Yuchi Decorative Art and Symbolism

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Something has already been said about decorative designs in the description of clothing, but the designs themselves and the general subject of art deserve a little attention. As regards the artistic expression of this tribe it seems that, in general, special conventional decorations symbolizing concrete objects are confined to a few articles of clothing such as neckbands, sashes, hair ornaments, leggings and carrying-pouches. The whole field is permeated with a strong religious significance. Decorations of a like sort with a still more emphatic religious meaning are found on pottery, though rarely, as well as on other objects. Besides this we find occasional attempts, on the part of the men, to make realistic pictures of familiar objects by means of pigments on paper, bark or skin, not to mention the fashioning of a few crude representations in plastic material. Considering, however, the part that conventional decoration plays in the present case, it seems to outweigh the importance of pictorial art. It must be admitted, though, that this sup-position is founded entirely on the consideration of modern material, and, as there appears to be no way of going back of this for an insight into earlier stages the only course is to treat it as a native feature. A suspicion regarding the foreign origin of Yuchi ornamentation has already been mentioned. We must also reckon with considerable deterioration resulting from contact with the whites.

Lacking, then, the ability to deal with Yuchi art in its definitely pure state we shall undertake the consideration of some decorative designs on clothing as representing the most specialized and characteristic surviving forms. Some of these are simple conventional geometrical patterns which are used with variation by different individuals and often regarded as religious symbols. For instance, we find the conventional bull snake pattern on sashes, garters, neckbands and shoulder straps, with a religious significance attached to it. In as much as the Wind on one of his excursions made use of bull snakes for his sash, garters and shoulder strap and was highly successful in his under-taking, the emulation of this great being is sought after by human beings when they decorate their sashes, garters and shoulder straps with the symbolic bull snake design.[1] The same emulative motives are to be found in the frog effigy pipe’s and in the turtle design which is common on the side pouches (PI. IX. Fig. 5).

Other patterns lack, so far as is known, any religious associations, being merely conventional decorative representations of familiar natural objects. In this category we find patterns of mountains, clouds, rivers, the moon, sun, milky way, and rainbow, while representations of such living forms as the centipede and the bull snake are also met with. The greatest variety of patterns showing minor differences and bearing the same interpretation seem to be those representing sky and cloud effects. The religious interest of the Yuchi in the upper world of the sky may have influenced them in their taste for celestial symbols. In this connection it should be remembered that they regard themselves as the offspring of the sun and point to that orb as the tribal sign in gesture talk. It was remarked by one of the men who supplied the specimens illustrated here, that some years ago when the Yuchi were more ‘ given to roving about the plains for game they were distinguished among the Osage, Sauk, Pawnee and other tribes encountered, by the predominance of cloud, sky, sun and moon designs shown in their beadwork neckbands. In fact, the decorative motives seem to be of a more or less fixed tribal nature. No symbols for abstract ideas, as for example those of the Arapaho for thought and good luck, have been found.

In depicting objects and in conventional patterns naturally the outlines give the chief character to the figure, though colors have their conventional uses. Blue represents sky or water, dark blue, the sky at night, and white or yellow, light or illumination. Green represents vegetation. Brown, earth or sand, and red, earth and fire. As among many tribes of North America, colors are furthermore associated with the cardinal points by the Yuchi.

kodanfd, north; hitsAn’, green or blue.
fakanfd, east; yaká, white.
wa’ fa, south ; tcalá, red.
janfá, west; ispi’, black.

Of these, two carry the Symbolism further. The east and its whiteness signify the propitious, the west and black stand for the unpropitious, while red is symbolical of war and turbulence. These concepts, at least the black west and the white east, are undoubtedly connected with day and night.

In different accounts the colors going with the cardinal points vary somewhat. It appears that no fixed symbolism is maintained but that the idea of color in connection with the points is general but variable. The same tendency seems to be found in other tribes, which would explain the conflicts which are often recorded.

