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Discovering the History of California Indian Art

Humans have used native plants for food, shelter, clothing and art for tens of thousands of years. We'll look at how California's Indians used native plants throughout history and into the modern age

Discovering the History of California Indian Art

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): California is often thought of as a newly-developed area of the United States, a place without much history. Well, as it turns out, our region with its Native American ancestry has roots into the deep past of human civilization. The artifacts from that past are being discovered and interpreted more clearly than ever before, with the help of native American historians and those scholars who are willing to get out in the field and find wonderful things. One of the reasons we're able to find artifacts from ancient times is because of paint and pigment. California's Indians were able to mark their places, their implements and themselves, by inventing pigments and binding agents. Here to talk about the colors used by Native Americans, how they were developed and what they mean, are my two guests. Writer and researcher Diana Lindsay, author of "Anza-Borrego A to Z" and "Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living." Diana, welcome to These Days.

DIANA LINDSAY (Author): Thank you very much, Maureen. A pleasure to be here.


CAVANAUGH: And Paul Campbell. He's the author of the new book, "Earth Pigments and Paint of the California Indians," as well as "Survival Skills of Native California." Paul, welcome to These Days.

PAUL CAMPBELL (Author): Thank you, Maureen, and also a pleasure to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Diana, let me start by asking you to describe the various uses of plants by Native Americans.

LINDSAY: Let me, first of all, start by just mentioning the fact that the native Indians that lived here in San Diego County included both human speaking Kumeyaay, the Ipay and the Tipay, and the Shoshoneans speaking Kawia, Cupeno, and Luiseno Indians and they – who arrived here probably about 2,000 years ago and actually brought with them highly technical collection and gathering skills. These folks were not typical hunters and gatherers, they were not passive collectors. They basically controlled the vegetation, they burned off parasites, they did controlled burns of valleys and canyons, they practiced soil erosion control, they built dams and weirs to control water in the valleys. And they alternated collections from one environmental zone to another during regular seasonal rounds. They also planted and transplanted vegetation that was important to them such as medicinal and food plants. The plants and surrounding rocks and minerals provided everything they needed to survive: food, medicine, clothing, shelter, tools and weapons, cleansers, ceremonial and ritual use, and dyes for paint, body paint, basketry and rock art. The vegetation matter that was used primarily for body paint and basketry and then there were a lot of ground minerals, rocks and various minerals, such as hematite and malachite and various gypsums and chalk and charcoal that were used for rock art, which Paul can probably expand upon.

CAVANAUGH: But, Diana, what you've just said is really fascinating because what you're saying is the native people here didn't just use what they found, they brought some stuff with them.


LINDSAY: Well, they brought the skills because the Indians that actually – the Native Americans that actually moved in here were not the first that were here but by this time they had – had learned the gathering techniques and they had evolved a technology so that they could actually use the environment and control the – and manage the environment. So it's unlike many folks think that the Indians basically were subject to the whims of nature and all but they had the ability to control and manage the environment around them and they did this to a very excellent extent and they were then able, through a long process through many thousands of years, to know what types of plants could be used for survival and for enjoyment for their various needs, and also then to learn the rocks and minerals that could be used for artwork and also for medicinal use.

CAVANAUGH: Now Diana used the word 'technology,' and, Paul, that's part of the subtitle of your book. It's called "Earth Pigments and Paints of the California Indians: Meaning and Technology," and I was going to ask you what you meant by technology in that capacity.

CAMPBELL: Well, I mean not only to trace the Indian pigments back – many of them came in from other areas through trade, some of the very special red ochres, for example. You find them mentioned in some of the old coyote stories with reference across the desert to the other side, to a mountain over there. And I was able to, utilizing faint memory in some elders and so forth, actually trace those back to the Colorado River, up the Colorado River and into the Walapai area where they had a very famous mine that up until the 19th century it was used to take red ochre and bring it all the way across to the Pacific coast where they traded for seashells. But that's more, you might say, the meaning side. But technologically, the breakdown, the pigments and to show exactly where they came from and what they consist of. The Getty Conservation Institute has done enormous work in Santa Barbara County with old Chumash paintings and they have every imaginable technological device available to them, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, x-ray valescence spectrometry, scanning electron and polarized light microscopy, I mean, just go on and on with the amount of ability they have to analyze these pigments. And just to mention one site, which is really an extremely important site because in many cases your rock paintings will just be one color, one or two colors, maybe black, maybe red, maybe some white, but up in this particular area—and I'm thinking of the San Emigdio area, the back country of Santa Barbara County—there are pictograph, polychrome pictographs that not only have those colors but yellow, green and blue. And through their instruments, were able to break those down and determine just exactly what they are and, of course, the red and the yellow turn out to be forms of hematite or limonite with iron oxide, and in one case it has a water molecule attached which makes it yellow, a very common mineral in California. And if the Indians couldn't get red pigment, they would get yellow pigment, put it in a fire, drive off that oxygen molecule and turn it red.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's interesting. Now, Paul, I'm wondering, how old are some of California's Indian cave paintings?

