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Traditional Native American Face Painting Practices

It is well known that face painting is a fun addition to parties, music festivals and other social gatherings. However, some face painting practices date a while back and are an inherent part of some cultures. Symbols, colours and other attributes added to one’s face can signify numerous things and explain a lot about a person, a culture or a nation if one knows what to look for. One group of people famously known from films and books to have deeply rooted traditions of face painting is Native Americans.

Traditional Native American Face Painting Practices
Traditional Native American Face Painting Practices

While nowadays most Native American tribes lead a more urbanized lifestyle and naturally face painting is not among everyday practices, back in the day, when they wore less clothing and carried out more traditional ceremonies, it was an inseparable part of their identity. Face paint together with a solid pair of moccasins were two attributes that were a must-have for every properly dressed Native American. The two favourite colours were red and yellow due to their symbolic meaning since both are colours of the sun. Red usually stood for morning sun, energy, power, the source of life while yellow represented the setting sun, peace and sincerity – values that were highly worshiped among most Native American tribes. They coloured their paint using various types of earths and some deep mines are found in places where Native Americans mined different ores, such as iron or copper, to use as pigment. Oftentimes the colours depended on the availability in the given region, but generally blue and bright red were the most highly valued ones.

Some of the most common uses of face paint included:

  • Membership to certain groups or societies
  • Belief in divine protection
  • Expressing inner bravery
  • Showing off war or hunting accomplishments
  • Displaying some symbol, the meaning of which was known only to the one wearing it

Interestingly, since the weather conditions were oftentimes harsh, Native Americans used to mix in tallow or grease and then use face and body paint not only as a decorative means but also as protection from the weather. That’s where the notoriously used name “redskins” originates – some tribes used to paint their entire bodies with red ochre. They mostly used their hands to create works of art on their bodies.

Traditional Native American Face Painting Practices
Traditional Native American Face Painting Practices

It is also important to note that face and body painting was a highly personalized matter for Native Americans. Often used in ritualistic practices or social gatherings, it was a way of beautification for both men and women, and the more elaborate and aesthetically pleasing the paintings were, the more attention the person received. Thus, it was considered inappropriate to copy another person’s body art; it was an individual self-expression. There were, however, symbols that were common among some and could only be used by certain members of societies, for instance shamans, established leaders or war heroes. Using their symbols without the accomplishments to back them up would be seen as disrespectful.

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