Signs and Symbols

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.