Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Indian Dyes
Nature Bulletin No. 216-A   February 5, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Whatever the American Indian wore, carried or used at council meetings, ceremonies and sacred rites, was decorated: headdresses, waistcloths, robes, leggings, moccasins, armbands, anklets, knife sheaths, arrow quivers, war-club handles, pouches, the drums -- even the long stems of ceremonial pipes. The materials, designs and colors varied with the tribe or nation. Within the tribe they varied with the clan, rank and prowess of the individual; as well as with the ingenuity and industry of his squaw.

Porcupine quills were lavishly used, even in many regions far removed from the habitat of that animal; also bird quills, long hair from the tails or hides of animals, claws, teeth, beads and, especially, feathers. Most of these were dyed in various colors to produce symbolic designs. In regions such as our Southwest and among the "woodland" Indians east of the Mississippi, where pottery was made and there was weaving of baskets or cloth, such articles were also decorated with designs in color. Long expeditions were made to obtain certain materials, directly or by trading, including materials for dyes.

Nowadays, except for ceremonial and sacred objects, Indians use commercial dyes. While the range of colors obtainable from native materials was not as great, the colors were softer and generally more permanent. Red and yellows, including orange, and browns and blacks were obtainable in any region. Until the white man came, however, blues and greens were unknown among some of the tribes that roamed the Great Plains. The Ojibwa made a pale blue dye from larkspur flowers, and another blue from blueberries; the Chippewa and other tribes boiled very old rotten wood of maple trees, with a little sandstone dust added, to get blue and purple; some far-western tribes got blues from certain earths; A few manufactured green dyes from algae in stagnant pools, or from leaves of the snowberry, or from the twigs and leaves of an arbor vitae. An idea of how the materials employed and the colors produced -- always by the women -- varied with the territory and the culture of each tribe, may be had by comparing the Indians of the northern prairies with the Forest Potawatomi of Wisconsin and Illinois.

The Sioux made red from the buffalo berry and the squaw currant, with the roots of prairie dock added to strengthen and "set" the color; brownish-black from green hickory nuts or walnuts; a superior black from wild grapes; yellow from sunflowers and yellow coneflowers. Their enemies, the Blackfeet, obtained a beautiful yellow from a moss that grew among the fir trees in the Rocky Mountains; a rich red from the roots of bedstraw or wild madder; black from alder bark; and a beautiful shiny black (when rubbed with bear fat) from a chocolate- colored stone which, burned and powdered, was boiled with hazelnut bark.

The Potawatomi used the inner bark of the speckled alder, and of red oak, for yellow, red and brown dyes; fibrous roots of the sandbar willow for scarlet; fruit of the strawberry bush and scentwood, for red; bloodroot for orange, roots of the goldthread for a beautiful indelible yellow; and obtained other yellows from the sap of the spotted touch- me-not, and from the flowers of the black-eyed Susan and the bristly crowfoot. The Chippewa and the Ojibwa used more plant materials such as roots of puccoon and hepatica, sumac and other berries, spruce cones, and the inner bark of several trees and shrubs. The Indian knew and used -- for some purpose --- far more plants than we do.

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