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Native American Buffalo Hide Art: Symbols & Meaning

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Can you create art from an animal hide? Native American cultures in the Great Plains did. In this lesson, explore symbols and meaning behind Native American art painted on buffalo hides.

Who Painted Buffalo Hides?

Have you ever drawn a picture of a piece of paper? What if you didn't have paper available?

For hundreds of years, the native peoples of North America's Northern Plains (today, the area is parts of the United States and Canada), painted on buffalo hides. Native American buffalo hide art was the result of both practical need and creative expression.

Many peoples of Plains tribes, including the Utes, Shoshones, Kiowa, Lakota and Blackfeet, were nomadic hunters who followed the seasonal migration of animals. Expert horsemen and women, these Native Americans hunted buffalo, which were then plentiful. The buffalo was an important source of food and also a source of hide for clothing.

Painted buffalo hides were practical. The Great Plains could be very cold in the winter with lots of blowing snow. Wearing buffalo hides ensured warmth, especially because people wore them with the fur on the inside. This left the side of tanned hide as a surface to be adorned and embellished with painting. Men and women painted hides. Before contact with Europeans they used natural pigments like ocher. Later they used commercial dyes obtained through trade.

But painted buffalo hides were more than simply utilitarian clothing-- they were also ceremonial. The Plains tribes used hides to record their history, track the seasonal cycle of events, and also convey spiritual and healing needs. Let's look more at some symbols on these hides, and learn about their meanings.

Symbols and Meaning of Painted Buffalo Hides

A buffalo hide is large with plenty of room for painting. Sometimes artists covered them with symbols painted on for healing purposes, and special hides were painted for spiritual and political leaders. Tribes believed that hides painted with certain symbols could convey those powers to their wearers. Sometimes the symbols were in the form of pictograms, simplified images or symbols that stood for things like people, weather events, or natural landscape features. They might also stand for attributes like peace, friendship or strength. For example, in some Native cultures, a drawing of two crossed arrow signified friendship. Spirals sometimes stood for a journey, while wavy or zigzag lines might symbolize water. Over time, Native cultures developed an extensive vocabulary of these drawn symbols.

19th-century painted buffalo hide showing a battle, from the Northern Missouri River area
Buffalo hide painting

Detail of buffalo hide painting, showing how horses and warriors were rendered in simplified form
detail with horse and warriors

Some hide paintings recorded history and traced the events of a year. Colorful images of simplified horses and warriors conveying important battles. Drawings of men on horseback bringing down buffaloes signaled successful hunts. These types of hide paintings were usually done by men. One type of painted hide was called a winter count robe. Winter count robes were painted by medicine men or shamans, and they recorded the deeds and events of a season or many seasons. Winter count robes might cover a year or several years. This type of robe had two basic patterns. They started in the center of a hide and moved outward in a clockwise spiral or portrayed events in horizontal rows.

Painted buffalo hide showing the coming of age of an Apache girl
Painted buffalo hide

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