Symbolic Meaning of Color in Native American Design


Note: this is a partnered post and consideration was received for its publication. CC-licensed image by Al_HikesAZ.

Since Native American textiles and pattern design are a strong influence on Prairie and American Craftsman design, we thought you might enjoy this:

If you are looking to do a design project in your home, you may be considering doing a Native American theme. For several years this type of décor has been in great demand but oddly, many homeowners aren’t aware of the fact that many of the facets of this particular style are actually mired in symbolism. Whereas other types of décor use color as an aesthetic feature, in Native American culture color means something – it is symbolic of some deeper spiritual meaning. Before finalizing your plans to remodel one or more rooms in your home, you might like to know a little bit about what color meant to these early, and very spiritual people.

Colors Vary by Nation

Sometimes a ‘nation’ is referred to as a ‘tribe’ and this varies from region to region and among tribes as well. One thing to be aware of when designing Native American décor is that colors meant different things to different nations. Therefore, if you are using a design specific to a particular tribe, it would be important to factor in the colors you are going to use. Dream catchers are an example of a craft you might want to undertake yourself, but if parts of the room are done in Cherokee fashion, for example, you would want to pay special attention to colors they found sacred.

To the Hopi tribe, the color blue signified the most sacred of all colors so that might be something you would want to use. If you are thinking of making a dream catcher, you can find an awesome guide on how to make a dream catcher by following this link. Just remember to keep colors in mind if you are looking for an authentic Native American piece of art.

The Meaning behind Some Common Colors

As mentioned, each tribe ascribes meaning to specific colors and if you are going for a particular look within one of the variants of Native American culture, you would want to ascertain that you have colors in keeping with their traditions. Even so, there are some colors that have a universal meaning. Following is a compilation of colors and the most common meanings attached to them.

  • White – death, winter
  • Black – male, night, death, disease or sickness
  • Red – blood, wounds, sunset, thunderstorms, war
  • Blue – female, moon, water, sky, sadness
  • Green – earth, summer, life, rain
  • Yellow – morning, day, sunlight

Although not all tribes (nations) attribute the exact same significance to these colors, these are the most common among the 562 tribes recognized today as genuine Native American nations.

The point in understanding colors as they pertain to specific meanings or concepts is to make sure you are creating a design that is authentic. Many tribes in today’s world believe that their way of life has been distorted because of misuse of their traditions. So that there is no misunderstanding when it comes to having respect for a culture different from our own, it is really important to pay special attention to the significance they have attached to each and every color. In so doing, you will be honoring their culture while designing a new look for your home – the best of both worlds.

Four Sisters Woodworking

Hvo_14 The three principals at Four Sisters Woodworking - Harry Van Ornum, Scotty Lyons and Les Cizek - share a beautiful, state of the art woodworking and textiles studio in the mountains above Fort Bragg, California. Four sisters, you ask? Well, sisters in spirit; the fourth being long-gone Dixie Whipple. All three accept students for short-term intensive courses of individual instruction.

Van Ornum's, a master cabinetmaker, is influenced by Shaker simplicity, Craftsman detail and Japanese style; his most succesful work (like this amazing desk / storage tansu (pictured), this Craftsman / Japanese cabinet, and the various small tables and boxes he's built over the years) combine elements of all these aesthetics. Cizek's work complements Van Ornum, in its deceptive simplicity; some of his less orthodox designs are particularly striking and much more modern.

Lyons is both business manager and head textile designer & weaver at Four Sisters. She produces custom textiles for upholstery, as well as rugs and many other types of textile products, and is particularly interested in experimenting with pleated cloth.

Wende Cragg's Arts & Crafts appliques

Wende Cragg designs and creates unique Arts & Crafts appliques, which she sells on pillows and other textiles. While it looks like all her designs are originals, they are certainly not contemporary and would fit well in any Arts & Crafts home.

Cragg recently bought a computer that helps her immensely in printing the patterns. She cuts, glues and sews everything by hand and works mostly in dupioni silk. Prices for her pillows begin at $270 (Daffodils, upper left, $450)...

Contact Cragg by phone at (415) 453-6762 or online at [email protected].

Thanks to reader Tobie Lurie, who sent in an article on Cragg's work from this past Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle. Visit that link for photographs.

Wellspring Textiles

Hydrangea_lgwebGreenwich CT-based Wellspring Textiles produces and sells a whole bunch of great Arts & Crafts textiles - from cool and calming geometric Voysey-influenced patterns to rare organic forms after Howard van Doren Shaw. Their three collections - garden, nautical and woodland - comprise over a dozen different patterns at present, with more coming in the future. Sister company Trustworth Studios sells the same designs on wallpaper, at surprisingly good prices.

Candace Wheeler Textiles


One of the most celebrated names in late 19th century and early 20th century Decorative Arts, Candace Wheeler designed textiles that can still inspire and delight.

Wheeler was one of the first designers to use American flowers (versus their European counterparts) as her inspiration.  She studied Japanese stenciled kimono fabrics for ideas.  The patterns she created are delicate and whimsical.  Her textiles are masterpieces of the American Decorative Arts.

Continue reading "Candace Wheeler Textiles" »

Pamela Hill Quilts


Pamela Hill's roots in the Illinois Amish Country shine through in her art & craft of quilt-making.  These gorgeous objects would rival any works of art that you would hang on your wall.  However, Pamela constructs her quilts to be used, following the Art & Crafts philosophy of combining usability and aesthetics.

Each quilt is constructed to be machine washable, warm and long-lasting.  It's art that you can sleep with ... a perfectly lovely combination for long winter nights.

please visit House In Progress!

San Francisco open studios

Vince-Meyer-TablesMany communities throughout the Bay Area hold an "open studio" weekend (or week, or, in the case of this month-long 29th annual event in San Francisco, month!), where a large number of artists - sometimes hundreds - open their workspaces to visitors. This is a great way to discover new artists and designers, and to find wonderful work at low prices. This year's event in San Francisco will take place from 11 am to 6 pm every Saturday and Sunday throughout the month of October at more than 800 studios across the city; each weekend a new neighborhood of studios will open its doors to visitors, culminating with the huge number of open studios at the now-decommissioned Hunters' Point Naval Shipyard.

pictured: Vince Meyer's Japanese-influenced tables 21st-Century Arts & Crafts

cherylwilliamsBuilding on the Arts & Craft movement of an earlier time, is a treasure trove of current artists working in metalwork, ceramics, printmaking, painting, fiber, glass, wood, lighting, furniture and tableware.

The Arts & Crafts masters of yesteryear would have enthusiastically approved of The Guild's Philosophy: In a nutshell, we believe that when you live with art that you love, and it's made by a gifted artist with skill and care, it adds something rich and sweet to your life, every day.

Continue reading " 21st-Century Arts & Crafts" »

Treadway & Toomey auctions

metal-vaseAuctions have come a long way in the last few years. Treadway & Toomey, one of the largest of the antiques auction houses to specialize in American Arts & Crafts, has one of their largest auctions of the year coming up on September 12 at their gallery in Oak Park. The online portion of the auction is presented using technology from and will occur live on Ebay. Over 1000 lots of furniture, artwork and other decorative items will be sold, and you can preview the lots online. As at any Treadway & Toomey auction, there are some really gorgeous items up for sale.