CAMPBELL: I think probably the oldest that they've dated are out in the Mojave Desert and go back, by radio carbon dating, 9,300 years old. There probably were cave paintings along the coast that were equally old but they just don't last. They don't have such good preservation conditions as they do in the very dry Mojave Desert and where they've often painted on basalt as well. Like many of these Chumash paintings I was referring to are on sandstone and those are deteriorating before our very eyes…


CAMPBELL: …when you look at them.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, do the historians, are you able to date these paintings by the paint, by the pigment?

CAMPBELL: Sometimes. Usually, when you're talking about mineral pigment, you don't have organic substance often to date them by but they would use organic substances often as binders or what you would use to turn the pigment into paint…


CAMPBELL: …so it would hold onto a surface. Unfortunately, when those are painted on cliff walls and so forth, microbial action and erosion tends to take those binders away. So it's very difficult to date some of these paintings.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Diana, Paul went through some terminology of where these colors come from, where these pigments come from, rather quickly. I want to break that down a little bit. What specific plants and rocks were used to make paint and pigment?

LINDSAY: Well, as far as the plants, which most of the plant dyes were used for actually – for coloring in basketry or for body paint. But just to give you an example, from the yellows to browns, you can get those from the stems of an indigo bush, from the leaves of a Spanish needle, and from the flowers of the sunflower, so those would tend to give you the yellows and browns. And of course then you would have to have a binder or something then to get it to – to turn it into a paint. Dark browns from the caps of the black acorn, reds to purples from the bark of California alder, from the barks and roots of mountain mahogany. Purple and black from stems of elderberry, from the leaves of mistletoe, from the gum and roots of the honey mesquite and also the juice of the poison oak and from the juice of California blackberry and seeds of the sunflower. So you can get various colors from those types of vegetable matter, including charcoal. They can use the charcoal for black. For rock art paints, you know, Paul had mentioned the hematite and the iron oxides and the yellows that could be changed from one mineral using, you know, technological means. Oranges could be made from a variation of using these minerals and the processing to change the colors. Greens, they could've used malachite. Blues, maybe azurite if they, you know, would've done some trading. And speaking of trading, they not only would trade seashells but they would take excess supplies of maybe acorns or maybe some dried fish, depending on what area they lived in, and they would use these for trade items to – in order to get some of these paint products from other areas. So there was a lot of trading and a lot of inner tribal communication…

CAMPBELL: I would like to – Can I just break in for a second?


CAMPBELL: Just, again, I heard you mention the blue paint and it was interesting that the Getty Institute at San Emigdio studied the blue pigment there and, surprisingly, they found that it was made up of charcoal, very fine charcoal, and gypsum, which is white. So it was made up of black and white and that produces a kind of gray, if you mix it yourself. They had various theories that they – or they had one theory in particular that they thought explained it. How – how did the – how do you mix black and white and come out with blue?


CAMPBELL: And it's really the same theory, it's called Rayleigh scattering, that explains why sunlight, which comes off white, turns blue in the sky as it scatters away from the sun. But I'd asked them if they could reproduce it. Nobody had ever reproduced blue pigment, making it…

CAVANAUGH: Interesting.

CAMPBELL: …making it from a black and white. So I spent a whole summer working on that and I…

CAVANAUGH: Did you did it? Did you do it?

CAMPBELL: …and I discovered that I couldn't do it by their – using their theories. But I did it by accident and discovered why it works and it's really a strange alchemy. Very simple, but you can make a gray pigment and turn it blue and the Indians had discovered this and it wasn't just at San Emigdio. In fact, there are potter – ollas they've discovered down there in the Uhai Desert area that have the same technique.


