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
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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Update: June 2012