Design Elements

Among Native American people, symbolic imagery is extremely important to the continuation of traditional beliefs. Archaeologists have demonstrated that the marks made on pottery are very much like ancient wall paintings that have long outlasted their creators. The Native American view that all things, living and inanimate, possess a spirit, is what drives this language of symbols. The symbols of nature represent the importance the elements hold for human life and existence. Certain qualities and characteristics are represented by animal symbols. Hatching and geometric lines that may appear to be solely decoration often represent abstract ideas. Hatching was also used to denote colors a thousand years ago, before colored clays and minerals were found that would bind properly to a pot while firing.

Among the common themes of Pueblo imagery are symbols of nature and spiritual beliefs. The vast majority of symbols and designs in common use among pueblo potters are copies (or stylized interpretations) of symbols that have been found on pottery sherds that are, in some cases, a thousand years old or more. Some designs seem to be common across North America. I found one design recorded on a rock in Oregon and dated to be about 8,000 years old. I've seen that same design, unchanged, from Hopi, San Ildefonso, Acoma, Isleta, Mojave, Sioux and Cherokee artisans. I'm sure there are more.

Designs & Symbols

Much of the design symbology in use over the centuries seems to have first been expressed in central or southern Mexico as part of a "Flower World Complex." It promises that a life lived "right" would lead to a time after death much more pleasant than this life has been. After death comes a journey to Flower Mountain, from whence the Sun rises in the east every morning. Flower Mountain is covered with a flower, bird and butterfly-filled jungle. It is the home of the Sun Youth, the Twin Warriors, the Corn Maiden, Quetzalcoatl, great ancient warrior ancestors and more. To get there, one followed the Rainbow Road, which Quetzalcoatl (the avanyu) is a primary symbol of. But to get there, life has to be lived "just right," by everyone in the village, or everyone in the village faces peril. As pottery was made by women who continually prayed through every aspect of the making of it, the decorations they added to it were indicative of their state of prayer. Using Clay Mother's pottery in the right way also helped to keep everyone in line.

Between about 1050 CE and 1500 CE there was much moving and mixing of disparate groups across the countryside. It was during this time that many of the clans came together. It was also during this time that a tradition of feasting developed as a means of helping individuals and families meet and merge into new communities. Feasting also worked to wedge new hierachies in place and maintain them, once they were fully in charge. There was so much movement cross country that there were few homogeneous populations, most were mixes from every which direction. Some groups, though, now say that their migration out of the Four Corners area was made en masse and everyone went quickly to the same locale near the Rio Grande and built new pueblos. They say they did not mix.

Arrows: Arrows usually imply force, movement, direction and power. When displayed within a landscape they imply direction. When displayed with animals they represent the "heart line" which shows the pathway of breath or the life-force of the animal spirit. When an animal is shown with an arrow going inward, it represents a prayer for better hunting.

Lines: Various combinations of parallel long and short lines were used in ancient rock art to signify varying concepts. Hatched and spiral lines usually indicate movement of some sort. On ancient Kayenta, Chaco and Mimbres pottery, hatched lines might also mean a color as those potters only had their clay and vegetal paint to work with. Further, the vegetal paint only turned black in an oxygen-reduction atmosphere. There are many motifs that imply prayers for rain and water. Fine parallel lines are often translated as meaning "rain." Rain translates to fertile land and represents a necessary life source. Other parallel lines may represent crop rows. Horizontal lines can be decorative or might depict the horizon. Diagonal lines might indicate the journey of a spirit between worlds. Lines that encircle the rim of a pot sometimes have a gap, or "spirit break," which metaphorically releases the spirit of the potter or any other spirits that may be associated with the materials that make up the pot (some potters use ground up pot sherds for temper and everything about their process implies the presence of the spirits of those former potters - the Diné go further and simply forbid all use of ground potsherds as temper in Diné pottery). Acoma has evolved some really intricate fine line designs. Snowflake fine line is a common one, North Star fine line (particular to Rebecca Lucario's family) is another.

Circles: Circles might represent the earth, the sun or the moon. Symbols in which circles are juxtaposed with diagonal lines signify the movement of the sun and specific times of day or year. Pueblo Indians tell time of year by the position of the sun and have carefully mapped its motion. Certain positions of the sun mean the beginning and ending of duties like planting and harvesting as well as when to perform ceremonies. Concentric circles might represent levels to the Upper World.

