What Is Face Painting?

Face painting at one time was an important costume for almost any dance, as well as in every ritual and for all tribal games

An excerpt from Reginald and Gladys Laubin’s book: From Indian Dances of North America:

Sometimes face paint served the same purpose as the mask, hiding the real identity of the wearer or endowing him with the power of the creature or spirit he represented. Face painting at one time was an important costume for almost any dance, as well as in every ritual and for all tribal games. Formerly an Indian did not think himself properly dressed without some paint on his face and a pretty pair of moccasins. The use of face and body paint was universal among Indians of America, as it was among many peoples around the world. It could mean many things. Some face paintings had secret meanings for their wearers. Some showed membership in certain warrior societies. Some were purchased from dreamers or medicine men because they were believed to have protective power or power to aid the wearer in accomplishing feats of bravery in war or skill in hunting. Hence they are often spoken of as “war paint,” but even during family life at home it was customary for both men and women, and even children, to have painting on their faces. Red and yellow were favorite colors, for both are the sun’s colors, red usually representing the morning sun, the source of life, light, energy, and power; yellow, the setting sun, symbolic of beauty, sincerity, and peace.

In the days before the Indians wore so much clothing, the entire body was painted, the paint mixed with tallow or grease and serving as protection from the weather. Indeed, the Indians acquired the name “redskins” from the custom, in the East, of painting the entire body with red ocher. Since this custom has long since disappeared and the Indians themselves do not even know about it, they sometimes ask, “Why do you call us redskins? Our skins aren’t red: they are brown.” Then, pointing to someone with a fresh sunburn they will say, “You people are the redskins.”

Oftentimes, especially for some social function, Indians did paint just for decoration, to make themselves attractive, using designs according to individual taste and fancy. But other designs were limited to certain uses and could be worn only by certain individuals. Still other patterns were handed down from father to son. Except for members of certain societies, or for individuals who were inactive about camp, one would seldom if ever see two people painted alike, for even the least important “dress-up” paint was an individual and personal matter. Women especially, but sometimes men also, painted the hair part or hairline either red or yellow, and sometimes a half circle beneath the hair part on the forehead. Women often painted on each cheek a red or yellow spot, representing the rising and setting sun, the half circle on the forehead being the noonday sun. One old woman we knew, Mrs. Red Bear, always painted her entire face yellow. We never asked her why…such things are personal.

For many years powdered paints obtained from white traders were mixed with grease or water and used for face and body painting. Before the traders came, native earths and clays were used in the same way, along with some colors obtained from plants—barks, roots, leaves, and berries.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is a hill known as Red Hill, where Indians still obtain a bright-red earth. Rosebud Reservation also has sources of many colors. The Bad Lands are full of colored earths that were once used for coloring materials. The Sioux once owned a place in Minnesota, now the White Earth Chippewa Reservation, which yielded a white earth highly prized for paint. The Sioux also got a brown pigment from a place still known as Brown Earth. Two towns in Minnesota are named Blue Earth and Mankato. Mankato is a corruption of the Sioux Makato, which also means Blue Earth. Blue was a precious color and prized, as was bright red. Sioux obtained a green from Minnesota: their name of green earth is makatozi, or “blue-yellow earth.” They also got a clear blue from a place near Lusk, Wyoming.

Tunnels as deep as twenty-five feet have been found in various parts of the country where Indians had mined different ores for use as pigments. Usually these were iron ores, giving red, yellow, and gray, but they also used copper ore for green and blue.

Of course pigments used depended on tribal locations. Sioux made a yellow from cottonwood buds, as probably did other tribes where the cottonwood is prevalent. Still farther west many tribes used rabbit brush for a bright yellow. [Edward S.] Curtis said the Hopis made a beautiful turquoise paint from a soft turquoise, which they pulverized and added to a mixture made from pinon gum. This paint was further mixed with masticated squash seeds when applied to the face and body. Whoever wore this beautiful turquoise blue had to be careful not to approach the fire too closely, as the heat turned it black.

[Curtis] also said they made a red by pouring the liquid from boiling red corn over crushed ripe berries of skunk bush, giving it substance by adding a certain variety of white clay. The dried berries were kept on hand and the paint made up as needed for decorating the bodies of Kachina dancers.

When Chief One Bull adopted us, he painted both our faces during the afternoon preceding the ceremony. My face was painted with a series of yellow dots across the nose and both cheeks. He began with a small dot on the bridge of the nose, then continued with more dots out across the cheeks, each one perfectly round, becoming a little larger, until the last ones, near the ears, were nearly the size of a dime. Old as he was, we wondered how his hand could be so steady. These dots, he said, represented the tracks of the mountain lion, and this was the paint he wore into battle, especially on horse-stealing raids against the Crows. The mountain lion stealthily approaches his enemies and yet is courageous if forced to fight.

Copyright © 1977 University of Oklahoma Press