While many of the traditions concerning Native American face paint been taught to me by Northern and Southern Tribal Elders, I prefer to maintain their privacy. Therefore, I have only used literary sources for references.
For years I have heard different generations ask about the practice of face painting by men dancing at inter-tribal pow-wows or formal southern war dances. So, in this article, I will try to answer some of these questions. However, since this is sometimes a very complex topic with a great deal of cultural nuance, I would still suggest the reader do further study on their own, including talking with recognized elders within the tribal traditions about what dance styles and dance clothes in question may represent.
Obtaining War Face Paint
The oldest materials used in Native American face paint were derived from animal, vegetable and mineral sources, with earth or mineral paint being the most common.
White and yellow paint was obtained from white and yellow clays along river beds, and buffalo gallstones produced a different kind of yellow. Green paint was obtained from copper ores.
One type of blue paint came from drying a certain type of duck manure, and some tribes would combine a bluish mud and yellow clay to make green paint.
Powdered charred wood and black earth were used in making black paint.
The base for red paints, probably the most commonly used color, were crimson-colored clay.
A brownish-red paint could be obtained by baking yellow clay over ashes until it turned red. A description of this is described by Frances Densmore in her work titled Teton Sioux Music,
“On the Standing Rock Reservation is found a yellow ocherous substance which, after being reduced to a fine powder, is used by the Indians in making yellow paint. This substance, when treated by means of heat, yields the vermilion used on all ceremonial articles as well as in painting the bodies of the Indians. The baking of this ocherous substance – a process which requires skill – is done by the women. First, the substance mixed with water is formed into a ball. A hole is dug in the ground in which a fire of oak bark is made. When the ground is baked the coals are removed, the ball is placed in the hole, and a fire is built above it. This fire is maintained at a gentle, even heat for about an hour, which is sufficient for the amount of the substance usually prepared at a time. The action of the heat changes the color of the substance to red. When the ball is cold, it is pounded to powder. In the old days this red powder was mixed with buffalo fat in making the Native American face paint, but at present time it is mixed with water. White, black and blue paints were obtained by mixing colored earthy substances with buffalo fat. The blue was found in Southern Minnesota and required no treatment by heat, and the white and black in North Dakota.” (Densmore, 1918, p. 116)
To prepare them for use, most of the raw colored earth or clay deposits were baked and then ground into a powder. The powder was kept in a small buckskin bundle and would have been put into a larger decorated paint bag with other bundles of different colors with perhaps a bone or wooden applicator and a small mirror. When used they would either apply the paint dry or mix it with bear grease, buffalo tallow, or water to achieve the desired effect.
Because of the religious significance and the ceremonial uses many tribes had for red paint, the bright vermilion red paint offered to tribes by European fur traders was highly sought after at a very early date. According to J. Frederick Fausz, Ph.D., in his published curriculum for the 2004 course titled The Louisiana Expansion at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, he states that long before French explorers met them in 1673, the Osage had moved onto the central plains along with the related, neighboring tribes of Kansas (aka Kaw), Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw.
When St. Louis was founded in 1764, it is said that the Osage used their talents and knowledge to make the fur trade profitable because they were considered the best fur producers south of Canada. Therefore, the Osage received many European items in trade including Chinese vermilion (aka mercury sulfide face-paint).
Even among the Omaha, there is evidence that paint was obtained at a very early stage from traders, as evidenced by the following,
“Another saving of labor in comparison with old methods was involved in buying paints from the traders. The paint was sold in small packages not much larger than a paper of darning needles.” (Fletcher & Laflesche, 1911, p. 615)
Older Uses of Native American Face Paint
The painting of a man's face and body among the plains tribes during the buffalo days was said to be a form of mental conditioning. Warriors would paint themselves with personal protective designs and colors before they engaged in battle with an enemy. Hence the stereotypical term “war paint.”
This Native American face paint would have been prayed over. It was believed that Indians' prayers were put into the paint, and when applied, the power of the prayers were conveyed upon the wearer.
Other times there might even be special songs sung when paint was applied. Some applied the paint themselves; others preferred to be painted by a holy person or medicine man. Frances Densmore in Teton Sioux Music again states that among the Teton Lakota:
“Little Buffalo (Tatanka-cikala) was a man who ‘made medicine' for the warriors. Using blue clay mixed with ‘medicine', he painted a band across the man's forehead with a branching end on each cheek bone, the painting being done only in war. Bear Eagle (Mato-wanbli), who had been painted in this manner by Little Buffalo, recorded the two following songs. He said that the first one was sung by Little Buffalo alone as he painted them, and the second by the warriors after the painting was finished.” (Densmore, 1918, p. 350)
Face painting was, at other times, not connected with war preparation, as designs of various kinds were used to designate membership in societies; used when participating in different celebrations; used as marks of achievement; and used in mourning for the dead.
