Iconography: Native North American Iconography

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Iconography is a living force in North American Indian religious life, past and present. Rooted in mythical imagery, it informs the content of individual dreams and nourishes the themes of contemporary Indian art. A study of the iconography of a people provides a unique opportunity to gain insight into what Werner Müller calls the "pictorial world of the soul" (Die Religionen der Waldlandindianer Nordamerikas, Berlin, 1956, p. 57).

The following exposition of the major themes of religious iconography in North America is restricted to the evidence of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries of ethnographic research. As a result, the beautiful pottery and stone remains of the prehistoric peoples of the Southwest and Southeast are not represented here, nor are the remains of the Mound Builder cultures of the river regions.

The iconographical themes follow the general lines of myth and religious beliefs. As such, they can be cataloged in the following manner: the cosmos, supreme beings, tricksters/culture heroes, guardian beings, other mythic beings, astronomical beings, weather beings, animal beings, vegetation beings, human beings, geological beings, and abstract symbols. But it is not always the case that the verbal images of the myths are equivalent to iconographical images: one notorious example of divergence is the Ojibwa trickster, Rabbit, who, when pictured, is actually human in form.

Concerning the wide variety of media used, the following general distribution can be observed: in the Far Northivory, bone, and stone; the Northeast and Southeast Woodlandswood, bark, skin, quillwork, and beadwork; the Plainsskin, beadwork, pipestone, quillwork, and painting of bodies and horses; the Northwest Coastcedar, ivory, argillite, blankets, and copper; Californiabaskets and some stone; the Southwestsand painting, wood, stone, baskets, pottery, jewelry, and dolls.

The Cosmos

Cosmologies vary from tribe to tribe in both content and imagery. But whereas the mythical image of the universe (its cosmography) may be highly detailed, the iconographical rendering is necessarily restricted. The cosmos is most often graphically limited to those elements that characterize its basic nature and structure, including its nonvisual aspects.

The most widespread symbol of the whole cosmos is the ceremonial lodge, house, or tent. The fundamental idea of the ceremonial lodge, such as the Delaware xingwikáon ("big house"), is that all of its parts symbolize, and in ritual contexts actually are, the cosmos. Usually the realms of this cosmos are interconnected with a central post, which is conceived of as extending itself like a world tree up to the heavens. Renewing such a house constitutes the actual renewal of the cosmos.

Similar ideas are found among the Plains Indians, for whom the sacred camp circle constitutes an image of the world, and the central pole of the Sun Dance tipi, the whole cosmos. In fact the Crow call this tent the "imitation" or "miniature" lodge, a replica of the Sun's lodge.

Representations of the cosmos can refer to the more subtle manifestations of the world, as in the sand paintings of the Luiseño of California, but they can also approach the reality of topographical maps, as in the sand paintings of the neighboring Diegueño. In a completely different approach to the visualization of the cosmos, the well-known Navajo sand painting of Father Sky and Mother Earth illustrates the anthropomorphic representation of the cosmos.

Concerning nonvisual aspects of the cosmos, it is not uncommon that ethical ideals or holistic images of proper human life, which are extensions of the theological bases of many cosmologies, are also visualized iconographically. The most common image of this type is that of the right, or the beautiful, path. The Delaware big house has a circular path on its floor, which the visionary singers and other participants in the big house ceremony walk and dance upon. This path is called the Good White Path, the symbol of the human life. It corresponds to the Milky Way, which is the path of the souls of the dead. The Ojibwa bark charts of the Midewiwin ceremony consist of illustrations of the degrees of initiation into the Mide secret society. All of the degrees are represented as connected by the path of the initiate's life, starting in the image of the primordial world and ending upon the island of direct communication with the supreme being. This path is pictured with many detours and dramatic occurrences.

Supreme Beings

Among the myriad images found in North American Indian iconography are certain divine beings whose representations cut across taxonomic groups; these include supreme beings, tricksters/culture heroes, guardian beings, and other mythical beings. Since the majestic, all-encompassing supreme being is difficult to visualize, its morphology is relatively simple. When not visualized as some object or animal intimately associated with the supreme being, its form tends to be anthropomorphic. For example, the Ojibwa song charts visualize the supreme being, Kitsi Manitu, with a pictograph of a human head, belonging to an initiate in the Mide secret society.

