Symbols have been a significant part of culture and tradition since the beginning of mankind. They usually have an underlying implicit meaning relevant to culture or geography – ideas, objects, and actions can all constitute symbols. Symbols can stem from natural phenomena or be artificial, and they can be tangible or intangible.
Native American culture is rich in symbols that give insight into their traditions, thought processes, and important rituals. These symbols are largely centered on their language, sacred spaces, special objects, and revered animals.
Here we list the top 8 most important Native American Symbols of strength and the magnitude of their significance:
Table of Contents
1. The Arrow
In Native American culture, the arrow represented protection and self-defense. If this symbolic arrow was facing the left side, it was meant to ward off any evil. If the arrow faced the right side it meant protection.
If the arrow was facing downward, it symbolized peace. The arrow was also important due to its significance in hunting and gathering. A solitary arrow also represented power, direction, movement, and force. (1)
2. The Arrowhead
Used for the final blow to finish off the enemy, the arrowhead is extremely significant in Native American culture. Symbolically, it was also worn as a talisman or necklace to guard a person from evil spirits.
It also represented alertness, defense, and protection. Arrowhead trinkets were mostly constructed using bone, metal, and precious stones. In Native American culture, the arrowhead also represents courage and bravery. (2)
The image of two brothers is a major Native American Symbol of Strength. Brotherhood is strongly believed in, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, it represents unity between different people and different tribes. Metaphorically, it implies balance as well as duality (3).
It signifies two people sharing a similar journey or life path while also implying loyalty, equality, and a connection between people. The symbol of two brothers joined at the feet also represented equality.
Native Americans have always had a special place in their hearts for bears. This symbol is present in numerous drawings, on masks, jewelry, and other types of artwork. The bear represents a multitude of meanings.
It represents power and strength, healing, teaching, learning humility, and even dreaming. Bears in native American cultures were revered due to their human-like qualities. Many pieces of native Indian artwork have depicted bears to signify friendships, and sometimes, are also depicted as smiling (4).
In Native American culture, the butterfly implied transformation. The color of the butterfly also held meaning. A black butterfly meant bad news or severe illness. A yellow butterfly showed guidance and hope.
Brown butterflies meant important information or news, and a white butterfly meant positive luck. The butterfly symbol was also commonly seen in jewelry. Digging a little deeper, butterflies were also seen as messengers from the spirit world and were communicators in dreams. They also symbolized peace.
6. The Thunderbird
One of the most dominant Native American symbols of strength, this bird has a presence in legends and art (5). The thunderbird symbol represented strength, power, and protection. Native Americans saw the thunderbird as a mythical creature that dominated all the natural activity.
The thunderbird was located in the pacific northwestern mountains and did not prefer anyone venturing too close to its home. It was known to create roars of thunder by flapping its wings and could shoot bolts of lightning from its eyes.
The thunderbird also created rainstorms from which vegetation could grow. It was thought to be so large that its wingspan measured the size of two canoes and could easily lift a killer whale from the water with its enormous talons. (6)
6. Killer Whale
The Killer Whale or the Orca was seen as a prominent native American symbol of strength. The Orca was perceived as the ruler and guardian of the sea due to its power and large size. It was also regarded as a mighty hunter of the sea. Killer Whales were also symbols of romance and longevity.
It was thought that if a fisherman ever injured an orca, his canoe would capsize and sink all the fisherman, taking them to the ‘Village of the Whales.’ In this village, the fisherman would be transformed into whales as well.
In Native American legend, the Killer whale was thought of as the prey of the mighty thunderbird. It was thought that the thunderbird was strong enough to carry the killer whale and take it to the mountains (7).
In Native American cultures, the cactus was seen as a symbol representing motherly love, warmth, and affection. As a cactus can survive harsh conditions, it was seen as a symbol of unconditional, unyielding motherly love.
Cactus plants also represented maternal care because they held healing and medicinal properties. Cactus pulp and juice were used to heal wounds and digestive troubles (8).
Native American legends saw the moon as a symbol of protection. It was viewed as a provider of serenity and a guardian of the earth. Many Native American legends told anecdotes of the moon.
One such legend was that the eclipse was a codfish trying to swallow up the moon. To prevent this from happening, bonfires needed to be created from branches of pine trees or other trees to generate smoke. This smoke would cause the codfish to spit the moon back out of its mouth (9).
Native American symbols of strength, have been passed down through generations and survive even today. Traditional members of Native American families, tribes, and communities continue to be the custodians of such knowledge.
Indigenous people of America still uphold their ancient tradition of incorporating images and symbols of the natural world. They still use these symbols to create legends and stories, to conduct ceremonies and nourish spiritual life. (10)
- An Overview of Pacific North West Native Indian Art. Clint Leung. Free Spirit Gallery. 2006. P.20
- An Overview of Pacific North West Native Indian Art. Clint Leung. Free Spirit Gallery. 2006. P.18
- An Overview of Pacific North West Native Indian Art. Clint Leung. Free Spirit Gallery. 2006. P.22
- Intersecting Symbols in Indigenous American and African Material Culture: Diffusion or Independent Invention and Who Decides?. Donna L. Moody. Graduate School of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Department of Anthropology. 2013.
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