Manataka American  Indian Council





By Lee Standing Bear Moore and Takatoka



Symbols of the American Indian are very interesting.  They represent the past and sometimes the future.  They tell mysterious stories of old cultures and give life and understanding to the study of those simple, yet complex people who lived in balance with nature and communicated their beliefs, dreams, and reality in symbols.  Yet, at the same time they are an enigma.   Some are difficult if not impossible to decipher.   

In most cases, American Indian symbols are thousands of years old and are not easily interpreted.  Some petroglyphs are thought to have been made as early as  5000 BC, however, there is no way to date the stone drawings. Many times, the exact meaning of a symbol has been lost to time or changed by passing generations or other cultures.   There are thousands of symbols found in areas stretching from coast to coast.  Some are as large in size as several football fields and others are smaller than a thumbnail.

Symbols of the American Indian come down to us in many forms.  Some are beaded on elaborate wampum belts, others are found on strips of buffalo hide and more are seen chiseled on stone.  Probably the most reliable, in terms of graphic interpretation, are those found in the Southwest commonly called 'rock art'.   According to some estimates there are over 50,000 "known" stone petroglyphs and pictographs in the Southwest and West alone.   Many more probably exist in remote areas or covered by modern civilization.  Certainly, more existed prior to the European invasion. 

Contrary to common belief, most symbols were not spiritual in nature.  Some symbols were directional signs placed to mark a trail, identify territory, show the way to water, important places or some other natural or cultural feature.   Other symbols identified tribes or clans.  Symbols were used to record history such as a memorable hunt or extraordinary deed.  Stories were told using symbols to illustrate characters or events.  Other symbols were used as to identify astrological bodies and mark the position and movement of the sun, moon and stars.   

A symbols is defined as a graphic or material object that represents something else, usually something immaterial such as an idea, belief, or figure. Many symbols also incorporate decorative pattern designs.  Some common symbols and designs used in making pottery and basket of today were merely decorative and had no other meaning or purpose.

Spiritual life of the ancients required the use of many symbols.  Those symbols were made for various spiritual reasons in different times and regions and thus difficult to interpret.  Religious ceremonies, stories and sacred beings were depicted.

The exact meaning of ancient symbols of indigenous people is not possible in many instances.  There is strong evidence that a single symbol may have had several meanings.  The 'ascribed' meanings placed on symbols by modern scholars are not necessarily those intended by the makers.  When one tribe would borrow a symbol belonging to another, the meaning they gave to it was sometimes quite different from the originators.  Therefore, meanings change from tribe to tribe and from one region to another. 

The problem of interpretation is compounded when one culture attempts to attribute a certain meaning to a symbol made by another culture living in another time.  Time has had a great impact on our inability to correctly decipher the meanings.  The migrations of many indigenous people created knowledge gaps.  Cultural differences between generations caused meanings to degenerate. 

The mystery of Indian symbols is  what make their study so very interesting. 

We have divided our brief study of American Indian symbols into five major categories based on where they are found.  Eastern Woodlands, Southeast, Southwest, Plains and Northwest. 

Symbols, patterns and signs of the Southwest are intriguing to most visitors.  The largest number of petroglyphs and pictographs on the North American continent are found in seven states in the Southwest, therefore, It is there will begin our discussion. 


Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah have an estimated 30,000 petroglyphs, with Utah having the largest number of over 7,500.  Texas, California and Nevada having fewer known sites but none the less fascinating.


Deer Valley Rock Art Center - Phoenix, Arizona
Mesa Verde National Park - Cortez, Arizona
Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site - Gila Bend, Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park - Holbrook, Arizona
Saguaro National Monument - Tucson, Arizona
Petroglyph and Renegade Canyons - Coso Range, California
Pictograph Point - Mesa Verde, Colorado
Grapevine Canyon - Bullhead, Nevada
Valley of Fire State Park - Las Vegas, Nevada
Bandelier National Monument - Santa Fe, New Mexico
Chaco Culture National Historic Park - Thoreau, New Mexico
El Morro National Monument - Zuni, New Mexico
Petroglyph National Monument - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site - Three Rivers, New Mexico
Hueco Tanks State Park - El Paso, Texas
Petroglyphs Area - Diablo Dam, Texas
Seminole Canyon State Park - Del Rio, Texas
Canyonland National Park - Moab, Utah
Dinosaur National Monument - Vernal, Utah
Fremont Indian State Park - Monticello, Utah
Newspaper Rock Site - Monticello, Utah
Nine Mile Canyon - Price, Utah

It should be noted here the places noted above are protected areas and open to the public.  There are literally hundreds of more sites still unprotected therefore we do not list them.

The two figures shown here are forms of the Hopi nakwách symbol of brotherhood made when two priests clasp hands during the Wuwuchim dance - the dance of the linked finger.  The Ute also carried the same type friendship symbol.  The design is also a sign for water.

The kokopelli, mahu or humpback flute player is found carved on stones from South America to Canada. Koko means wood; pilau means hump.  His hump carried seeds and rainbows.  In his flute he carried music of warmth and love.   His large penis is a symbol of fertility and abundance.

The dancer is reminiscent of kokopelli without the flute and humpback or special powers to bring rain and create abundance.  Stories of the dancer vary but is said the he lured the young away from their homes and made them slaves. 

The handprint was a signature of the maker of a symbol and a prayer to the Spirits to bring about the object that was drawn such as clouds for rain.  The handprint had supernatural importance.  The red hand print was a sign of the Elder War God.  The left hand, considered more sacred than the food hand was placed on objects of religious meaning. 

Figures of the Hopi God of Death, Maasaw and the track of Maasaw (left) are used in modern times to mark graves to keep young people from destroying it.  "Look in the valleys, the rocks and the woods you will find my footsteps there," said Masau.  And, there are….

The connected circles are similar to the keptevipi, a religious tool used by the Niman (Hopi) to purify the earth.  Also thought to be the eyes of the guardian of the gila monster, an insect with four eyes.  It is the Mayan  symbol for the day Ahua and the planet Venus - the morning star. 

There are two forms to the Hopi Tapu'a, Mother Earth symbol, square and round representing spiritual rebirth. The passages in the maze represent the Creator's universal plan man must follow.  The Pimas call it the House of Teuhu (Gopher).



Lake-Thom, who has studied with the elders of many tribes, explains the significance of animal figures as manifestations of good or evil, and shows how we can develop our own powers of awareness and intuition. The first book of its kind, this practical and enlightening resource includes dozens of fascinating animal myths and legends, as well as exercises and activities that draw upon animal powers for guidance, healing, wisdom, and the expansion of spiritual influences in our lives. You'll discover here how animals, birds, and insects act as signs and omens; the significance of vision quests; how to make and use a medicine wheel; the role of spirit symbols - and how they affect the unconscious; exercises for creative dreaming; the power of the earth-healing ceremony; how to increase your spiritual strength and create sacred spaces; and more. Soft Cover, 210pp   $ 27.95

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