On the other hand, the all-pervasiveness of the supreme being among the Plains Indians can result in the use of symbols of lesser deities to represent it. Thus Wakantanka, of the Oglala Lakota, has various manifestations such as the Sun, the Moon, Buffalo, and so on, all of which are pictured on hides or, as with Buffalo, represented by a buffalo skull.

Tricksters/Culture Heroes

The most widespread iconographic trickster type is theriomorphic: Raven, Coyote, or Rabbit. The most well-known image is that of Raven among the Northwest Coast tribes, a character who encompasses all of the classical features of the trickster. He is pictured in raven-form on virtually every object throughout the Northwest, usually in the context of a mythical event that somehow affected the ancestor of the house in which the object is found, be it house pole, settee, or some other form. As part of shamanic paraphernalia, his image imparts one of his main characteristics: that of transformation. Even though the trickster is an animal, in mythical thought he can change to human form, and this process is often reflected iconographically, as with the Navajo Coyote and the Delaware and Ojibwa Rabbit.

The culture hero is a divine or semidivine mythic figure who, through a series of heroic deedsespecially the theft of such an important item as fire or lightstarts humanity upon its cultural road. When he is not the theriomorphic trickster, he is often simply visualized as a human being.

Guardian Beings

Guardian beings associate themselves most often on a personal level with single individuals, and they function as guardians who bring blessings to their human partners. In the Plains and Northern Woodlands cultures, to seek and receive a personal vision of just such a guardian is necessary in order to secure an individual's station in life. These guardians can appear in just about any form taken from the natural or the mythological world. Among the Oglala it may be necessary to paint a version of one's vision on the tipi in order to secure its validity, although generally images of the guardian are painted on shields.

In the cultures of the Far North and Arctic areas, the shaman and his guardians are a constant iconographic theme. His guardians are portrayed in several general ways: as diminutive human beings clustered near the shaman or as human faces clustered together, as a human visage under an animal visage such as seen in Alaskan masks, as an animal form reduced in size and resting on the head or shoulders of the shaman, as birdlike shamans or shamans in transformation, as flying spirits being ridden by shamans, as an animal or human being with skeletal markings, or as flying bears or other usually flightless beasts. These images are portrayed in contemporary drawings, ivory sculpture, masks, stone sculpture, bone sculpture, drumsticks, shaman staff, and so on. Throughout North America the shaman also uses organic parts of his guardians in his ritual paraphernalia, or else he can use the entire skin of his guardian animal to transform himself.

Guardians appear in nonvisionary and nonshamanistic cultures as well. The Pueblo deities of the six world regions are considered to be guardians of humanity. Another type of guardian is Rainbow Serpent, pictured on almost all Navajo sand paintings. This figure encircles the entire painting but remains open toward the east. Its function is to keep the evil spirits out of the reinstated cosmic region.

Other Mythical Beings

Among the mythological figures who are pictured iconographically, one important group is that of monsters. The most common monster motif is an image of the primordial horned, flying serpent, the cause of floods and earthquakes. He is known all over the Americas and is generally pictured in exactly the form described. Another monster known all over North America is Thunderbird, usually pictured on shields, shirts, and beadwork as an eaglelike creature.

There is also a whole group of evil beings who, in one form or another, are believed to exercise a malignant and dangerous influence on humanity. Such creatures are usually theriomorphic but not necessarily so.

Astronomical Beings

The sun, the moon, and the stars are pictured as beings throughout North America. The sun is portrayed most intensely where it is strongest, in southeastern and southwestern North America. The Hopi portray the Sun, Taawa, anthropomorphically but, in keeping with Hopi iconography, he wears a mask that consists of a circular disk fringed with radiating feathers and horsehair. This radial representation of the sun is the most common image known. The Ojibwa, on the other hand, have a completely different image, which is horned, winged, and legged.

