Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Dyes and Pigments Used by Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Most of the Indian tribes of North America made permanent dyes from organic materials. The demand for these dyes arose when basketry, quillwork, and other textile industries had reached a considerable degree of advancement, and there was need of diversity of colour in ornamentation, as well as permanency of colour, which pigments alone could not supply.




The California tribes and many others who made baskets were usually satisfied with natural colours. These are the red and black of bark, the white of grass stems, the pale yellow of peeled rods or rushes, and the brown of root bark. A few dyes were known, however, notably a black or dark grey on splints which had been buried in mud. The Hupa obtained bright yellow from lichens, another colour from the roots of the Oregon grape, and a brownish red from alder bark. Most of the tribes of the S. W. use only black for designs on baskets, and, rarely, red dyes. The Hopi, however, have a larger number of native dyes for basketry splints than any other tribe, and the Apache, Walapai, and Havasupai have a number of vegetal dyes that are not used in basketry. The Abnaki and other tribes made fugitive stains from pokeberries and fruits of the blueberry and elder. Lichens, goldenseal, bloodroot, and the bark of the butternut and other trees were also used by the northern and eastern tribes, and in southern regions the prickly pear. The Virginia Indians, according to Hariot, used sumach, a kind of seed, a small root, and the bark of a tree to dye their hair, as well as to colour their faces red and to dye mantles of deerskin and the rushes for baskets and mats. The tribes of the N. W. coast employed a number of harmonious vegetal colours in their baskets. Most of the native dyes of the Indians were superseded by others introduced, especially, in late years, by aniline colours.


Quillwork, formerly widespread, was generally superseded by beadwork, and the native dyes employed in the art have fallen almost into disuse. Some of the N. W. Coast tribes, the [Inuit], and the northern Athapascans alone practise quillworking in its purity, but its former range was extensive.


Native vegetal blanket dyes are found in use only among the Chilkat of Alaska, who still retain them in weaving their ceremonial shawls. The Nez Percés and the Navaho formerly used permanent vegetal dyes of pleasing colours for wool. With the latter these dyes have given way so recently to aniline colours that the details of their manufacture have not become lost. The use of dyes required a knowledge of mordants; for this purpose urine was commonly employed by the Navaho, Hopi, and Zuñi, besides an impure native alum, and an iron salt mixed with organic acids to produce black. It has been assumed that, since the weaver's art seems to be accultural with the Navaho, the mordant dyes may have been derived from the Pueblos , who, in turn, may have received them from the Spaniards. Matthews, however, controverts the opinion that the Navaho learned the art of weaving from the Pueblos ; and, indeed, there is no reason why the Indians should not have become acquainted with various mordants through the practice of the culinary art or other domestic arts in which fire is employed.




The inorganic colours used by the Indians were mostly derived from iron-bearing minerals, such as ochres and other ores, and stained earths. These furnished various tints, as brown, red, green, blue, yellow, orange, and purple. The search for good colours was assiduously pursued; quarries were opened and a commerce in their products was carried on. White was derived from kaolin, limestone and gypsum; black from graphite, powdered coal, charcoal, or soot; green and blue from copper ores, phosphate of iron, etc. Pigments were used for facial decoration, red being most prized, for which reason the vermilion of the trader was eagerly adopted, but the intent of face painting was generally totemic or religious, and not merely ornamental. Pigments were rubbed into soft tanned skins, giving the effect of dye, and were mixed with various media for painting the wood and leather of boxes, arrows, spears, shields, tipis, robes, parfleche cases, etc. Among the Southwestern tribes, in particular, pigments were mixed with sand for dry paintings while pigments of iron earths or kaolin were employed for decorating pottery. In connection with the preparation and use of pigments are grinding slabs and mullers, mortars and pestles, brushes and paint sticks, and a great variety of pouches and pots for carrying or for preserving them. The media for applying the pigments varied with the objects to be decorated and with tribal or personal usage. In general, face paint was mixed with grease or saliva, while the medium for wood or skin was grease or glue. The N.W. Coast Indians put grease on their faces before applying the paint. Among some of the Pueblos , at least, an emulsion of fat seeds was made with the pigment, and this was applied by spurting from the mouth.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa 1913, 632p., pp. 134-135.






© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College