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 or 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.
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: Hatched lines usually indicate movement or rain. 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. Rain translates to fertile land and represents a necessary vital life source. There are many motifs that imply prayers for rain and water. 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 Navajo go further and simply forbid all use of ground pot sherds as temper in Navajo 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 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.
In other pueblos (usually those with more of a Mogollon ancestry), kivas are rectangualr and built above ground. Some pueblos are divided and offer both to their appropriate clans.
To the Navajo, 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. Many of the spirals we see today on pueblo pottery are attributed to the Tularosa Mogollon: the Tularosa spiral. The Tularosa Mogollon were descendants of the Mimbres Mogollon people who migrated east across the Rio Grande and into the Tularosa Basin. They lived in the area for a couple hundred years before their culture melted away, probably helped on in its passing by incoming bands of Apaches. In those days the mountains surrounding the Tularosa Basin area were flush with bighorn sheep. Same for the areas around Mount Taylor. There is some speculation the spiral is also a prayer made manifest for good hunting and in honor of bighorn sheep. But like the handprint, the spiral design is ubiquitous across North American tribes. That indicates a much older origin.
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
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. 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.
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, turkey feathers being the most powerful. 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 feathers: those are derived from ancient Sikyatki and Awatovi designs from the 1600s in Hopiland.
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.
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.
Corn: Corn represents the primary staple of Puebloan life for probably 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.
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 ring many pueblo pots and plates.
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. 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 Gulf of Baja. 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 has four. Mata Ortiz fish designs based on ancient Paquime designs also more resemble fish from the Gulf of Baja than fish from anywhere nearer.
Handprints: Represent the presence of humans, their work, their achievements and history. Handprints are a characteristic of pottery across the continent: they are used prominently in a lot of modern Cherokee pottery in particular.
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.
Kokopelli: A mythical flute player prevalent in Southwest design. His image is found on rock art almost 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.
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 painting on it when he fell ill and shortly died. The pot itself disappeared and 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 painting 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.