Semiotics of Native American Art

Christina Sande

Semiotics studies the way in which images and signs communicate their purpose to an audience. In the past, humans naturally formed relationships between their environment and objects or tools they needed to survive. Communication is an essential role in everyone’s life today based off shared symbols, signs, and basic semiotics. Before America was settled, Native American Indians populated land from Canada through South America including over 1,000 different tribes in the United States alone (Britannica). By the time Europeans arrived in the 16th century, Indigenous Americans had created “elaborate architecture, designed well-organized cities, honored their ancestors, and were devout in their religious beliefs” (VMFA). During my afternoon spent at the VMFA, I was enlightened by how intricate and sustainable Native American art is while functioning as a tool and sacred simultaneously. Almost all of the pieces in the exhibit were originally made for functional or religious use. For example, a cradle board, an eagle mask, and a spoon. They all have somewhat practical names for their use, but are now finally being considered works of art created by the Amerindians.

Baby carriers and cradles were highly idolized items among the Plains Indians able to  show the status of a family. The functional purpose of this item is for carrying a child on their backs during the day while keeping them “bound” and safe. Source says infants remained bound for most of their first year. This item was estimated to be made around the year 1880 by the Ute tribe located in Utah, Southwest United States (VMFA). A symbolic trait of the Ute tribe is “revolves around the principle of sustainability … nothing is taken from the land that can not be replenished, and nothing is taken and waisted” (VMFA).  The board is made up of hide, seeds, blue Russian trade beads, and wood. Any hide item including the Russian blue beads automatically elevates their status because of their rarity. Baby items such as cradle boards, moccasins, and other various clothing was a decorative symbol of female artistry industry and ranged in volubility. It includes padding for the comfort of the child and the carrier as well as hide lacing through the middle keeping the baby bound in securely. What makes the cradle board valuable now is it’s impeccable shape, beading, and hide-work making it a valuable piece of art history.

Native American art much reflected their environment and how they lived, whether it be in a wetland, forested, or grassy area. The VMFA has a rare Quilled Headdress in their Native American exhibit being one of three recorded in all museum collections worldwide. It was made by the Otoe people located at the Western Great Lakes, United States. This piece was made approximately between 1750-1780 making this a very valuable symbol of Native American culture (VMFA). The headdress shown below was made from leather, horsehair, bird quills, and pigment (VMFA). Typically, headdresses were worn by powerful men in a particular tribe either the chief, or other men who have displayed bravery (Graham). Feathers were added each time a fearless act of courage was completed. This process was taken very seriously often requiring intense fasting and meditation before commending their step toward devotion (Graham). These adorned items could take many forms having the feathers either framing the face, trailing down the back, or standing straight up. Warriors on horseback were compared to the imagery of a bird in flight (Kahn). Headdresses were valuable symbols of influential, powerful members of Native American warrior society making them historic artifacts of today.



Image from VMFA Website.

Everything the Amerindians made came from their habitat and could be used for a number of different things. Animal masks could be used for medicinal, spiritual, and even entertainment purposes (Native). The masks could activate animal spirits into whoever was wearing it and this ritual was usually practiced during explicit tribal rituals. Before co

ming in contact with European settlers, Native Americans made masks with common rocks and bone tools used for excavating and shaping the material being worked with. Mask making became more precise once acquiring new tools for carving. These masks represented symbols of knowledge and courage often depicting an important figure in Native American culture (Native). Portrait masks made by Haida depicted naturalistic individuals accommodated by a protrudig lower lip carved for a large labret. A labret is a piercing underneath the bottom lip the Amerindians used as a sign of rank. The larger the labret hole was, the higher the rank (MET).




Image from the MET Museum.

The Goose Landing Mask hanging at the VMFA is a new edition depicting a goose preparing to land. The feet spread forward, wings spread upward toward the sky, neck and head attached on the forehead of the mask including three feathers simulating motion. Amerindians honor animals through tribute because of how important they were for them to live. This mask was made by an artist of thein South West Alaska during the late 19th century. Source says “for the Yup’ik both humans and nonhumans have immortal souls, and the animals spirits must be protected” (VMFA picture). Through dancing, Native Americans were able to acknowledge the spirits of the animals who gave their lives for survival (VMFA). The eagle and raven masks shown below were made out of wood which was a common material used for mask making.



Works Cited

“Cradle Board (Primary Title) – (2015.16).” Virginia Museum of Fine Arts |,

Dockstader, Frederick J. “The Function of Art.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 3 Aug. 2014,

“Feathered War Bonnet.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy,

Graham, Mallory, and Mallory Graham. “The Significance of the Native American Headdress.” Tribal Trade, 10 Apr. 2014,,

“Native American Masks Worn during Tribal Ceremonies.” History of Native Americans and More, Native Net,

“Quilled Headdress (Primary Title) – (2015.17).” Virginia Museum of Fine Arts |,

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