Native American tribes have used body paint from their first appearance in North America in about 10,000 b.c.e., both to psychologically prepare for war as well as for visual purposes.
Two major ingredients in body paint were charcoal and ocher, a reddish clay. Other natural ingredients, including bird excrement, plant leaves, and fruits, were mixed with animal fat and hot water to make paint. Tree branches and animal bones were used as paint-brushes. Indians painted in various shapes, often stripes, circles, triangles, and dots.
Given the high availability of red ochre throughout North America, red became the most used body paint color for indigenous tribes. The Beothuks of what is now Canada, for example, painted their entire bodies red to protect themselves from insects. Some theorize that this appearance is what led to the general derogatory term "redskin" for Native Americans. Other colors were also used and when Europeans and Americans opened trading posts in the nineteenth century, they introduced more colors for paints.
Colors had specific connotations for Indians. Historian Karl Gröning observed in Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art that "The combination of colour and motif was very important to the individual, who saw it as his 'medicine', his personal tutelary spirit." In the Blackfoot tribe of the Plains, for example, warriors who had performed heroically had their faces painted black. Similarly, the Teton Sioux of the Plains used black paint for victory and white for mourning.
Indians used war paint to rally themselves for battle and frighten enemies, in the way sports teams wear the same uniforms. The Catawbas of the Southeast painted one eye in a white circle and another eye in a black circle. Louis Capron observed in the National Geographic Magazine article "Florida's 'Wild' Indians, the Seminole" that for the Seminoles, red paint "signifies blood," green paint near the eyes helps a person "see better at night," and yellow paint is "the color of death" and "means a man has lived his life and will fight to the finish."
Generally, tribal elders wore different paints than their inferiors. Members of the Assiniboine tribe in what is now the state of Montana painted their faces red and black, but the chief painted his face yellow. Different tribes had different gender rules about painting themselves; while the Seminole tribe in Florida forbade women from face paint, the neighboring Timucuans allowed both men and women to use body paint.
Body paint in all its variations was one of the most recognized elements of Indian life for Europeans and Americans of the 1700s and 1800s. The nineteenth-century Leatherstocking novels about life in the wilderness by James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) popularized the phrase "war paint." In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's (1807–1882) 1855 epic poem "The Song of Hiawatha," the Great Spirit Gitche Menito commands Indian warriors to "Bathe now in the stream before you/Wash the war-paint from your faces." And George Catlin (1796-1872), the first American portrait painter to document the American West, detailed the face painting of forty-eight tribes in some five hundred portraits.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Capron, Louis. "Florida's 'Wild' Indians, the Seminole." National Geographic Magazine (December 1956): 819–40.
Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Waldman, Carl. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. New York: Facts on File, 1999.