Arapaho Artistic Symbolism

The Arapaho are a Native American tribe who historically reside on the plains of Wyoming and Colorado. Traditional Arapaho art and symbolism was deep in meaning and highly representational. Arapaho art was embroidered on clothing and footwear using colored beads, fibers, or quills. It could also be painted or carved into various objects in a bas-relief style. The symbolism was highly geometrical and pictorial. Simple shapes such as squares, triangles, and rectangles were commonly utilized and meant different things when depicted in different colors or sizes. Arapaho symbolism fell into 5 major categories: animals, plants, the natural world, man-made objects, and abstract ideas.

arapaho facts Animal symbols were the most abundant in Arapaho art and design, with the buffalo being the most popular animal of all. This is no surprise, as the Arapaho way of life depended on the buffalo a great deal. The buffalo was often simply represented as one, solid-colored rectangle. This symbol is curious because it was also used to symbolize the earth. It serves to enhance the connection between the earth, the buffalo, and the Arapaho way of life. Buffalo paths and buffalo tracks were also popular symbols. Paths were often represented by one stripe or by many parallel lines, while tracks were denoted by a line of small squares.

Aside from the buffalo, the Arapaho also represented animals such as eagles, crows, turtles, and snakes. The eagles and crows, and many other birds, were usually simple flat representations with their heads either turned to the side or stretched forward. Turtles were depicted by 5 small squares, arranged so that four of the squares looked as if they were coming from the middle section, as limbs from the turtle body. Snakes were usually represented on dancing belts by a wound husk of corn.

Depictions of plants were much less common in Arapaho art, though not nonexistent. Trees were denoted by simple pictorial designs, usually involving no more than a straight line with some perpendicular lines for branches. Sometimes the color green served to illustrate leaves on the tree. Grass was depicted as short, straight lines at various angles from one another, with mushrooms usually being a series of small triangles.

Other objects of the natural world were very common in Arapaho symbolism. The sun was represented by a circle, while the moon was always shown in its crescent state, and always situated horizontally. The stars would be diamond or rhomboid shapes of various colors, sometimes depicted in the Milky Way, which consisted of two white stripes placed side-by-side. Rainbows were also represented artistically as blue, red, and yellow stripes, while zigzag or wavy lines stood for lightning.

Certain symbols for man-made objects were also common. Of these, the most important was a tent, which was depicted as a triangle. Sometimes a smaller, inverted triangle was placed at the top to stand for the tent poles which stuck out of the top of a real tent. The camp circle was represented by a solid-colored rectangle, which, as you may recall, was also the symbol for the buffalo and for the earth. Finally, arrow-heads and spear points were usually simple, small triangles, while a bow was a solid stripe.

Arapaho symbols also served to capture abstract ideas. A very popular symbol, known as a "hiiteni" was meant to denote the idea of abundance and plenty. However, representations of it varied, and hiiteni symbols could be depicted as triangles, rectangles, rhomboids, or trapezoids. Thoughts (such as wishes and prayers) were denoted by straight lines which were sometimes shown heading up into the sky.

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The Arapaho also used four hills or four white bands to represent the four stages of life: childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age.

Arapaho art and symbolism strove to represent both the outer and inner world. Utilizing only a few simple shapes, the Arapaho were able to create complex and deeply meaningful designs. The fact that certain symbols could represent many things, such as the buffalo, the earth, and the camp circle, underlined the connectivity between these ideas and their importance to the Arapaho way of life. The art was decorative, beautiful to look at, and infused with meaning for those who knew what the symbols meant.

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