually found in the area the tribe lives, and might include birds, bears, snakes, and other creatures. These symbols are almost never used solely to depict the existence of these objects, but to impress upon the viewer the meaning of those objects to the tribe.

Additional physical symbols might include mythical creatures and spirits. The symbol representing Kokopelli, for instance, represents a figure that is not usually found in the environment. Representation of mythological and religious figures may be literal and depict what those figures are thought to look like, or figurative, representing the idea of those figures.

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There are also Native American symbols representing ideas rather than imitating the appearance of certain objects. Symbols representing concepts, such as an emotion, a season, or an attitude may rely on the depiction of a related object, or may be fully arbitrary. If a simplified language was used by the tribe to communicate with other tribes of different languages, there may also be symbols representing actions and other necessities of trade.

Besides the Native American symbols used in art and design, it is also important to consider how these symbols are a part of a culture. For example, if a bear is used as a symbol with a special meaning in artistic applications, then a bear in real life also shares those meanings. Objects may even be used for exactly this purpose. If feathers are symbolic for a tribe, then the use of feathers in garments relates to the meaning of feathers. Native Americans often have richly symbolic cultures, and for members of those tribes, symbols exist all over their surroundings and decorate their world with meaning.

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honeybees
Post 7

There are many Native American symbols and patterns that are displayed in their weaving.

These would not be as easy to recognize as other pictures of Native American symbols, but if you have ever purchased a blanket or rug, you often see many of the same patterns used over and over again.

Many of these patterns are also used on the pottery and jewelry they create. If you ever look closely, you will see a lot of similar patterns used on their borders and in the products they weave.

There is usually a very specific purpose and reason for these patterns and most of them will contain symbols of nature.

John57
Post 6

My sister lives in Arizona, and when we visit her, we stop at a lot of places that sell Native American pottery and gifts.

The kokopelli image is one that is seen often on the products they sell. Of all the Native American designs and symbols, this is the one that I have seen more than any of the others.

I really never understood what it represented until I was curious enough to do some research on my own.

I discovered this symbol stands for many things, and is known as the fertility deity for agriculture and childbirth. It also represents the spirit of music. This made more sense to me, as many times I have seen this image playing a flute.

KoiwiGal
Post 5

@bythewell - I would argue that goes for a lot of other things as well.

I know people who use Native American symbols and pictures in movies, or in picture books and so forth without really finding out what the symbol means.

Or they might retell a legend, which has its own symbols, without getting input from someone within the tribe who has that legend.

In many cases a tribe has had to fight hard to keep their culture and it is still a struggle.

Using their symbols any way you wish is a terrible thing to do.

whiteplane
Post 4

I have a poster of Native American zodiac symbols that has been hanging in my basement for years. Its pretty cool to look at. They look a lot different than you would expect.

Until I got the poster I didn't even know that Native Americans had a zodiac. But it seems to have shown up in just about every culture.

summing
Post 3

Unfortunately, native American symbols have been co-opted as badly as Chinese lettering. There are lots of things that look "Indian" but really have no relation to any tribe or any meaning.

People will throw out an eagle and a tomahawk and a teepee and a man in a headdress, but in most cases these are just Indian kitsch and don't come from anywhere. Knock off Indian crafts are a big business in certain parts of the country and lots of people don't take the time to create any kind of authenticity.

The only way to get real Indian crafts with genuine symbols and signs is to go to a reputable dealer or have someone expert in the art guide you through the process. There are some knock offs that are so old they look like antiques. It really takes an expert eye to know what you are buying.

bythewell
Post 2

If you are hoping to find Native American symbols for a tattoo or something like that, you know you should really ask permission before using it.

Other cultures have taken spiritual ideas from Native Americans for centuries now. And, while that's not as bad as other things they've done, it's not great either, particularly when the symbol gets twisted or used in a disrespectful way.

If you want a generic kind of symbol, make one up (although don't claim afterwards that it's anything more than "inspired" by Native American symbols).

But, otherwise you should try to find a tattoo artist who is part of the culture and can advise you on what is respectful and what is not. And you should take that advice.

After all, what is the point of having a spiritual symbol on your body if you're disrespecting the culture it comes from?

Mor
Post 1

I saw a sad documentary recently where a group of native Americans set off to travel to New Zealand in order to find a particular kind of salmon.

The salmon was one of their most sacred animals and a powerful symbol of renewal to them. But, the salmon in the rivers which flowed through their land had become extinct.

They had heard that in New Zealand, that particular kind of salmon was thriving, since it had been introduced there.

So, they went to New Zealand to perform their ceremony, where they follow the salmon downriver.

They also went to the hatcheries they had in that country and learned how to breed the salmon so they could reintroduce it in their own waters.

It was sad because it showcased environmental and cultural degradation, but it was also kind of awesome, because the Native Americans took their spiritual symbols and their future into their own hands again.

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