Reprints: Traditional paints

Sorry; been traveling and otherwise busy so haven’t had time to write blogposts.  So in interim, I’ll rerun this old article about ochre and other traditional paints.


Paints, derived from clays or charcoals, had many uses to the Indian people. The most widely used paint was red, called malqas in Milluk, ma’lukw in Hanis, and hltuuts in Siuslaw/Lower Umpqua. Paints were used to decorate canoes, arrows, and as face and body paint.

Usually, the clay was yellow when first gotten and baked to turn it red (the clay contains an iron oxide, and the heating changes its oxidative state so it turns from yellow to red). It was fairly common in western Oregon. The Indians usually talked of finding it near springs or creeks. Lottie Evanoff thought it was associated with coal deposits. Frank Drew & Spencer Scott said there had been a deposit of it on top of Cape Perpetua. This was probably used by the people of the original Alsea Yachats village of Yaxaik, and then used by Coos and Lower Umpqua people during the reservation years. Most of these deposits were yellow, but there was a large deposit of deep red clay that Frank Drew said was “at a place between the head of North Fork (Siuslaw) and the ‘outlet’ forest road that the Gvt. Has built ½ s. of Tenmile Creek.”i

A fern or skunk cabbage leaf was placed in the water where the clay would collect. Then the clay was placed in a large horse-neck clam shell and heated in a fire, where the shell broke away from the cake of clay which had by then turned red. Then the red, dry, powdered clay was stored in deer skin bags for whenever it was needed. The final step to make a paint was to mix it with fat, usually deer or elk marrow fat, in a clam shell.ii

White clay was used to make paint as well, although it did not seem to be used as much as the red. There was a deposit of white clay at a place Annie Miner Peterson said was in North Bend called q’alaxaich, between the villages mahágwin and shuutlits. Another source was at Tenmile Creek in northern land county, the boundary between the Alsea and Siuslaw. Its name was tsi’imahl, from the Siuslaw word for white clay, tsi’im.iii

Black paint was made by mixing powdered charcoal with oil. This black paint was sometimes used as body paint, but more often used to paint canoes. With needle and sinew thread, it was also used for tattooing. Willow charcoal was one of the preferred sources for a tattoo ‘ink’.iv

Blue clay paint, known in Hanis as tgæ’æan, was the rarest paint of all. There was a deposit of it near Cook’s chasm, in the cliff, but according to Frank Drew this deposit had become small and dirty by 1941. When it could be gotten, this blue paint and the other colors were used to paint faces and bodies for dances.v

Canoes were painted with all of these colors. Not only was it decorative, but the oil in the paint probably helped protect the wood.

But the red paint was useful as a medicine. Women and girls painted their whole faces with it to protect their skin from sun burn and from the harsh winds when working at the shore. (Men did not do this, although they would cover their skin with elk fat to protect it from harsh winter weather). It was also a topical medicine to treat pimples, sores and

i Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw Coos, SW Oregon Athapaskan: Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. JP Harrington Papers, Alaska/NW Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Reel 22, 23:250

ii Jacobs, Melville. 1932-1934. Coos Ethnologic Notes. Jaccobs Collection, University of Washington, Seattle WA. 92:115, 93:43; Harrington reel 22

iii Jacobs, Melville. 93:44, 91:34

iv Harrington, John P. 22:736, 22:1065b

v Harrington, John P. 23:288

vi Jacobs 91:33; Harrington Reel 22, 24:546a


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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