Symbolism and Expression Additional Reading


Symbols are often rooted in the spiritual beliefs of the community.  Creative expression was traditionally a way of connecting with and honoring the spiritual world.  For example, symbolically adorned tobacco pipes and drums are an integral part of many First Nations spiritual ceremonies.  Use of these objects is seen as a form of prayer or other communication with the Creator.

The symbols found in traditional works of art are as varied as the cultures who have created them.  However, because the natural environment played such a central role in the spirituality of the traditional First Nations and Inuit societies, the source of many cultural symbols can be found in the natural world.

First Nations people from many different nations adopted ancestral symbols that represented ideas, beliefs, dreams or reality. Very often symbols represented figures in nature, such as important animals or birds, like the buffalo and the eagle. Sometimes the symbols represented the spirit world and spiritual helpers, like the thunderbird. Some symbols identified nations or clans while others depicted celestial bodies, such as the sun, the moon, and the stars. These last symbols are often seen on tipi's and clothing and carved into jewelry.

Symbols take many forms. Some are beaded on clothing and others are painted on entire hides and tell a story of the history of a tribe or nation.  A number of symbols are thousands of years old, and their meanings have been lost. The petroglyphs at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta are an example of this. First Nations people who believe in the traditional ways wear symbols that give them strength or identity.