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The Power of Paint

Native American culture revolved around their beliefs. Their religions often displayed a spiritual connection with nature and the world around them. They showed them in many ways, one of these was through colours and symbols that were painted on their skin. These symbols represented all sorts of things from achievements to roles in society; some were even intended to give magical powers and protection to warriors as they went into battle. They would be painted on horses intended to give them powers as well and the achievements painted on their tepees for everyone in the village to see.

There were so many different symbols all meaning different things to different tribes. Often warriors would wear certain symbols in battle to intimidate their enemy further. A familiar example may be the hand print, for some wearing the hand print meant that they had previously succeeded in hand to hand combat; this meant they were an experienced fighter to be approached with caution. An example of a symbol that was intended to imbue mystic powers would be a zigzag across the forehead which represented lightning, intended to supply the warrior with power and speed.

Colours were also very important and every one gave a different meaning. Each had their own connotations amongst a tribe but there are common themes with each. It is also important to note that colours could have different meanings when used as war paint as opposed to face paint.

The colour red in war paint could mean blood, strength and power, in face paint however is could mean happiness or beauty. Black was an aggressive shade, used to prepare for war. This might be used to indicate the wearer was a powerful warrior. White, in stark contrast to modern western views was used for mourning, more similarly though it could also be used to connote peace. The colour blue represented wisdom where as green showed endurance, due to its association with harmony and the healing arts. Yellow may have shown that the wearer was heroic or willing to fight his very last breath, it also symbolised death.

Paints were made using a wide variety of natural resources. They were made up of a ground up pigment suspended in a liquid or binding agent. Pigments could come from all sorts of sources, things like roots, plants, clays, berries, eggshells, algae and charcoals were all used to make up each colour. To bind them they would use animal fat, egg yolks, urine and even blood. Once prepared the paints were dried out into a fine powder and kept in deerskin pouches so that they could be carried about and applied when needed.

War and face paints were just one of many ways in which the Native Americans communicated. It conveyed messages not only to other tribes but to those in their own villages. It was a form of expression but it was also tied intrinsically to their religion, their beliefs and their way of life.

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