When European explorers came to America, the Native Americans were not communicating through writing as we know it to be. Instead, they told oral histories, created Native American symbols /Indian symbols and drew pictures to communicate.
Of course, this form of communication was not only used by the Native Americans. After all, a long time before the invention of writing, people across the world recorded ideas, feelings, maps, events, and more by drawing symbols and pictures on various surfaces.
Some of these historical symbols for words/phrases go back to times as old as 3000 BC (and before). Known as pictographs, these were created by painting with natural pigments such as the iron oxide found in limonite or hematite, charcoal, copper, soft rock, and white/yellow clays. These were mixed together to create a variety of colors. Typically, the historical pictographs are found in caves or protective ledges where they have been sheltered from the elements.
There is another form of communication, known as petroglyphs, which are pictures pecked, abraded, or carved into the surface of a stone. This produces a visible indentation within a rock and may even reveal material of varying colors below the surfaces.
Native American symbols are like words and typically contain a variety of connotations and have several definitions.
Since these symbols vary from one tribe to the next, it is often difficult to know the meaning, while others are quite clear. Since various tribes spoke many different languages, they used picture writing to convey ideas and words. Symbols were often used to record important events and decorate homes and were also painted on buffalo hides.
History of the Native American Symbols: The Spanish Influence
The arrival of the Spanish explorers in 1540 in the Southwest had a significant impact on the life of the Native Americans. In 1680, the tribes revolted against the rule of Spain and drove them out, back to Texas.
In 1692, the Spanish settlers moved to New Mexico. Due to their return, there was a renewal of the influence of Catholicism, which discouraged the Native Americans from participating in their traditional practices. This led to many of them moving their practices underground, which meant that most of the image creations by the Native Americans were diminished.
Petroglyphs vs. Hieroglyphs: Not the Same Thing
Unfortunately, modern society doesn’t seem to have an understanding of the various reasons for creating petroglyphs. There is so much more to the petroglyphs than just picture writing, rock art, or imitating the natural world. That said, you really should not confuse petroglyphs with hieroglyphics, which represent words.
Petroglyphs are very prominent symbols of culture reflecting the complex religion and societies of the tribes in an area.
Native American Symbols (Indian Symbols)/Totems
The context of an image is critical to determining the meaning of the symbol. The native peoples of today have indicated that the placement of each Native American symbol is not a random or a casual decision.
There are some petroglyphs that have meanings that are only clear to the individual that drew them. Then again, there are some that have societal, tribal, kiva, or clan meanings. Some show who came to the area and settled, or who traveled through without settling.
Some symbols are religious in nature. Some petroglyphic symbols have contemporary meanings and others are no longer known. However, whether we know their meaning or not, we still respect them as belonging to those who came before us.
Throughout the United States, especially in the Southwest, there are thousands upon thousands of Native American symbols. The site with the largest number of them is known as the Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico.
Experts have estimated that there are more than 25,000 petroglyph images within the 17 miles of this monument. A small percentage of these date back to around 2000 BC. Others date back to the 16th century. Approximately 90 percent of these petroglyphs were created by the Pueblo Indians.
Since before 500AD, the Pueblos settled in the Rio Grande Valley. However, around 1300 AD, there was a surge in the population, which created several new settlements. Experts estimate that most of the petroglyph Native American symbols were carved starting from around 1300 to the late 1600s.
Native American Symbols/Petroglyphs & Meanings
Although it would be quite impossible to tell which Native American symbol meant what and where as the interpretation changed depending on the case and the person creating those symbols, here are the most common general interpretations regarding Native American symbols and their meanings:
- The arrow symbolizes protection
- The arrowhead symbolizes alertness
- The badger track is the symbol for the season of summertime
- The bear is the symbol for strength
- The bear paw is the symbol for a good omen
- The big mountain is the symbol for abundance
- The bird is the symbol for carefreeness
- The broken arrow symbolizes peace
- The broken cross circle symbolizes the four revolving seasons
- The brothers represent loyalty, unity, and equality
- The buffalo horns represent success
- The buffalo skull represents reverence for life and sacredness
- The butterfly represents eternal life
- The cactus is the symbol for the desert
- The coyote/coyote tracks symbolize a trickster
- The crossed arrows are the symbol for friendship
- The day/night symbols refer to the passing of time
- The deer tracks symbol indicate that game is plentiful in that area
- The drawn bow/arrow is the symbol for hunting
- The drying rack indicates that meat is plentiful
- The eagle symbolizes freedom
- The eagle feather is the symbol for the Chief
- The enclosure symbol is used to indicate ceremonial dances
- The end of the trail is used to symbolize the end of war and beginning of peaceful period
- The evil eye is the symbol that is used as a protection from the curse of the evil eye
- The facing arrows indicate the warding off of evil spirits
- The four ages are used as a symbol for the four stages of life: infancy, youth, middle age, and old age
- The gecko symbolizes the desert
- The Gila monster symbolizes the time for dreaming
- The headdress is the ceremonial symbol
- The Hogan is the symbol indicating a permanent home
- The horse is used to symbolize a journey
- Lightening is used to symbolize speed and power
- The man is used to indicate life
- The medicine man’s eye is used to symbolize wisdom
- The morning stars are used to symbolize guidance
- The mountain range is used to symbolize a destination
- The peace pipe is used to symbolize a sacred ceremony
- Rain is used to indicate a crop that is plentiful
- Rain clouds are used to indicate a good prospect
- The rattlesnake jaws are used to indicate strength
- The saddlebag is another symbol that is used to indicate a journey
- The snake is used as a symbol of defiance
- The squash blossom and the sunflower are both used to symbolize fertility
- The sun is used to symbolize happiness
- The sun rays are used to indicate constancy
- The swastika is used as a symbol for well-being and the four corners of the world
- The thunderbird is used to symbolize calling for rain and unending happiness; thunderbird tracks are used to symbolize a bright prospect
- The wolf paw is used as a symbol for success and freedom
- The Zuni bear is used as a symbol for good health
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