The moon is usually represented in its quarter phase, although images of the full moon are sometimes found. The stars most often pictured are the Morning Star (Venus), the Pleiades, Orion, Altair, the constellation Ursa Major (which is invariably pictured as a heavenly bear), and the Milky Way. Stars are shown with four, five, and six points and are often associated with human figures.

Meteorological Beings

This group consists of Thunder, Wind, Rain, and Lightning. Thunder is often pictured as the Thunderbird, but other birds can also be used. Wind, on the other hand, is generally associated with the cardinal regions and therefore not visualized directly. Cultures with anthropocentric morphology, however, such as the Navajo and the Ojibwa, picture even this being in human shape.

Rain is usually illustrated as lines falling from cloud symbols or as a being from which rain is falling. Lightning is always shown as zigzag lines regardless of the tribe in question. The lines usually end in arrowheads, for there is a conceptual link between lightning and arrows. Lightning and thunder are usually considered to be the weapons of the widely known Warrior Twins.

Animal Beings

There are a number of animals which are known and visualized throughout North America, such as the bear, the deer, and the buffalo. However, other animals peculiar to a particular region are the more common iconographical subjects, such as the whales and seals of the northern coasts, or the lizards and snakes of the desert regions. The general rule is that the animal is depicted in its natural form.

Representations of animals may signify the spirit or master of their species or the form of some deity, guardian being, or primordial creature, or they may indicate the totem animal. All animal images used in ritual contexts have religious significance. But the most common use of animal images occurs in heraldry, which casts some doubt on the exclusively religious significance of its use and meaning.

The Northwest Coast Indians are the most conspicuous users of totem symbols. These symbols are represented in literally every conceivable medium: poles, house fronts, hats, aprons, spoons, bowls, settees, boat prows, spearheads, fishhooks, dagger handles, facial painting, masks, speaker staffs, paddles, drums, rattles, floats, bracelets, leggings, pipes, and gambling sticks. The question of religious significance may be resolved by the fact that the totem animal is considered either a direct ancestor of the clan or somehow associated with an ancient human ancestor. Thus the symbol at least, if not its use, has religious meaning.

Vegetation Beings

Corn is the plant most commonly visualized. The representation can simply refer to the plant itself, but frequently a maize deity is being invoked. The latter is the case throughout the Southwest, whether among the Pueblo or the Athapascan peoples. The maize deity is usually clearly anthropomorphized. Hallucinogenic plants such as peyote, jimsonweed, or the strong wild tobaccos are more or less realistically pictured; such images refer to the deities of these potent plants. Others beings who somehow influence plant growth are also visualized iconographically; these include the Yuki impersonations of the dead, who have a decided influence on the abundance of acorns, or the Hopi impersonations of cultic heros and heroines whose rituals influence crop growth.

Human Beings

This category concerns not only human ancestors but also a miscellaneous collection of beings that have human form. The first type are effigies of once-living human beings. These are most commonly figured on Northwest Coast mortuary poles, but they are also found elsewhere: the Californian Maidu, Yokuts, Luiseño, and Tubatulabal, for example, all burn effigies of prominent people two years after their deaths.

Human images can also be material expressions of the ineffable. During the Sun Dance the Shoshoni and the Crow each bring out a stone image in diminutive human shape, which is then attached to a staff or the center pole of the tent. It is said to represent the spirit of the Sun Dance. Human images, such as dolls, can symbolize or are actually considered to be small spritelike creatures who can have an array of functions and duties and who play a part in ceremonial contexts as well. Human representations can also signify the heroes or founders of cults; such is the case with many images on Pueblo altars and other representations on Northwest Coast poles.

Geological Beings

This category of images is based on a type of religious geomorphology. It is not a numerically dominant theme, but it is nonetheless of singular importance. The most prominent geological being envisioned is Mother Earth, although it is seldom that direct representations of it occur. In such anthropocentric iconographies as that of the Navajo, it is no problem to illustrate Mother Earth as a somewhat enlarged female human being. Usually, however, Mother Earth is symbolized by some fertility image, such as an ear of corn, or by a circle. Among the Delaware, the earth is symbolized by the giant tortoise who saved humankind from the flood and upon whose back the new earth was created by Nanabush. Sods of earth can also be used to represent Mother Earth, as in the Cheyenne buffalo-skull altar in the medicine lodge.

