Body Decorations of Native American Cultures

Native Americans across the North American continent adorned their bodies in a variety of different ways. From designs applied directly to the skin to elaborate ornaments crafted of symbolic materials, Native American body decoration was very important to the religious and social life of tribal members.

In many tribes the skin was considered a canvas on which to paint or tattoo designs. Although warriors used paint to prepare for battle, body painting was not only used for war paint. Painted designs

Representatives of several North American tribes, many wearing bear claw necklaces. Native Americans wore jewelry and other body decorations to honor spirits, to gain strength, or to indicate social status.
on the body, or the permanent markings of tattoos, signified a person's age, social or marital status, or, for men, their level of skill as a warrior.

Native American jewelry had social and religious significance, as well as decorative qualities. Jewelry was worn to honor spirits, to gain strength, to indicate social status, or to add beauty.

Although Native American body decoration practices and jewelry designs were practiced for many hundreds and even thousands of years, these traditional ways of adorning the body changed as Native Americans had more contact with European traders and white settlers. Modern-day Native American jewelry, for example, reflects the influence of this contact. Silver jewelry, for example, has become identified with southwestern tribes, such as the Navajo. However, the Navajo did not use silver until around 1870. The increase of silver jewelry among the Navajo at that time reflects the adaptation of these peoples to life as herders and silversmiths on the then newly established reservations, or land granted to Native Americans by the U.S. government. Silver Navajo jewelry continues to be a popular item among tourists in the Southwest and a symbol of wealth among the Navajo.


Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Paterek, Josephine. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

War Paint

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