Dry Painting

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Dry painting – An art existing among the Indians, especially those of the S. W., the products of which have been named sand altars, sand pictures or paintings, and sand mosaics by various authors. It is doubtless of aboriginal origin and of great antiquity, but it has come to the knowledge of white people only within the last 25 years. The art has been found among various Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and Arizona, among the wilder Navaho and Apache of the same region, and, in crude form, among the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Siksika. According to Navaho information, dry-painting was practiced also by the Ute and the cliff-dwellers, but the latter may refer to one or more of the Hopi clans that occupied Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, within comparatively recent time ( see Asa ) . There is evidence of a wide extent of the art among the Indians, but it is probable that it has been yet more widely practiced in the past, or may even be more widely practiced at the present among tribes who have concealed it from civilized men.

So far as can be learned dry-painting has reached its greatest perfection among the Navaho, whose designs are larger, more numerous, and more elaborate than those of any other tribe. These Indians make their pictures almost exclusively in connection with religious ceremonies and draw them of various sizes. Some of their larger pictures, in their great 9 days ceremonies, are 10 or 12 ft in diameter, and represent, in conventional forms, various gods of their mythology, divine ceremonies, lightning, sunbeams, rainbows, mountains, animals, and plants, having a mythic or traditional significance. Among this people, in order to prepare a groundwork for a sacred picture in the lodge, several young men collect, with ceremonial observances, a quantity of dry sand, which is carried in blankets, thrown on the floor of the lodge, spread over a surface of sufficient size and to the depth of 2 or 3 in., and made smooth and level by means of the broad oaken battens used in weaving. The pigments represent the 5 sacred colors of Navaho mythology white, blue, yellow, black, and red. For the greater part of the work the white, yellow, and red are made of finely powered sandstone of these colors; the black of powdered charcoal mixed with a little sandstone to give it stability; and the “blue” (really gray) of black and white mixed. These powders are prepared before the picture is begun and are kept on improvised trays of juniper bark. Sometimes, for certain ornamental parts of the work, more precious pigments than these are used. To apply the pigments the artist picks up a small quantity between his first and second fingers and his opposed thumb and allows it to flow slowly as he moves his hand. When he takes up his pinch of powder, he blows on his fingers to remove aberrant particles and to keep them from falling on the picture out of place. When he makes a mistake he does not brush away the colored powder, but obliterates it by pouring sand on it, then draws the correct design on the new surface. The drawings are begun as near the center as the design will permit, due regard being paid to the points of the compass, which have an established order of precedence in Navaho ceremony. The figures in the periphery of the picture are made last, in order that the operators may not have to step over and thus possibly spoil the finished work. T he pictures are drawn according to an exact system, except in certain well-defined cases where the artist is allowed to indulge his fancy. On the other hand, some parts are measured by palms, and not the slightest deviation can be made from the established design. Straight and parallel lines are drawn with the aid of a tightened cord. The naked bodies of the gods are first drawn and then the clothing is put on. The shaman who enacts the part of master of ceremonies does little more than direct and criticize the work. A number of men who have been initiated into the mystery of the ceremony perform the labor, each working on a different part, and often spending many hours on one picture. When it is finished, ceremonies are performed over it, and then with song and ceremony it is obliterated. When no semblance of it remains, the sand of which it was made is gathered in blankets and thrown away at a distance from the lodge. In the ceremonies of the Pueblo Indians a picture is allowed to remain several days, while the Navaho make and destroy a picture in a day. No permanent copies of the dry-paintings are preserved by the Navaho; indeed, until recently they had no means of making such copies. The paintings are not made in the summer, hence their designs must be carried from winter to winter in the fallible memories of men; yet the shamans declare that the pictures have been transmitted unaltered for many generations. Although this declaration may reasonably be doubted, there is some evidence in its favor.

During the Sun-dance ceremony of the Cheyenne a dry-painting is made in a lodge to represent the morning star. The field of the painting is of plain sand, and the design is made in a strictly prescribed manner by the use of black, red, yellow, and white dry paint, in order. Dotted lines representing stars form part of the painting, in this case those in white being drawn first because the white stars appear first in the morning. The unbroken lines are roads; the white represents the lodge-maker and his wife, the red line the road of the Cheyenne, the black the trail of the buffalo, and yellow the path of the sun. The dry-painting made by the Arapaho in their Sun-dance ceremony, while of symbolic significance, is of a much simpler character.

The sand pictures of the Hopi differ considerably from those of the Navaho. Some of the best are made in midsummer during the ceremonies of the Antelope society. In making dry-paintings the Hopi chief of the ceremony commonly begins at the periphery and follows the ceremonial circuit of the cardinal points in the use of pigments first drawing yellow (north), then green or blue (west), then red (south), and finally white (east). The field of the picture, which is always made secretly in kivas among the Hopi, is valley sand sifted on the. floor from a basket. These Indians never use cords or other measuring instruments. When the dry-painting is effaced pinches of the sand used in making it are deposited in prescribed places; e. g., a portion of the sand of an Antelope dry-painting is placed in a shrine of each cardinal point by the Snake chief (Fewkes).

See Dorsey in Field Columb. Mus. Publ. , Anthrop. ser., iv, 1903, and ix, no. 2, 1905; Voth, ibid., in, nos. 2, 4, 1901, 1903; Dorsey and Voth, ibid., in, nos. 1, 3, 1901, 1902; Fewkes in Jour. Am. Ethnol. and Archseol., iv, 1894, and in various reports of the B. A. E.; Matthews (1) in 5th Rep. B. A. E., 1887, (2) in Mem. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist,, vi, 1902, (3) Navaho Legends, 1897; Stevenson in 8th Rep. B. A. E., 1891. (W. M.)



MLA Source Citation:

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 15 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/dry-painting.htm - Last updated on Jul 18th, 2012


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