Like most ancient cultures, Native American tribes have many different symbols and cultural motifs that matter deeply to their people. While the peoples of the First Nations are diverse and comprise countless cultures—many of which are no longer in existence—there are certain commonalities that tie them all together. The Native American people had a deep respect for, and connection to, nature.

Archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and Native mystics have worked tirelessly to give us information on the cultural heritage of the Native American people. The shamanistic traditions of the American Indian and First Nations cultures hold much power if the legends are true. These symbols are believed by many scientists to be connected strongly with the genetic memories of mankind, drawing upon archetypes from the dawn of our species.

Native American Mystic Symbology

These symbols are often closely related to the religious traditions of these diverse tribes. Notably, the symbols depict deities or mythic beings, such as the Avanyu glyph from the Pueblo tradition. The crow or raven also feature prominently in Native American tales and symbols. According to the cultural heritage of the Native American people, crows are associated with mysticism, knowledge, wisdom, intelligence, courageousness, audacity, mischief, adaptability, destiny, introspection, alchemy, shamanism, and unadulterated life force.

The mystical connection between nature and mankind also manifests in the shared Native American practice of totemic spirit animals. Many tribes believe that a human soul is connected to a specific animal totem and that the traits of the animal manifest themselves spiritually in a person’s personality and disposition. People who are naturally mischievous, innovative, cunning, and spiritual are often said to be possessed of a crow’s spirit, for example. In stark contrast, people associated with owl totems are often said to have a deep connection with the spirit world, are highly observant, wise, intuitive, patient, and careful.

Anthropologists have taught us that there are symbols that are immediately recognized by the majority of humanity. The arrow is one of the most easily-recognized symbols, and it shows direction, force, and is associated with Neolithic phallic symbology. The arrow was one of our first tools, and the Native American cultures were avid hunters. In several Native American societies, the Arrow was used as a protective symbol against black magic and ill will. Crossed arrows represented the friendship between individuals or tribes, particularly in association to trade.

navajo codetalkers were celebrate for their ww2 contributions to US victoryTypical of cultures that revere nature, the First Peoples emphasize the equality of all forms of life. While some animals may be wiser, stronger, or more cunning than others, the Native American religions frame each and every animal with due respect for their unique roles and talents within the grand scope of the natural world.

The nature of symbols within the cultures of the Native American tribes is particularly complex. While we’ve mentioned that totemic owls are considered to be a sign of wisdom, observance, and deep spiritual knowledge, they are also seen as a harbinger of death and a bad luck omen within many Amerindian tribes. Cherokees revere the hummingbird, who carries messages from mortals to the divine Creator of the Earth, acting as one of the most powerful lines of communication between the spirit world and the living world.

Creation myths carry their distinctive symbols to identify the religious heritage of various American tribes. The Lenape people revere the turtle symbol of Nanapush, and to them, fire is a boon to all human beings and a bringer of good luck and charity.

Like the crow, owl, coyote, and wolf, the bear features prominently in many Native American myths, folktales, and religious ceremonies. Bears are seen by the Pueblo as guardians of humans and are associated strongly with western winds, the color blue, and medicine or healing. Bears often feature in folktales as punishers of the wicked, protectors of the innocent, and healers of the sick in multifarious traditions. Yakawawiak, associated with the Lenape, Mohican, and Shawnee people, is an infamous man-eating bear who may have been inspired by ancient wooly mammoths and other large mammals from the ice age.

Many Native American symbols and art depicting large mammals are influenced by the presence of megafauna in the pre-historic world. Mastodons were hunted to extinction by the Clovis tribes and also may have perished as a result of changing environmental conditions that made their natural habitats inhospitable.

Native American symbols are incorporated into ceremonial dress. Amerindian war paint is known worldwide its imposing appearance, framing the user’s face in vivid colors that evoke a sense of raw power, masculinity, and communion with the otherworldly.

For people uninformed on Native American history, it is easy to dismiss totem poles as art alone. To the Native American tribes, a totem pole is something much more than a cultural art piece. Totem poles are sacred objects to the tribes, and they represent spirits, supernatural creatures, gods, families, tribes, and individuals. Many Native American tribes believe that totems represent the nine individual spiritual guides that will help a person throughout the course of their life.