Kiva Steps: In some pueblos, the kiva is a circular, underground ceremonial and religious structure. They usually have a ladder sticking up through an opening in the center of the roof to symbolize the sipapu, where the ancestors originally emerged onto the surface of this, the Fourth World. The steps symbolize man's journey from the three levels of the underworld to the upper world, as described in the common Emergence Myth. Steps are sometimes cut into the rim of a pot, too (those are often called "prayer jars"). Kiva steps are depicted going in every direction as the entry to the spirit world is everywhere but is really an opening into another dimension. Kiva steps are also a depiction of the path of the Rainbow Road, which leads to the wonders of Flower Mountain.

In other pueblos (usually those with more of a Mogollon ancestry), kivas are rectangular and built above ground. Some pueblos are divided and offer both to their appropriate clans.

To the Diné, the geometrical "kiva step" represents a terraced rain cloud formation.

Spirals: Spirals represent renewal and continuation. They might also represent a spiritual journey to other worlds or the broadening of one's consciousness. Spirals are present in rock art thousands of years old. Archaeologists recovered a clay jaguar figure in the ruins near Valdivia, Ecuador, that had a prominent spiral tail on it. As that was dated to have been made sometime between 4,000 BCE and 1500 BCE, we have no idea as to what spiritual journey that spiral shape may have gone through in its travels north to the land of the pueblos.

Many of the spirals we see today on pueblo pottery are attributed to the Jornada Mogollon: the Tularosa spiral. The Jornada Mogollon may have been descendants of the Mimbres Mogollon people, some of whom migrated east across the Rio Grande and into the canyons on both sides of the San Andres Mountains (to the Tularosa Basin). They lived in the area for a couple hundred years before the entire Mogollon culture melted away in the aftermath of the extended bad weather events in the 1400s. To some folks, the spiral represents the Circle of Life. Like the handprint, the spiral design is ubiquitous across North American tribes. That indicates a much older common origin.

A spider and geometric design on a polychrome seedpot
Polychrome seedpot decorated with a spider and geometric design, by Burel Naha, Hopi
7.75 in H by 5 in Dia
An organicopening and Paquime designs on a black on black on  black vase
Black-on-black-on-black vase with an organic opening and Paquimé designs, by Lydia Quezada, Mata Ortiz
11 in H by 6.25 in Dia
Measurement includes stand
Black and white cotton and rain design on the inside and geometric design on the outside of a polychrome bowl
Polychrome chili bowl with a black-and-white cotton and rain design inside, and a geometric design outside, by Thomas Tenorio, Santo Domingo
2.25 in H by 7.75 in Dia
Geometric design on a thin neck polychrome jar
Thin-necked polychrome jar decorated with a geometric design, by Robert Kasero Sr., Laguna
6.75 in H by 7.5 in Dia


Bear: represents strength and medicine
Coyote: Represents craftiness and sly behavior
Cricket: Represents music and the season of spring
Deer: Represents abundance, family protection and speed
Eagle: represents the Great Spirit, courage, wisdom and connection to the creator
Frog: Represents renewal, spring and fertility
Lizard: Represents perseverance and the keeping of ancient secrets
Parrot: Represents female fertility, family and prosperity
Raven, Owl: Represents a spirit messenger
Serpent: Represents rain and the power of water, archaic wisdom, healing, the male organ and speed
Spider: Represents creative powers
Turtle: Represents water, long life and perseverance
Wolf: Represents loyalty, intelligence and guidance

A cloud, bird, rainbow and geometric design on a polychrome jar
Polychrome jar decorated with a rainbow, bird, cloud and geometric design, by Eleanor Pino Griego, Zia
5.5 in H by 7 in Dia
A corn plant and Mimbres-style hummingbird, shard and geometric design on a small polychrome plate
Small polychrome plate decorated with corn and Mimbres shard, hummingbird and geometric designs, by Carolyn Concho, Acoma
0.5 in H by 4 in Dia
A Mimbres bat and geometric design in black on a white plate
Black-on-white plate decorated with a Mimbres bat and geometric design, by Kimo DeCora, Isleta
0.5 in H by 3.25 in Dia
Deer-with-heart-line and geometric design on a polychrome duck pot
Polychrome duck pot decorated with a deer-with-heart-line and geometric design, by Anderson Peynetsa, Zuni
17.25 in H by 12.75 in Dia