Another group of geological beings consists of images of mountains. Except for isolated pockets of flatlands and desert basins, most of North America is covered with mountains, and these are usually believed to be alive or at least filled with life, that is, they are the abodes of the gods. This feature of mountains is highly important and is also recognized iconographically.

Finally, some mention should be made of stones and prehistoric implements. Animacy or power is attributed to implements such as ancient pipe bowls, mortars, and blades, any odd-shaped stones, and stones resembling animal, vegetable, or human outlines. Such stones symbolize whatever they resemble.

Abstract Symbols

The dynamic and highly stylized geometric patterns on Southwest Indian pottery, which represent categories already discussed (such as clouds, rain, lightning, the sun, and so on), also belong to the category of abstract symbols. Cultures with highly developed artistic iconographies, such as those of the Northwest Coast, the Southwest, and the Woodlands peoples with their birchbark illustrations, also develop series of signs referring to abstractions inherent to their systems. On the Ojibwa Midewiwin scrolls, for example, the symbol of bear tracks in a particular context represents a priest's four false attempts to enter the Mide lodge. These four false attempts can also be symbolized by four bars.

See Also

North American Indians; Shamanism, article on North American Shamanism; Tricksters, article on North American Tricksters.


There is unfortunately no comprehensive work on the religious iconography of the North American Indians. Information about iconography is found in the original ethnographic data on various peoples published in the annual reports and the bulletins of the Bureau of American Ethnology. An ethnographic approach to art in North America, with emphasis on prehistoric art, can be found in Wolfgang Haberland's The Art of North America, translated by Wayne Dynes (New York, 1964). General works on the art of American Indians are numerous; the most comprehensive is Norman Feder's American Indian Art (New York, 1971). Another useful study is Frederick J. Dockstader's Indian Art of the Americas (New York, 1973).

For the Indians of the Far North, see Jean Blodgett's The Coming and Going of the Shaman: Eskimo Shamanism and Art (Winnipeg, 1979) and Inge Kleivan and Birgitte Sonne's Eskimos: Greenland and Canada, "Iconography of Religions," sec. 8, fasc. 1 (Leiden, 1984). Concerning the Northeast and Southeast Woodlands tribes, see Frank G. Speck's Montagnais Art in Birch-bark, a Circumpolar Trait, "Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, Indian Notes and Monographs," vol. 11, no. 2 (New York, 1937), and Concerning Iconology and the Masking Complex in Eastern North America, "University Museum Bulletin," vol. 15, no. 1 (Philadelphia, 1950). For the Plains Indians, see Åke Hultkrantz's Prairie and Plains Indians, "Iconography of Religions," sec. 10, fasc. 2 (Leiden, 1973), and Peter J. Powell's Sweet Medicine: The Continuing Role of the Sacred Arrows, the Sun Dance, and the Sacred Buffalo Hat in Northern Cheyenne History, 2 vols. (Norman, Okla., 1969). For Indians of the Northwest Coast, see Charles Marius Barbeau's Totem Poles, 2 vols. (Ottawa, 19501951), and Franz Boas's Primitive Art (1927; new ed., New York, 1955). Concerning the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, see my Hopi Indian Altar Iconography, "Iconography of Religions," sec. 10, fasc. 4a (Leiden, 1986), and Barton Wright's Pueblo Cultures, "Iconography of Religions," sec. 10, fasc. 4 (Leiden, 1985). For the Navajo Indians of the Southwest, see Sam D. Gill's Songs of Life: An Introduction to Navajo Religious Culture, "Iconography of Religions," sec. 10, fasc. 3 (Leiden, 1979), and Gladys A. Reichard's Navajo Medicine Man: Sandpaintings and Legends of Miguelito (New York, 1939).

Armin W. Geertz (1987)