Throughout time, American Indians have incorporated various symbols and signs into the objects they use on a daily basis. This is why most (in not all) of the items — war shields, clothing, jewelry, baskets, pottery, arrows, etc. — are now considered American Indian Art. The symbols and signs that are on these objects reflect many different things, such as religion, rites of passage, stories, natural phenomena, and more.

Here are some symbols and signs you may see on traditional American Indian art. While these symbols may mean different things to different tribes, this is a general idea of symbolism/meaning.

Buffalo: Leadership, Strength, Food
Open Hand: Peace, Friendship
Horse: Mobility, Wealth
Bear Paw: Life, Water
Broken Branches: Someone is near
Owl: Danger

Other things which were documented and used in American Indian Art are astronomical events, changes in weather patterns, births, death, natural disasters, cycles of the moon and planets, planting and harvest cycles.

Many of the symbols you see if American Indian art is tribe specific. However, there are symbols that are considered “universal.”  It is also important to note that there are new symbols in American Indian art today. These symbols are being adopted by Indian artisans due to changes/events that occur on a personal, social, national, and even an international level.

Many people who collect American Indian art are looking for the “old stuff.” However, you should not overlook collecting pieces of modern or contemporary American Indian art. These items can be found on the Internet or visiting the home base of the various American Indian tribes today.

Joseph Paige © 2006

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