Other Symbols

Avanyu: The avanyu is a mythical water serpent who is believed to bring storms and sudden change. He is valued for bringing water to the land, especially in seasons of drought. He is feared because he's also a symbol of rampaging flash floods. The avanyu is depicted on many Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pots. The Zunis have a similar mythic creature known as kolowisi. Kolowisi is seen as a saviour by the tribe and wields great power. Following the design and the ideology leads back to Quetzalcoatl, the feathered (or plumed) serpent of Teotihuacan. For some, to follow the path of the avanyu is to follow the Rainbow Road to Flower Mountain and visit with the deities, ancient warriors and ancestors.

Bear Paws and Deer Tracks: Paw prints and tracks indicate the presence of the animal spirit. Bear paws are a symbol of authority, strength and leadership. Deer tracks are used to show direction and are used in pictorial story telling. Grouped animal tracks represent kinship. Animals in pairs symbolize devotion and permanence. Santa Clara has a special relationship with the bear due to an old story of a bear cub leading someone to a spring in a time of severe drought and, essentially, saving the tribe. Among clans, the Bear Clan is the clan of medicine people and healers.

Birds and Bird elements: Most pueblos that used painted decorations painted birds of one sort or another. In the old days, most pueblos also kept turkeys and traded for macaws and other parrots from Mesoamerica. Feathers were a particular symbol of power, macaw feathers being the most powerful. Many representations of the Sun Youth show him with the head of a macaw. The roadrunner became identified with Zia pottery, the parrot/macaw with Acoma. The hummingbird is mostly from Santa Clara and those unrecognizable "bird elements" that resemble beaks, wings, eagle tails and parrot feathers: those are derived from ancient Sikyátki and Awatovi designs from the 1500s and 1600s in Hopiland. Birds are the messengers who carry our prayers to Heaven: that has been a known fact since the days of Teotihuacan.

Checkerboard: What we call "checkerboard" can be interpreted in many different ways. For some it means "starry or cloudy sky" while for others it means rows of corn growing, or rows of kernels on an ear of corn. At its basic level, a checkerboard is a simple grid that can be used to build other designs on. In Mata Ortiz they call it "cuadrillos" and for some Mata Ortiz potters, that's all they paint, using a basic grid to build larger and smaller geometric patterns.

Cloud Eater: The Cloud Eater is usually pictured as a large bird that is swallowing fish, with a couple fish usually stuck in its long, bent throat. Often surrounded by symbols of rain, the Cloud Eater seems to be a uniquely Mimbres-derived symbol. The bird itself closely resembles a crane. The only area where the Mimbres Mogollon may have come across waterbirds fishing along the shore is the shoreline of the Sea of Cortez.

Clouds: Clouds are often illustrated by stepped lines that are usually shown with symbols for rain and lightning. Some pueblos illustrate clouds as curved triangular funnels with droplets at the open end. Clouds are part of the never-ceasing prayers for rain. It's because of those never-ending prayers for rain that the first Spanish in the area thought the local folks were worshiping rain as a god. For some, those same stepped lines are showing the path of the Flower Road.

Corn: Corn represents the primary staple of Puebloan life for the last 2,000+ years. It is a symbol of health, happiness and fertility. The Corn Maiden is also a symbol of that. On many pieces of pottery are designs that could easily be interpreted as kernels of corn, ears of corn, rows of corn, etc. A great many Native American potters are members of the Corn Clan, too. Many of those use some version of the corn plant or an ear of corn as part of their signature.

Dancers: Dances are an ancient custom among the pueblos. They are the personifications of prayers acted out. They are a means of communicating with another world in another way. Part of the dances are the costumes. For a Deer Dance the dancers wear clothing and headresses that reflect "deer." They also have sticks in the hands to reflect "4-legged deer." Eagle dancers wear feathered wings and feathered headdresses. Among the Hopi, dancers wear masks that cover their entire heads. It is felt that the dancer takes on the personality of the being represented by the mask and headdress. The dances proceed in very specific ways with prayers, songs, drumming and the movement of the dancers along specific routes through their villages, usually over an extended period of time. They also occur in specific sequences and for specific astronomical markers.

