Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
October 2004

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


Painting (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.]



Painting . The tribes N. of Mexico, as well as those of every part of the continent except, perhaps, the higher arctic regions, delighted in the use of colour. It was very generally employed for embellishing the person and in applying decorative and symbolic designs to habitations, sculptures, masks, shields, articles of bark, skin, pottery, etc., in executing pictographs upon natural surfaces of many kinds, as on cliffs and the walls of caverns, and in preparing the symbolic embellishments of altars and sacred chambers. Colour was applied to the person for decorative purposes as an essential feature of the toilet: for impressing beholders with admiration or fear; for purposes of obscurity and deception; in applying tribal, personal, or other denotive devices; in the application of symbolic designs, especially on ceremonial occasions; and as a means of protection from insects and the sun. The native love of colour and skill in its use were manifested especially in decorative work. This is illustrated by the wonderful masks and totem poles of the N. W. Coast tribes (Boas), and in the artistic polychrome pottery of the Pueblos (Fewkes). Little advance had been made in representative or pictorial art, yet some of the productions are noteworthy, as illustrated in the Hopi katcina work (Fewkes) and in the Kiowa ceremonial paintings on skins described by Mooney, although some of the latter show unmistakable evidence of the influence of the whites.


The pigments were derived from many sources, but were mainly of mineral origin, especially the oxides of iron and carbonate of copper. The aborigines were skilled in preparing the mineral colours, which were usually ground in small mortars or rubbed down on a flat stone, and in extracting stains and dyes from vegetal substances. The colours were applied with a dry point or surface as with a piece of chalk, charcoal, or clay; or, when mixed with water or oil, with the fingers or hand, or a stick, brush, or pad, and also sprayed on with the mouth, as in Pueblo mask painting. Brushes were rude, consisting often of fibrous substances, such as bits of wood, bark, yucca, or reeds, chewed, beaten, or rubbed at one end until sufficiently pliable to deliver the colour; and great skill was shown by many of the tribes in the use of these crude tools. Hair was not in general use, although excellent brushes are now made by the more advanced tribes. The brushes used by the tribes of the N. W. coast were often provided with beautifully carved handles. Very interesting painting implements are seen in some sections. Paddle-shaped or spatulate bits of wood are used, applied edgewise for thin lines and flatwise for covering spaces; and striping tools having two or three points and neatly carved of bone and ivory are in use by the [Inuit] (Turner). The Plains tribes employed a flat piece of spongy bone from the knee joint of a buffalo or an ox; it has a sharp edge of rounded outline which serves for drawing lines, while the flat side serves for spreading the colour over large areas. These tools, being porous, have the advantage of holding a quantity of liquid colour. Shells were frequently used for paint cups, while for this purpose the Pueblos made miniature jars and bowls of pottery, sometimes in clusters. Colours in the form of powder, sand, clay, and meal were used, and are still used, by several tribes in preparing dry-paintings for ceremonial purposes which are executed on the floors of ceremonial chambers or altars (Matthews, Stevenson, Fewkes).


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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. 381-382.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College