Native American Symbols, Pictographs & Petroglyphs

Native American Symbols

Native American Symbols Postcard at Legends’ General Store.

For the earth, he drew a straight line, 
For the sky a bow above it; 
White the space between for day-time, 
Filled with little stars for night-time; 
On the left a point for sunrise, 
On the right a point for sunset, 
On the top a point for noontide, 
And for rain and cloudy weather 
Waving lines descending from it.
From The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When European explorers arrived in America, Native Americans did not communicate through writing as we know it. Instead, they told stories (oral histories) and created pictures and symbols. This type of communication is not unique to Native Americans, as long before writing was developed, people recorded events, ideas, plans, maps, and feelings worldwide by drawing pictures and symbols on rocks, hides, and other surfaces.

Historic pictorial symbols for a word or a phrase have been found dating before 3000 BC. These symbols, called pictographs, are created by painting on rock surfaces with natural pigments. These natural pigments included iron oxides in hematite or limonite, white or yellow clays, soft rock, charcoal, and copper minerals. These natural pigments were mixed to produce a palette of yellow, white, red, green, black, and blue. Historic pictographs are usually found under protective ledges or in caves protected from the weather.

Paviotso Paiute making petroglyphs byEdward S. Curtis, 1924.

Paviotso Paiute making petroglyphs by Edward S. Curtis, 1924.

Another similar form of communication, called petroglyphs, was carved, pecked, or abraded into stone surfaces. This carving could produce a visible indentation in the rock or cut deeply enough to reveal unweathered material of a different color below.

Native American symbols were like words and often had one or more definitions and contained different connotations. Varying from tribe to tribe, it can sometimes be challenging to know their meanings, while other symbols are obvious. With the multiple languages spoken by Native American tribes, symbols or “picture writing” was often used to convey words and ideas. Symbols were also used to decorate homes, were painted on buffalo hides, and recorded important events of the tribe.

These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.

The arrival of Spanish people to the Southwest in 1540 dramatically impacted the lifestyle of the pueblo people. In 1680 the Pueblo tribes rose in the revolt against Spanish rule and drove the settlers out of the area and back to El Paso, Texas. In 1692 the Spanish resettled in the AlbuquerqueNew Mexico, area. As a result of their return, there was a renewed influence of the Catholic religion, which discouraged participation by the Puebloans in many of their traditional ceremonial practices. Consequently, many of these practices went underground, and much of the image-making by the Puebloans decreased.

There were many reasons for creating the Petroglyphs, most of which are not well understood by modern society. Petroglyphs are more than just “rock art,” picture writing, or an imitation of the natural world. They should not be confused with hieroglyphics, symbols used to represent words, nor thought of as ancient Indian graffiti. Petroglyphs are powerful cultural symbols that reflect the complex societies and religions of the surrounding tribes.

Petroglyphs in the Petrified Forest of Arizona by the National Park Service.

Petroglyphs in the Petrified Forest of Arizona by the National Park Service.

The context of each image is extremely important and integral to its meaning. Today’s native people have stated that placing each petroglyph image was not a casual or random decision. Some petroglyphs have meanings that are only known to the individuals who made them. Others represent tribal, clan, kiva, or societal markers. Some are religious entities, and others show who came to the area and where they went. Petroglyphs still have contemporary meaning, while the meaning of others is no longer known but are respected for belonging to “those who came before.”

The United States has thousands of pictographs and petroglyphs, with the greatest concentration in the American Southwest. The site that has the most is the Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico. At the monument, archaeologists have estimated there may be over 25,000 petroglyph images along the 17 miles of the escarpment. A small percentage of the petroglyphs within the park pre-date the Puebloan period, perhaps reaching as far back as 2000 B.C. Other images date from historic periods starting in the 1700s, with petroglyphs carved by early Spanish settlers. It is estimated 90% of the monument’s petroglyphs were created by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. Puebloans have lived in the Rio Grande Valley since before 500 A.D., but a population increase around 1300 A.D. resulted in numerous new settlements. It is believed that most of the petroglyphs were carved from about 1300 through the late 1680s.

Arrow   Protection
Arrowhead   Alertness
Badger Track   Summer
Bear   Strength
Bear Paw   Good Omen
Big Mountain   Great abundance
Bird   Free of worry, Carefree
Broken Arrow   Peace
Broken Cross Circle   Four Seasons, That Which Revolves
Brothers   Unity, Equality, Loyalty
Buffalo Horns   Success
Buffalo Skull   Sacredness, Reverence for Life
Butterfly   Everlasting life
Cactus   Sign of desert
Coyote & Coyote Tracks   Trickster
Crossed Arrows   Friendship
Days-Nights   Time Passing
Deer Track   Game plentiful
Drawn Bow & Arrow   Hunting
Drying Rack   Plenty of Meat
Eagle   Freedom
Eagle Feather   Chief
Enclosure   Ceremonial Dances
End of Trail   Peace, End of War
Evil Eye   This symbol protects from the curse of the Evil Eye.
Facing Arrows   Warding off evil spirits
Four Ages   Infancy, Youth, Middle, Old Age
Gecko   Sign of Desert
Gila Monster   Dream Time
Great Spirit   The Great Spirit is a conception of universal spiritual force, or supreme being prevalent among most Native American tribes.
Head Dress   Ceremonial
Hogan   Permanent Home
Horse   Journey
Kokopelli   Flute Player, Fertility
Lightning   Power, Speed
Lightning Arrow   Swiftness
Man   Life
Medicine Man’s Eye   Wisdom
Morning Stars   Guidance
Mountain Range   Destination
Path   Crossed
Peace Pipe   Ceremonial, sacred
Rain   Plentiful crop
Rain Clouds   Good Prospect
Rattle Snake Jaws   Strength
Saddle Bag   Journey
Skyband   Leading to Happiness
Snake   Defiance
Squash Blossom   Fertility
Sun   Happiness
Sun Flower   Fertility
Sun God Mask   The Sun God is a powerful spirit among a number of Native American tribes.
Sunrays   Constant
Swastika   Four corners of the world, Well-Being
Tipi   Temporary house
Thunderbird   Unlimited Happiness, Caller of Rain
Thunderbird Track   Bright Prospect
Water Running   Constant Life
Wolf Paw   Freedom, Success
Zuni Bear   Good Health

Compiled, designed, and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2023.

Also See:

Blythe Intaglios – Nazca Lines in California

Healing Crystals and Stones

Indian Proverbs & Wisdom

Medicine Bags or Bundles

Native American Totem Animals & Their Meanings


National Park Service
Native American Roots