Feathers: Depicted in many different ways, feathers are symbols of honor and the creative forces. They have many ceremonial purposes and are used on arrows and prayer sticks. Circular feather arrangements, carved, painted and scratched, ring many pueblo pots and plates. To the Hopi, feathers are a bird element and any bird element represents a prayer on its way to the gods.

Fish: The fish design is prevalent on ancient Mimbres pottery. Interesting, because there are no fish in the streams of the Mimbres Valley: the streams all merge together and flow into the desert where they sink into the sand. Since the advent of Man, there has never been a natural connection to another flowing stream where fish could have come from organically. The only way those folks were exposed to "fish" appears to have come from the Sea of Cortez. Most of the Mimbres fish designs resemble fish found there more than anywhere nearer. They also all have four legs on them, part of a Mimbres mythology that has been passed down into today's pueblos. Santo Domingo and Cochiti fish have no legs on them but the Tewa avanyu of Santa Clara and San Ildefonso generally has four. Mata Ortiz fish designs based on ancient Paquimé designs also more resemble fish from the Sea of Cortez than fish from anywhere nearer.

Handprints: Represent the presence of humans, their work, their achievements and history. Handprints have been part of the rock art library for several thousand years. Handprints are a characteristic of pottery across the continent: they are used prominently in a lot of modern Cherokee pottery. Some potters like to leave a handprint design in the bottom of theior pots.

Hopi Sun: The sun is seen as the source of life and tied to the Creator. The design is based on a particular katsina mask from a Hopi dance. The ceremonial version of the mask (and design) is most likely more ornate with more symbolic decoration than what we, the non-Hopi public, may ever see but that's as it should be.

Katsinas: Katsinas are Hopi supernatural beings. Generally, their only physical manifestations are seen in the sky. They are often depicted with costumes and headdresses in dances and in carvings. On pottery, the most common katsina I've seen pictured is Pahlik Mana (Butterfly Woman), but there are many others.

Kokopelli: A mythical flute player prevalent in Southwest design. His image is found on rock art more than 2,000 years old and still appears on pottery today. Kokopelli is a very male symbol and also represents the fertility of the lands. The name Kokopelli may have derived from a mix of Zuni and Hopi names for a god: Koko, and a desert fly: Pelli. He sometimes resembles an insect, usually a cricket, with a pack on his back. He has also been referred to as a seed-bringer and water sprinkler. The oldest kokopellis look more like a hump-backed flute player and as such, his shape and meaning can be found historically among more than 130 tribes across North America. Except for the human fertility aspect, his story is very similar to the story of Johnny Appleseed.

Rainbows: The rainbow signifies it has already rained and the sun is out again, our prayers have been answered! The rainbow is a sign of renewal, prosperity and good days coming.

Yei, Yeibichai: The Yeibichai are Diné in origin but are similar beings to the Hopi katsinas. When depicted on pottery, the males have square or rectangular heads while the females have rounded heads.

Zia: The Zia is a sun symbol first used by the people of Zia Pueblo. It was a sacred symbol, meant for viewing in sacred ceremonies only. In 1895 James Stephenson was negotiating to buy a ceremonial pot with the full Zia image on it when he fell ill and shortly after died. At the same time, the pot itself disappeared, then reappeared a few years later in Santa Fe. There was a lot of negotiation between the Zia people and the state but eventually an agreement was reached allowing a stripped down version of the image to be used far and wide. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, the Zia was taken as the central symbol of the state flag. The Zia is also sometimes seen as a cross with four directions. The number four is sacred to many Native American groups as it embodies the powers of nature: the four directions, four seasons and four ages of man. It is a symbol of life and balance.

A shard, medallion and geometric design on a polychrome jar
Polychrome jar with a medallion, shard and geometric design, by Franklin Peters, Acoma
7.5 in H by 8.75 in Dia
Red and black thunderbird and water designs on a redware bowl
Redware bowl with red and black thunderbird and water design, by Rondina Huma, Hopi-Tewa
2.25 in H by 11.25 in Dia
Feather design on a black-on-black jar
Black-on-black jar decorated with a feather design, by Maria Martinez, San Ildefonso
3.75 in H by 4.75 in Dia
Spiral, feather, hand and geometric designs carved into a brown jar
Brown jar decorated with a carved spiral, hand, feather and geometric design, by Harrison Begay Jr., Santa Clara
6.25 in H by 6.25 in Dia

Design Elements