Manataka American Indian Council








Face Paint Practices

By Grandmother Selma





Face paint or " medicine paint" amongst Native Americans was a social act of cultural heritage, it occurred on many occasions but was a visual indication of the given individual personal power as well as his tribal affiliation.  Face paint drew on the natural powers of the universe to enhance the individuals own personal power and gifts.


They normally painted around the nose first then the forehead, then the chin...the eyes and then the rest of the face.  Materials used were roots, berries, tree bark and colored clay. 


Each tribal nation had their own designs and individuals respected those guidelines, however, often the individual " paint design" could be a portrayal of a spirit message, a vision , and have spiritual significance to the individual that was unknown to others.


Red was the accepted color of war, the red was often extended to include the back of the hands, stripes on face only and even on the handle of their weapons or shields.


Black was the accepted color of the living with some exceptions that we will discuss later.  White was the accepted color of peace....or peaceful endeavors.  Green was the color used to aid the wearer in night vision.   Yellow was the accepted color of death or deadly encounters. (exception : black was the color of war to the Comanche)


Comanche men often painted faces black with two red stripes on the forehead and chin.  Comanche women used paint as well.  Usually it was bright red inside the ears, orange and red circles on their cheeks with red and yellow around the eyes.


Crow painted faces red with yellow eye lids with the chests and arms having horizontal stripes.


Assiniboine painted faces black or red with eyes rimmed white.


Blackfoot used face paint with stripes, circles and dots in blue, yellow, red, black and white.  An occasional black face represented a heroic deed in the immediate past.


Kiowa warriors often painted their shields, the individuals entire body, shield and horse were painted in the same solid color.


Pawnee used black face paint to symbolize victory in battle or conflict.


The above information shows that the patterns, even within one tribal nation or even one clan varied beyond belief.  Strange combinations and the kaleidoscope of colors were matched only by the individuals imagination, his personal powers he wanted displayed, his visions and or dreams and even more varied depending on the occasion, ceremony or the circumstances of the above variables.


Eyes were often surrounded by various colors, yellow or black, strips equidistant from the mouth, semicircles of green dots on the cheeks.   Frequently the face was divided into halves and each half receiving and portraying different significant messages.  One half being perhaps light or dark blue or black while the other half was quite light.  Yellow or white and even bright red.  One half may be arabesque with  fine detailed lines while the other half is crossed with thick lines.  The lines of demarcation varied, sometimes down the nose, other times across the nose, much of it only the wearer knew the true significance of.


In some tribal nations red was festivity, some joy, some war, some anger, some the blood of the people...yet to some, it was a new path....a new beginning....even a touch of innocence.


In some tribal nations Black was mourning or death but to some it was the dream state of life, the searching of the soul.  In some nations if death of a close one occurred the entire face was covered in charcoal.  If it was a distant relative of friend it became black line or even " half mourning mask"  with only one half of the face painted with charcoal.  Often the base color was red with the other colors overlapping. 


Blue was often used even on their pipes and their faces and often their burial site.


" Osceola on his death bed, called for his red paint.  Which he deliberately painted on half of his face, his neck and throat, his wrists, the backs of his hands and the handle of his with vermilion.  A custom practiced when the irrevocable oath of war and destruction is taken "  ( Dr. Frederick Weeden, quoted by George Catlin, 1844 )


" Yellow paint says a warrior is ready to die.  Red paint signifies blood, green under the eyes makes for " see better at night". Yellow , the color of death means a man has lived his life and will fight to the finish "  ( Capron,1956)


Note of possible interest : The Anti-Terrorist Bill of 125 clauses that make it a criminal offense not to remove a face mask or face paint in public .




Myths of the North American Indians by Lewis Spence.

Dr. Frederick Weeden, quoted by George Catlin,1844

Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indian. Z vols. 4th edition, London, 1894

Carron, 1956 quote

1956 Florida's " Wild Indians",  the Seminole, National Georgraphic

Magazine, Dec.,vol.69 no.6:819-840

Graphic modified from one on internet location: Photosearch


ęCopyright Selma Palmer 2006



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