The illustrations given here were mostly made from specimens secured from the Indians and the interpretations are those offered by their makers. In some cases, however, patterns were remembered by Indians but no actual specimens showing them could be obtained. Pigment representations in color were then made by the Indians of a few designs which were familiar to them but out of use, and the interpretations were secured at the same time as the sketches. Other designs were copied from specimens, which could not be obtained. Pi. VIII, Fig. S is a general pattern representing the bull snake, canká, on earth or sand. It was done in pigment and said to be intended for use on shoulder straps of pouches, garters or sashes. Fig. 7 also shows a pattern of the bull snake design for similar use; the body material here is supposed to be of some white cloth and the red, yellow and blue outlines are to be produced by sewing the beads on or weaving them singly in the fabric. Fig. 6 is an actual design taken from a pair of woven garters. The white beads are woven in the fabric and the whole also symbolizes the bull snake. Fig. 2 is a pattern representing the centipede, totcengäné. It was done in pigments and is intended for use on beadwork neckbands. Figs. 3 and 4 are both from specimens of beadwork neckbands and show three-color conventionalizations of the centipede. Fig. 5 represents the same with the difference that the legs are shown: in the outside marginal row. Fig. 1 and PI. IX Fig. 4, show mountain designs seen on breechcloth flaps, blankets, and belts, and used also on neckbands. This is called s?a’yaboha pe?’en; ‘many crooked mountains.’ Pl. VIII. Fig. 9, is a pattern, ts?ed’, river, taken from a neckband representing a river, in blue, flowing through arid country, indicated by the brown ground color. Fig. 15 is another neckband design showing the same idea with a little variation in color. Fig. 14 is a hair ornament representing likewise a river flowing through a fertile prairie land. In Fig. 13 is a pigment pattern for belt, shoulder strap or neckband. It represents an otter, according to its well-known habit, sliding down the bank of a stream into the water which is represented by the blue area. The red portion shows the muddy bank. Fig. 12 is taken from a beadwork neckband and shows the milky way, tsené yuctn, ‘dog’s trail,’ in white, as seen on a starlight night. The dark blue represents the sky at night and the white beads in it are stars. Fig. 11 shows the design on a woman’s belt done in beads and cloth appliqué. The whole represents the breaking up of storm clouds, showing glimpses of the blue sky in between the cloud banks. Fig. 16 is from a beadwork necklace and represents a bright sky with various kinds of cumulus clouds which are shown in the different shaped rectangles. Fig. 10 is another neckband design representing the rainbow, yu?a’ or wet?a’. Fig. 17, taken from a neckband, is similar in content to Fig. 16, showing cumulus clouds.’ The right angle L represents the moon. Figs. 18 and 19 are neckband and hair ornament designs representing different sunrise or sunset effects, tsonAn.

Fig. 20 is a variation of the idea represented in Fig. 17, showing also the moon symbol. This was taken from a beadwork neckband. Fig. 21, also a neck-band idea, is uniform red representing the glow of sunset in the sky, and is called hoponlé tcalála, sky red all over.’ Figs. 22 and 23 are beadwork design elements also representing sunrise or sunset amid clouds.

The most characteristic and important example of religious symbolism is to be found in the public area or town square of Yuchi town where the ceremonies are performed and tribal gatherings take place. Although this will he described and figured further on under another heading (sec Pl. XI), it deserves mention here. The town square itself, with its three lodges on the north, south and west, symbolized the rainbow. The natural coloring of the brown earth floor of the square, the green brush roofs of the lodges, the gray ashes of the fire in the center and the red of the flames formed altogether an enormous ashes, earth and vegetation painting, if such an expression might be used, which was the tribal shrine. The colors of this town square altar corresponded to those of the rainbow. The ceremonial event which took place annually on this shrine furthermore symbolized the various actions of the chief supernatural being and culture hero Sun who taught the people the ceremony as it was performed by the inhabitants of the sky in the rainbow during the mythical period. Like the symbolism of many primitive peoples in America that of the Yuchi was closely connected with religious life.