CAMPBELL: I'd like to tell you exactly how it's done but I think you better buy the book.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I am speaking with Paul Campbell. He's the author of the new book "Earth Pigments and Paint of the California Indians," and also writer/researcher Diana Lindsay. Paul, I do want to ask you, though, if you will tell us. You seem – you have recipes in the book about how to make these pigments, and I'm wondering how in the world did these pigments, these earth pigments, last so long in some cases. In some cases, you're talking about thousands of years.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, well, surprisingly, they've done studies. They've done a lot of experiments with pigments and if you take an iron oxide, or red ochre as it's called, in a clay base and the clay has a lot of silica in it, which itself tends to bind the pigment to surfaces, and they found that just water alone oftentimes will allow it to go in quite deep into a rock through little pores in the rock, through capillary action. And over time it can actually meld with the rock but that's when you've got just the right rock, of course.

CAVANAUGH: And then…

CAMPBELL: And the Luiseno Indians just north of you down there had a recipe they called for permanent paint and one entailed using the sap or the pitch of the big cone spruce, the big cone Douglas fir found in Southern California, when it was very runny. I find it gets very runny in late summer, and mixing it with the ground up, slightly toasted mashed seed of the wild cucumber and then putting the pigment into that and it really – it is – it forms a paint that will stick to anything. I used it a lot.

CAVANAUGH: We're finding out how you spend your summers. Diana, I wonder where people can see – Where can we see old cave rock or cave paintings around San Diego?

LINDSAY: Well, there are a couple of places that people are – can – are welcome to visit. But first of all, let me kind of mention that there are three rock art styles that are actually found here in San – Well, there's five rock art styles but three of them are picto – for pictographs and those include the Rancho Bernardo Rectilinear, which is – let me just kind of talk about that last. But there's a Rumarosa style or peninsular range representational which is found in southeastern San Diego County and that tends to have representations of humans and animals and natural objects along with abstract art. And another example is the San Luis Rey, which is a Southern California Rectilinear style and that has more abstract type art. And then the third one, of course, is the Rancho Bernardo Rectilinear. If folks would like to go out and visit some of these sites, one of the best sites to visit is in the Anza-Borrego State Park in an area called Pictographs. It is right outside of Blair Valley so to get there you would take Highway 78 to S-2, called Scissors Crossing, and you would go six miles down the road to Blair Valley, take the entrance into Blair Valley and then drive another 3.6 miles past an area called Morteros to Pictographs. There is a one mile trail, a dirt trail, that you can take where there is a large boulder and there you will be able to see a representation of the San Luis Rey style. It's in Kumeyaay territory. San Luis Rey style's usually associated with Indians from the Luiseno and Kawia but this was a mixed area so that has – In fact, Paul, if you're familiar with that, you might even want to describe some of the reds that are on that wall. But that's one of the areas that you can go in. And then if Paul wants to comment on that, then I can talk about the San Bernar – the Rancho Bernardo site.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, I do want to talk about the use of color on not only the pictographs, not only the paintings on rocks but also, Paul, you go into quite some depth in your book about the various body art that different Native Americans used and the different shapes of it. You have whole pages of outlines of different face – facial art and body art. I'm wondering if you could, since our audience can't see that but they know what colors are, if you could tell us the meaning that some Native Americans had behind the use of various colors. What did the use of red mean?

CAMPBELL: Well, I don't think there's a simple meaning.


CAMPBELL: Pigments in general were considered very spiritual. Indeed, everything was spiritual for Native Californians. All of the out of doors was spiritual, all of nature. But pigments had a special – might increase spirituality or increase power. I think probably with – especially with hematite, which the word itself comes from the Greek word meaning blood.

CAVANAUGH: Blood, yeah.

CAMPBELL: And if you go in most of these California Indian languages, the word for red ochre or hematite is blood or blood-like or the color blood. And like the Atsugewi, for example, in Northern California, prized red ochre above all other colors and they kept it even in a deer pericardium, that's the sac that holds the heart that pumps the blood. So I think it had – it had – especially red ochre, and as you go back in time, I mean, back into the cave paintings of Europe, you know, 33,000 years ago and back even before that, they're discovering now in Africa at a place called Twin Rivers, 300,000 year old, not paintings, but the use of red ochre pigment and I think it's a very old association and a universal association with blood and the life force. But as far as when it's put into paint form, it – the shamans or the spiritual leaders of tribes most of their objects would be painted red. Men would use red face paint among the Mojave, for example. There was – Primarily their body painting or face painting can be very spiritual, can be done to the dead or in dances with shamans but along the lower Colorado and into Southern California in general, face painting was a social art. It took the spirituality and power with it but every day they would get up and maybe spend an hour or two painting their face in a different design and it was social. A young Kumeyaay man, for example, would approach a young woman and say, do you see my face is painted? And she's, oh, yes. And he would say, do you like it? She says, yes, I do. And he'd say, well, let's go.


