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Did Cherokee Indians paint their faces?

Did Cherokee Indians paint their faces?

The Cherokee are one of the largest Native American tribes in the United States. Originally from the Southeastern United States, particularly Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, the Cherokee have a long and rich culture and history. One interesting question about Cherokee culture is whether or not they historically painted their faces. Face painting was common among many Native American tribes and served different purposes like ceremony, warfare, and symbolism. Understanding the traditions and practices of the Cherokee people provides insight into their worldview and values. In this article, we will examine the evidence to determine if Cherokee Indians participated in face painting and the contexts in which they may have used it.

Reasons for Face Painting Among Native Americans

Before investigating the specific practices of the Cherokee, it is helpful to understand the various reasons Native Americans painted their faces across different tribes. Face painting served practical, symbolic, and spiritual functions.


Face painting was often used in ceremonies and rituals. Patterns and images carried meaning and symbolized ideas. Certain colors or designs could represent qualities like bravery, wisdom, healing, life stages, clan or society memberships and more. Painting the face allowed participants to identify with these concepts and visibly demonstrate their significance.


Warriors sometimes painted their faces, partly for intimidation purposes. Bold, fierce designs aimed to frighten and unsettle enemies in battle. Specific colors were thought to symbolize war, strength, courage, and protection.


Hunters would paint their faces with natural pigments to blend into the landscape and avoid detection by animals. Greens, browns, grays, and blacks helped them stay hidden in forests and grasslands.

Spiritual Protection

Face paint was believed to provide spiritual protection and favor for the wearer. Medicine men or chiefs may have worn special designs and markings during healings, rituals, or governance duties to invoke ancestral and spirit aid.

Connection with Nature

Using natural pigments from plants, minerals, and the earth reflected the Native American relationship with the land. Painting the face literally symbolized applying and embodying attributes of the natural world.

Artistic Expression

The painted designs and patterns were also a creative outlet and art form. Skilled face painters expressed themselves and their culture by developing increasingly complex and beautiful images full of meaning.

Now that we understand the wide range of purposes behind Native American face painting, we can better evaluate if and how the Cherokee specifically participated in these practices.

Evidence the Cherokee Painted Their Faces

While documentation of historic Cherokee habits can sometimes be limited, there are both written accounts and artistic depictions that provide insight into their face painting customs.

Early Explorer Records

In the 18th century, British officer Henry Timberlake spent time living among the Cherokee and published memoirs of his experiences. He noted the practice of face painting, writing:

“The warriors, when they dress for the expedition, paint their faces all over with different sorts of figures, of a reddish brown color.”

He added they would use a brownish red dye to color their faces prior to battle. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto also recorded seeing Native Americans with painted faces during his expedition through Cherokee territory in the 1500s.

John Howard Payne Illustrations

John Howard Payne was an American actor, playwright, author and diplomat who lived with the Cherokee in the early 1800s. His memoirs included illustrations depicting Cherokee painted faces. Some featured red and black paint covering most of the face.

George Catlin Artwork

George Catlin was an American painter known for his portrayals of Native Americans in the 1830s. One of his paintings entitled “Cherokee Councilors” shows two Cherokee men with blue paint covering their noses and cheeks.


Once photography was invented in the 1800s, it captured images of Cherokee Indians with painted faces. A few existing daguerreotypes from the 1840s show Cherokee delegations in Washington D.C. wearing painted designs and patterns.

Explorer/Artist Type of Record Description
Henry Timberlake Memoirs Written account of warriors painting faces for battle
Hernando de Soto Logs Wrote of seeing Native Americans with painted faces
John Howard Payne Illustrations Depictions of Cherokee with full face paint
George Catlin Painting “Cherokee Councilors” shows blue painted noses/cheeks
Early Photographers Daguerreotypes 1840s photos of Cherokee delegates with paint

These written accounts, drawings, paintings, and photographs demonstrate that the Cherokee did practice face painting and provide insight into how it may have been used. Next, we will look at the significance and meaning behind their designs.

Meanings and Uses of Cherokee Face Paint

The colors and patterns of Cherokee face paint held deep symbolic meaning and served practical purposes as well.

Red Paint

Several of the historical records describe Cherokee painting their faces red or a reddish-brown color, especially for warfare. Red was associated with war, strength, courage, and protection in battle. The vibrant pigment came from red clay or certain plant materials like sumac leaves. Painting the face completely red or applying bold red accents around the eyes and mouth helped psychologically prepare warriors for combat and signal their ferocity to enemies.

Black Paint

Made from charcoal or dark plant dyes, black face paint could represent spiritual communication and contact with the afterlife. Shamans, medicine men, and other religious leaders possibly applied it during sacred ceremonies, perhaps including purification rites or communication with ancestors. Black may have also symbolized wisdom and mystery.

Blue Paint

While less common than red and black paints, Cherokee are shown in Catlin’s painting with blue paint markings. The blue could have connections with calmness, harmony, and sky spirits. Certain flowers provided blue dyes. Blue may have had cooling, soothing associations.

Hunting Camouflage

Although hunting-related face paint is not directly documented, it is likely the Cherokee used earth-toned pigments as camouflage when tracking game and wild animals. Painting strategically with greens, browns, and grays helped conceal them in surrounding forests and grasslands. This practical application mirrors practices of other tribes.

Ceremonial and Societal Signifiers

Intricate or unique face painting designs may have denoted special meaning and purpose. Specific patterns could signify clan membership, social status, achievements, or participation in certain rituals and ceremonies. Records do describe delegates wearing paint when formally visiting Washington, perhaps as cultural distinction.

Artistic Expression

The Cherokee had skilled artisans and painters who incorporated symbols and images from mythology, nature, and everyday life into sophisticated designs and patterns. Face painting provided an artistic medium through which to convey cultural values and Cherokee identity.


In summary, there is convincing evidence from primary accounts, visual records, and knowledge of broader Native American customs that the Cherokee historically practiced face painting. They used natural pigments in red, black, and occasionally blue for various symbolic, spiritual, and practical purposes including warfare preparation, hunting camouflage, ceremonial participation, social identification, and artistic expression. The specific designs and meanings behind Cherokee face paint reflected their cultural beliefs, practices, values, and worldview. Although a largely lost art today, face painting was undoubtedly an integral part of Cherokee culture and expression. Understanding this unique tradition provides deeper insight into the origins and lifeways of the Cherokee people.