According to Oglala Lakota Holy Man, Nicholas Black Elk in Joseph Brown's work titled, The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux,
“By being painted, the people have been changed. They have undergone a new birth, and with this they have new responsibilities, new obligations, and a new relationship.” (Brown, 1953, p. 111)
Returning warriors of many plains tribes, who had taken scalps of their enemies, often painted their faces black before returning to their camp.
It has been said that the crow believed that a blackened face symbolically represented the fires of revenge that had burned out after vanquishing their enemy.
The Pawnee scouts would paint their faces white to symbolize the wolf, whose spiritual power was considered to be of great help for a scout.
According to Fletcher & Laflesche in their work titled The Omaha Tribe, among the Omaha,
“Men generally painted their faces and bodies in accordance with dreams or in representation of some achievement or accorded honor”…”before the advent of the looking glass a young man was painted by his friend”…when going into battle, on the surround at the tribal buffalo hunt, when taking part in the Hedewachi Ceremony, at the Hethushka Society, and the Pebble Society, the painting on their faces and bodies had a serious significance partaking of the nature of an appeal or prayer.” (Fletcher & Laflesche, 1911, p. 350)
Further in this same work, in a chapter on the Omaha Men's Warrior Society called Hethushka, it states:
“Each man painted himself in accordance with the directions given him at the public ceremony when he received his grade of war honors.” (Fletcher & Laflesche, 1911, p. 461)
At one time it is said, the Omaha and the Ponca were one tribe. After separating they retained similar societies such as the Hethuska Society, and had similar celebrations for conferring war honors. An example of the war honors among the Ponca includes reference to painting in Fletcher & Laflesche's work,
“First honor: to strike an unwounded man. The sign of this honor was an eagle feather worn upright in the scalp lock; moccasin strings made of the skin of a gray wolf; the upper part of the body painted black”….” Second honor: to be the first to strike a fallen enemy”…”The sign of this honor was an eagle feather worn horizontal in the scalp lock; painting the body irregularly in black stripes”…”Fifth honor: to take a scalp. The sign of this honor was to paint the face with a slight tinge of red and put black stripes across it.”…”Sixth honor: capturing horses from the enemy. The badge of this honor was to wear at the dances a coil of rope around the body and to paint on the body figures shaped like the impression of a horses hoof.” (Fletcher & Laflesche, 1911, p. 440)
Modern Uses of Native American Face Paint
Today, Native American face paint is still used by many plains tribe Indians for a variety of reasons. Many events, such as Sun Dance Ceremonies, Naming Ceremonies, Society Ceremonies, Healing Ceremonies, and events for returning veterans may involve the painting of faces in one form or another.
Some designs and color patterns may be “owned” by individuals, families, clans or societies. In some tribes, the rite to wear a design and color pattern may be handed down from one individual to a younger relative. For example, an old combat veteran, too feeble to dance at pow wows anymore, could give his young grandson the rite to use his face paint pattern and colors when he dances.
In some tribes, face paint patterns, face paint colors, the paint itself, and a possible set of protective prayers or songs, could be purchased from one individual by another. A young man might come up to an older man saying something like, “I remember you used to wear a particular pattern of paint when you danced. I would like to give you these gifts in exchange for the right to honor you by wearing your design when I dance.” It would then be said that he paid for the rite to wear a particular design and color pattern.
Some modern traditional dancers are combat veterans who wear Native American face paint that they wore while in combat, or in a dream related to their combat experience, or as a result of their combat experience.
In both Ponca and the Osage Men's Warrior Societies, it is common to see men wearing protective red paint at the corner of their eyes to achieve the desired effect.
For the Ponca Hethuska:
“The common face paint design for a Straight Dancer is a red line extending back from the corner of each eye for about 2 inches.” (Howard, 1965, p. 65)
Among the Osage Inlonschka:
“In modern times Osages use very little face paint in the Inlonschka. Usually only a streak of red one finger wide is used from the edge of the eye to the earlobe, a pinch of red is placed on each earlobe.” (Callahan, 1990, p. 112)
Often times among the Ponca and Osage, a boy or young man is usually painted for the first time by a relative when they are given their “Indian name”, or when they are brought into the dance circle for the first time. Depending upon their age, the individual applies it themselves from then on. This red protection paint is said to protect the Straight Dancers from harm while in the dance circle.
Other Native American tribes, including those of the Southern Plains, have similar variations of eye paint in different colors and different patterns such as in a “v” shape coming out from the corner of the eye, in a “v” shape with a center line or also known as a “crow’s foot” design, or a series of small dots.
Lastly, whether you are a Northern Traditional Dancer, a Southern Straight Dancer, a Fancy Feather Dancer, a Chicken Dancer or a Grass Dancer, and you are considering wearing Native American face paint, the first question you should ask yourself is “why”. Why should you be wearing it? It may be for protection; to honor someone else; to be part of your personal experiences as a veteran; or to follow the dictates of a dream or visionary experience; or to show family, clan or society ties. Once you have answered the why then you can move on to the how and when.
Featured image: man in white and black Native American face paint at a pow wow. (U.S. State Department)
Last Updated on October 19, 2022 by Jared McKiernan