CAMPBELL: So it was used variously and had many meanings.

LINDSAY: The red paint that he's been speaking of, that is the red ochre that is found in the Blair Valley site so if folks do visit that Blair Valley pictograph site, they will see that red ochre on those rocks and the designs that are there.

CAMPBELL: It'd be very unlikely when you're looking at pictographs and you're look at red to see – to have it be something else, to be other than iron oxide or red ochre because vegetable pigments – or vegetable pigments really don't last on rock very long…


CAMPBELL: …generally.

CAVANAUGH: …I want to make the point very strongly and I want both of you to talk about this a little bit, when I was preparing for this, the idea that these traditions not only were but are – that they are being kept alive today. And, Paul, if you could talk to me just a little bit about how the traditions, the Native American traditions, of these earth pigments and face painting and painting of pictographs are being kept alive today.

CAMPBELL: Probably more than kept alive, I would say being revived. I found Indians in very remote areas, elders and even younger people, who still know the old ways and there they are kept alive, there they're important in a daily way. But those are areas that are very remote and very few. But I initially began research on pigments and paint because I give a class every year for the Agua Caliente band of Kawai Indians up in Palm Springs and about five years ago they asked me to do one on pigments and paint and I said, oh, that will be easy enough, I suppose. It seems to be a popular topic and I thought there would be books on it and there weren't any. And I did – started to do research and pretty soon I had so much information and there was nothing like it and so that's how it kind of evolved into a book. But there you're talking about revival. Indians want to come and learn what their forefathers did, want to bring it back because there's been such a, well, such a discrimination against practicing the old ways. In fact, in California, the Spanish fires and after that the American authorities would severely criticize Indians for using face paint, especially along the Mojave River where it was so popular, and really stripped the people of their identity by keeping them from using it. But it's coming back.

CAVANAUGH: And I just want to get Diana in on this because you have a lot to say about these traditions still being alive even here in Southern California.

LINDSAY: Oh, very much so. There's an impression that the Indians were something of the past but the Indians are very much alive today. Their traditions are alive and it's being passed on to future generations so it is not something out of the past, it is something that is evolving because they're a living people and just as all of us, you know, things evolve with time and change but they are still the same people and they're still here with us.

CAVANAUGH: And, Paul, there's a – if you could, tell us in your book, there's a very strong spiritual strain and I think that although I didn't see you specifically say this in the book, I think that there are things you think that we can learn from these early artists, these early users of pigment. What is it that is meaningful to us today?

CAMPBELL: Well, personally, that's probably the reason I'm interested in these topics because it brings me in contact with nature, with the natural world and a feeling for the natural world. As I said earlier, the American Indian, in general, and California Indians in particular, believe that all of nature is infused with spirit. And it's wonderful to be – I did that with the survival skills first, to be able to go out into the woods and everything you look at, you can think of some way you can use it. It's like being home. Everything is useful. It's not a foreign place, it's not a wilderness, it's comforting and it's beautiful. And it – and the pigments just add to that, it's just another side to it. It's probably the more spiritual side of skills, Indian skills, because, of course, they – and even the Indians recognized that they were – pigments were largely the province of the spiritual leader of the tribe, the shaman. And most of this rock art seems to be really a representation or an indication of the altered state that the shaman experienced when he went on a spirit quest, as a reminder of that quest.

CAVANAUGH: So all of that lends itself into the understanding of the early artists and what they bring to us. Diana?

LINDSAY: Yeah, one thing I do want to mention before we do go off the air, for those that do want to get more information about the use of plants, Native American plants, at Sunbelt Publications we are having an Earth Day event on April 22nd between four and eight o'clock and we do have various speakers and I'll be one of them and I'll be talking about the use of plants and the public is certainly invited and there's information they can get on our website.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank both of you so much for coming – well, being here and talking to us about the rock paintings and the pigments of Native Americans. Thank you, writer/researcher Diana Lindsay, author of Anza-Borrego A to Z," and "Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living." And if anyone wants more information about that Sunbelt Publications event, they can go to for more information. Thanks, Diana.

LINDSAY: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Paul Campbell, author of the new book "Earth Pigments and Paint of the California Indians," it's a beautiful book, and his earlier book "Survival Skills of Native California." Thank you, Paul.

CAMPBELL: Thank you very much, Maureen.