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  • Face Paint

    The oldest materials used in 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 was 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.

    In fact, 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, 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., University of Missouri - St. Louis, in his published curriculum for the 2004 course titled "The Louisiana Expansion," he states that long before French explorers found them in 1673, the Osage had moved onto the central plains along with the related, neighboring tribes of Kansa, Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw. When St. Louis was founded in 1764, 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.

    “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)

    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 paint would have been prayed over. It was believed that 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 warriors applied the paint themselves, others preferred to be painted by a holy person or medicine man.

    Frances Desmore in “Teton Sioux Music” states,

    “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, when participating in ceremonies, as marks of achievement, and in morning for the dead.

    According to the Oglala Lakota holy man Black Elk,

    “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 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.

    Among the Omaha-Ponca,

    “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 Hede’wachi ceremony, at the Hethu’shka 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)

    Concerning the members of the Hethuska society, Fletcher and LaFlesche continue,

    “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)

    After the Ponca split from the Omaha, their ceremonies for conferring war honors remained basically the same. An example of the war honors among the Ponca includes reference to painting.

    “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)

    Today face paint is still used by many plains tribes for a variety of reasons, including the Ponca and Osage. Many ceremonies, such as Prayer ceremonies, Naming ceremonies, Society ceremonies, Healing ceremonies, and ceremonies 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 cases 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 and 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 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 the Ponca Hethuska and the Osage Inlonshka, it is common to see men wearing red paint at the corner of their eyes.

    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 Inlonshka,

    “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.

    Other southern plains tribes 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, also known as a “crow’s foot” design, or a series of small dots which all have meanings with their own particular warrior or veteran’s society.

    Brown, Joseph Epes.
    1953. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK.

    Callahan, Alice A.
    1990. The Osage Ceremonial Dance, I’n-Lon-Schka. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK.

    Densmore, Frances
    1918. Teton Sioux Music. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 61. Smithsonian Institution, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

    Fletcher, Alice C. and Francis LaFlesche.
    1911. The Omaha Tribe. Bureau of American Ethnology, 27th Annual Report 1905-06, Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

    Howard, Dr. James H.
    1965. The Ponca Tribe. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 195, Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

    "Be good, be kind, help each other."
    "Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."

    --Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)

  • #2
    I always enjoy your posts... they are informative, well written. Just wanted to say thanks.
    remember you are tommorow's elders


    • #3

      "Be good, be kind, help each other."
      "Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."

      --Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)


      • #4

        "Be good, be kind, help each other."
        "Respect the ground, respect the drum, respect each other."

        --Abe Conklin, Ponca/Osage (1926-1995)


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