According to Native American tradition, everyone identifies with certain totems or spirits. If you’ve ever felt yourself drawn to particular animals, frightened by some animals, you’re constantly around a certain type of animal, you’re interested deeply in representations or figurines of a type of animal, or you have recurring dreams about one particular type of animal, then that animal is spiritually inseparable from you.

Perhaps one of the most famous and well-known Native American symbols is that of the Thunderbird. The Thunderbird is an animal that very may well have existed, although some scientists and zoologists regard it as a purely mythical creature. Thunderbirds are a pervasive symbol in Native American culture, and depictions of the Thunderbird can be found on many crafts of the First Peoples from weapons to pottery. Some cryptozoological specialists believe that the Thunderbird may have been an ancient mega condor or another large bird of prey, but the evidence is largely inconclusive.

One of the most striking places that Native American symbols make an appearance is on the surface of rocks across the Americas. Native American artisans delicately removed pieces of rocks using precision tools to incise images and motifs into the surface. The beauty of these pieces of art is breathtaking, and they remain an incredibly popular tourist attraction for visitors to the Americas. The United States and Canadian governments, along with historical preservation societies, use considerable resources to preserve the majesty of these wonders for future generations [CITATION Pet \l 1033 ].

Another famous symbol of the Native American tribes is the Dreamcatcher. Nets of fabric weaved about a willow hoop by native craftsmen look like the pattern of a spider’s web. The Dreamcatcher is said to ensnare the nightmares and prevent bad dreams from taking root. The origin of the Dreamcatcher and its symbols is a result of Ojibwe culture. The folkloric origin story of the Dreamcatcher involves the Spider Woman, called Asibikaashi, who cared for all of the Ojibwe people. When the borders of the tribal nation expanded greatly over time, it became increasingly difficult for the Spider Woman to care for her flock. As a result, the Ojibwe people adapted to their situation and began to weave their protective webs to keep bad thoughts away from the mind. The mystical knowledge of the creation of Dreamcatchers was passed down from mother to daughter.

If you are in the process of learning about Native American arts, culture, and history for whatever reason, understanding the symbols and archetypes of the Native American consciousness is an excellent place to start. Once you decode the mystery of these ancient symbols, you begin to understand the complexity, majesty, and breadth of the First Peoples.

From face paint to totem poles, the Native American tribes have a rich history of symbols deep-seated within their varying traditions.

References

Bear, B. L.-T. (1997). Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories and Ceremonies. New York: Penguin Group.
Dennis. (2011, July 06). The Meaning Behind Ancient Native American Symbols. Retrieved from Top Secret Writers: http://www.topsecretwriters.com/2011/07/the-meaning-behind-ancient-native-american-symbols/
Fiedel, S. (2009). Sudden Deaths: The Chronology of Terminal Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinction. American Megafaunal Extinctions at the End of the Pleistocene, 21-37.
Harris, E. (n.d.). Crow Spirit Animal. Retrieved from Animal Totems: http://www.spiritanimal.info/crow-spirit-animal/
High Eagle Productions, Inc. (1996). The Great Circle of Life. Retrieved from JC High Eagle: http://www.jchigheagle.com/1webgreatcircle.html
H’itakonanu’laxk. (1994). The Grandfathers Speak: Native American Folk Tales of the Lenape People. New York: Interlink Books.
Native American Bear Mythology. (n.d.). Retrieved from Native Languages: http://www.native-languages.org/legends-bear.htm
Native American Bear Mythology. (n.d.). Retrieved from Native Languages: http://www.native-languages.org/legends-bear.htm
Native American Legends: Yakwawiak, the Big Rump Bear. (n.d.). Retrieved from Native Languages: http://www.native-languages.org/yakwawiak.htm
Paranormal Junkie. (2015, October 15). Thunderbird Sightings! Do These Mythical Creatures Exist? Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgGtNUAunrk
Petoglyphs.us. (n.d.). Petroglyphs.us. Retrieved from Petroglyphs.us: http://www.petroglyphs.us/
Symbols.com. (n.d.). Native American Symbols. Retrieved from Symbols: http://www.symbols.com/native/
Thunderbird. (2014). Retrieved from War Paths to Peace Pipes: http://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-symbols/thunderbird-symbol.htm
Totems. (2003). Retrieved from Legends of America: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-totems.html
War Paths to Peace Pipes. (2015). War Paint. Retrieved from War Paths to Peace Pipes: http://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-culture/war-paint.htm

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