Fig. 31 Decorative Art
Fig. 31 Decorative Art

It is observable that most of the geometrical figures used here as design elements, such as rectangles, triangles and zigzag lines, are commonly found in a similar capacity in other regions with, however, different and arbitrary symbolisms and interpretations in different localities. This seems to be in accord with what Dr. Boas has shown for parts of North America, that certain figures have become disseminated through wide areas and have received secondary, oftentimes symbolical, interpretations when adopted by different tribes according to their particular interests. Below, in Fig. 31, is given a summary of Yuchi conventional figures from the material at hand to facilitate the comparison of American motives and their interpretations. The significance of the various colors has already been given. To conclude this very brief account of art and symbolism a few examples of pictorial representations are given. These drawings in color were brought in by Indians to further explain various features of ethnology while investigation was being carried on. No claim is made regarding their spontaneity or native originality. In Plate IX, Fig. 10 represents a buffalo fish which has been shot with an arrow. Fig. 9 shows a cow’s head with an arrow crosswise in its mouth. The picture of a mortar, pestle and two pot stirrers (Fig. 11) was drawn to show the miniature domestic utensils which are hidden away with the navel cord of a female child to influence its future. Fig. 6 represents a war club of an ancient type no longer seen, with a String of feathers. Fig. 7 is the sun and moon or moon and star symbol, which was placed over the entrance of the Yuchi house as a tribal mark symbolizing the kinship of the people to the sun. Fig. 8 is a design taken from a drum head. It represents the color symbolism of the cardinal points, lacking, however, the black for west. The Yuchi seem to perceive no intrinsic difference between approximate shades of green and blue. When these colors are placed side by side, however, they note an existing difference when attention is called to it. The language has one word for the two colors, hitsAn’. Shades and tones of other colors are seldom distinguished. Even the extremes do not call forth particular mention unless they border on each other. Thus indigo might be called black. Yellow and green, however, are clearly distinguished apart and are covered by particular words, di yellow, hitsAn’ green or blue. Aesthetically green or blue and yellow were claimed as the favorite colors by the majority of those who were questioned about the matter. It may also be noted here that designs representing cloud effects and celestial phenomena are held in the greatest fondness by the Yuchi, in which preference they may have. been influenced by religious associations. The favorite patterns are commonly called by such names as engedjinen, ‘dressed up,’ and gatse’pongané, ‘pretty.’ Several more complex pictures are reproduced on Plate IX, which may be of native origin. They were made by a chief of his own accord on paper to illustrate several things that were mentioned in the myths. They are comparable to some of the pictures made by the plains tribes for similar purposes. Fig. .3 depicts the milky way, tscné yuctan, ‘dog’s trail,’ at night and the clear sky studded with stars. This is to explain the belief that the milky way is the trail of White Dog, a supernatural being, who travels over it every night. The ramification to the right, which is rather difficult to distinguish in the milky way, is supposed to he a blind trail leading toward the earth. The White Dog frequently blunders and takes the blind trail, getting quite near to the earth before he discovers his mistake. The Indian dogs are quick to perceive this and thereupon set up a howl which they keep up until White Dog has passed on. Thus the weird howling at night of the Indian dogs is accounted for. Fig. 2 shows the rainbow, yuea’, ‘big house (?),’ the trail over which the soul travels toward the spirit land. The brown area represents earth with a mountain in darker shade; the blue is water in the background, with sky in green above all. In Fig. 1 is a river, land, a mountain range and sky in their respective conventional colors. In the foreground are trees, and a raccoon which has been fishing and is now bound for the tree on the left where he has his hole. Fig. 5 is given to show a design used on the side pouches and shoulder straps which support them. The upper figure is a turtle, tabea’. The turtle and snake de-signs on these pouches have already been described so it is not necessary to explain their significance again. The other figures on the lower part of the pouch are a hand and a tomahawk. I could not find out what idea they are intended to convey, or what their reason was for being here. The aesthetic and symbolic forms exhibited in pipes (Fig. 11) and clay figures (Fig.l2) have been described before and hardly need to be more than mentioned.

Footnotes

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  1. The likelihood that the snake design was predominant in the decoration of shoulder straps and sashes of most of the southeastern tribes is to be inferred from the frequency with which this design, to the exclusion of others, appears in the portraits of Creeks, Seminole and Cherokee published by McKenney and Hall (History of the Indian Tribes of North America, 3 vols., 1848-50)



MLA Source Citation:

Add after new site opens. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 18 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/yuchi-decorative-art-and-symbolism.htm - Last updated on Jul 9th, 2013


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