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Water Symbolism in Native American Indian Art

Pueblo peoples have inhabited the American Southwest for well over 500 years. Continued life in the arid region depends on water, and the importance of seasonal rains is evident in the traditional designs and patterns that adorn many types of Native American Indian art.

Water Symbols

The sheer number of symbols for water and weather that brings water to the Pueblos speaks to the importance of this element to Pueblo culture. Some of the most commonly seen water symbols include:

Line patterns painted or etched into Pueblo pottery also symbolize rain and/or running water, like the fine line patterns commonly seen in Acoma pottery (see example on right).

On the Pueblos, the majority of rainfall is received during the monsoon seasons, during which afternoon and evening thunderstorms are very common. As a result, lightning is commonly associated with water in Pueblo culture, as can be seen in the similarity between patterns representing rain and lightning.(The zig-zag line patterns on this vessel by Laguna potter Myron Sarracino represent lightning.)

In addition to depicting the actual weather phenomenon, water’s importance to Pueblo life is also seen in the depiction of Avanyu (water serpent), a Tewa water deity. Avanyu was known as the storm-bringer and the changer of seasons. Avanyu may appear in Pueblo art as a curvy serpent (representative of flowing water), as a creature with a lighting-symbol-shaped body (representative of Avanyu’s association with thunderstorms, lightning and violent change) and/or with a lightning-shaped tongue (as seen in this bowl by San Ildefonso potter Erik Fender).

Associated Water Symbols

Water symbolism in Native American Indian art is not just limited to symbols of actual water. Because water nourished the crops and allowed life to flourish in ponds and rivers, many plant and animal symbols are also associated with water.

Water-associated symbols include:

Cornstalk. Corn was the staple crop that sustained the Pueblo people. Cornstalk most commonly appears in Hopi art, like this sterling silver bracelet by Darren Silas.

  Dragonfly. Dragonfly is a symbol of fertility and renewal and is often considered a messenger.

Frog. Like the dragonfly, the frog is considered a symbol of fertility. Frogs often make their appearance in Native American Indian art as carved stone fetishes, like this Picasso marble piece by Ephran Chavez.

Turtle. Turtle’s own longevity has led Pueblo peoples to associate them with long life, even defying death.

Water and water-associated symbols and patterns can be found in nearly all types of Native American Indian art. The knowledgeable staff at Palms Trading Company can help you see and understand the patterns in jewelry, on vessels, etc. If you are looking for a piece with a particular symbol or pattern, contact us to have our Personal Shopper look through our in-store selection, too.