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Signs and Symbols

Page history last edited by leish10m 11 years, 2 months ago

A symbol is an object, picture, sound, word or mark that represents something else by convention, association or resemblance. The study of signs and symbols is called semiotics or semiology. Semiotics can be broken into semantics, syntactics and pragmatics.


Semantics: Relationship between signs and the things they refer to.

Syntactics: Relationship of signs to each other in formal structures

Pragmatics: Relationships of signs to their impacts on those who use them.


Symbols, or devices with the function of a symbol, have existed for thousands of years and have evolved ever since. Images used in the modern era can most likely be traced to older civilizations. Symbols are of great importance as they can be found in every culture and language, it has also been recognized throughout much of history and philosophy.    


Today, people are bombarded with symbols, most of which take the form of trademarks or brands. Both, trademarks and brands, serve as pieces of identity for organizations, companies and objects. In looking at these symbols, one can make parallels to those from past cultures, including Native American symbols. 


Native American symbols offer an insight into their language of life, nature and spirit. Tribes recognized everything as holding a deeper meaning and therefore all Native American symbol meanings are an essential part of the way of life. Everyday use of signs and symbols can be seen on clothing and weapons, and depending on occasion, it can mark a significant ceremony or event. 


The cross is a well-known and reoccurring sign in Native American culture. It often refers to the four life stages of childhood, girlhood, womanhood, and old age. It can also indicate the four directions and the four life objectives of physical strength, fine disposition, prosperity and healthy old age. Overall, the symbol is used to represent harmony in life — peace. 


A Central Plains dress is shown here, dating back to the 1920's. It is made from one rectangular piece of red wool, which is folded at the shoulders and cut open at the top for neck openings. Cape-like sleeves are beaded using glass seed beads. Beading continues in the front with a delicate fringe of green and pink translucent seed beads. Design elements include triangles, diamonds and crosses. The cross is a symbol of the womanhood stage as this is a dress for a wedding. 

Below are other variations of the cross form.    

In looking at the evolution of this symbol, one could reference the red cross. It also stood as a symbol of peace. Here there is a direct correlation despite the different culture and three decade time difference. 

The Native American cross symbol evolved into the five pointed star. Below is a photograph of a Yankton Dakota Bonnet. It is a cotton cloth bonnet completely embroidered with porcupine quills. It has a red background with the five-pointed star on each side. The top is lavender, blue, orange and green silk. The change from the four pointed cross to the star is due to the American Flag, which became popular during the 1890s, especially among the Eastern Dakota tribes.

Comments (3)

rvandre@... said

at 4:08 pm on Jun 2, 2009

Its interesting how symbols are constantly recycled, yet they don't seem to loose their meaning for the people that use them. In the United States, we might only understand a symbol because it is heavily marketed or advertised, like the little eagle symbol on American Eagle clothes or something. In other cultures, they might use a symbol in their tattoos, and that would be the way that people come to know the meaning behind it. In the case of the Nazi symbol, i feel that it would be really difficult to change the meaning behind it now that so much of the world was affected by it. It is so well known now, I would think that at least in the European world, it would be very hard to put a different meaning to it.

zoe said

at 10:28 am on Jun 3, 2009

this was a really interesting presentation, because i have never thought of symbols in this way. i never gave thought of where the symbols originated, how they have transformed over time and what they represent in different cultures (i.e. swatika). this gave me a brand new method of analyzing everyday advertisements and their usage of symbols.

Mark Anthony said

at 10:41 am on Jun 3, 2009

Yes, it's very true to note that the meaning of the swastika had changed over time, and many people automatically attribute it to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party of Germany. However, in the context of what we've learned--the very symbol itself has traces of history even before that in many countries, but I guess despite that, I'm assuming that Hitler already knew it and adopted the symbol because of what it stood for in representing his own supposed hope for Germany's future, even if he went about it the wrong way. But regardless, the symbol has definitely changed in the minds of people who did suffer during the time period, that it can never really be viewed as a symbol of good fortune.

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