Indian Dyes

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

Indian Dyes

The California tribes and many others who made baskets were usually satisfied with natural colors. 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 gray on splints which had been buried in mud. The Hupa obtained bright yellow from lichens, another color from the roots of the Oregon grape, and a brownish red from alder bark. Most of the tribes of the southwest use only black for designs on baskets, and, rarely, red dyes. The Hopi, how ever, 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 poke-berries and fruits of the blueberry and elder. Lichens, golden-seal, bloodroot, and the bark of the butternut and other trees were also used by trip 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 color their faces red and to dye mantles of deerskin and the rushes for baskets and mats. The tribes of the northwest coast employed a number of harmonious vegetable colors in their baskets. Most of the native dyes of the Indians were superseded by others introduced, especially in late years by aniline colors.

Quillwork, formerly widespread, was generally superseded by bead work, and the native dyes employed in the art have fallen almost into disuse. Some of the northwest coast tribes, the Eskimo, and the northern Athapascans alone practice quill working 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 Percé and the Navaho formerly used permanent vegetal dyes of pleasing colors for wool. With the latter these dyes have given way so recently to aniline colors that the de tails of their manufacture have not be come 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 practise of the culinary art or other domestic arts in which tire is employed.

Indian Pigments

The inorganic colors used by the Indians were mostly derived from iron-bearing minerals, such as ochers and other ores, and stained earths. These furnished various tints, as brown, red, green, blue, yellow, orange, and purple. The search for good colors 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 (q. v. ), 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 deco rated 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 northwest coast Indians put grease on their faces before applying the paint. Among some of the Pueblos, at least, an emulsion of fat seeds w r as made with the pigment, and this was applied by spurting from the mouth.

See: Adornment, Art, Dry-painting, Mines and Quarries, Ornament, Painting.


  1. Dorsey in Field Columb. Mus. Publ., Anthrop. ser. ;
  2. Fewkes in 17th Rep. B. A. E., 1898;
  3. Goddard, Life and Culture of the Hupa, 1903;
  4. Holmes in Am. Anthrop., v, no. 3, 1903;
  5. Hough in Am. Anthrop., xi, May, 1898;
  6. Hough in Rep. Nat. Mus., 1900 and 1901;
  7. Kroeber in Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., xviii, pt, 1, 1902;
  8. Mason, Aboriginal American Basketry, 1902;
  9. Matthews in 3d Rep. B. A. E., 1884;
  10. Pepper, Native Navajo Dyes, in Papoose, Feb., 1902;
  11. Stephen in Internat. Folk-lore Cong., i, 1898;
  12. Wissler in Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., xviii, pt. 3, 1904. (W. H.)

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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