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Southwestern Design and Cultural Symbols

Updated on January 18, 2013

American Southwest Design and Symbolism

T he traditional art and icons of the Native American, Spanish and Mexican cultures are quite common in the American Southwest and have come to symbolize a unique southwestern style of decorating.

Some popular design themes include; Native American kokopellis, kiva ladders, kachinas, and dreamcatchers.

Punched tin art, colorful serapes and chili peppers serve to highlight the Mexican-Spanish influence in the region.

Artwork: Southwest- Welcome

Chili Peppers on Adobe Wall, Tubac, G...

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Chili peppers are a staple of the Southwest culture and used abundantly in decorating. Dried red chili peppers are used to make "ristras" using lots of chilis strung together, hanging at different lengths and tied at the top with a ribbon. Chilis are used to make wreaths either with greenery or entirely with chilis.

Legend of The Chili Ristra:

Legend has it, in the Southwest, that hanging chili ristras brings good luck if hung at the entrance of the home. Chilis were also used as amulets to ward off malaria, the plague, and for the evil eye (mal de ojo), bad luck, and bewitchment among Hispanics in United States, a practice imported from Mexico.

A cure for the evil eye from Coahuila, Mexico, calls for a child to be wiped with the inside of a chili. The child is patted on the head, crosses are made over the eyelids and forehead, and the child is laid on a bed with the arms outstretched in the form of a cross. The chili is wiped over the body to absorb the occult power, and then it is burned. Curanderas, "healers", often treat the hexing of adults by rubbing the inflamed areas (such as the feet) with whole eggs, a lime, and a chil, which are then thrown into a fire. Perhaps because of their fiery nature, hot peppers are thought to absorb evil influences, which are then destroyed by fire.

The American Southwest

Ristras and wreaths appear on doors, gates and entry's in the fall, after the chills turn red. It seems to represent a sign of welcome, adding warmth and tranquility to the entire landscape.


The Kokopelli: - The Flute Player

The Kokopelli: The Flute Player, figure dates back 3,000 years to petroglyphs and pottery found throughout the American Southwest. Usually depicted as a humpbacked figure playing a flute, he often carries a large bag on his back and has antennae like an insect.

The Kokopelli is a kachina, or spirit, found in the mythology of the Zuni, Anasazi tribe and is a Hopi fertility god. He is also known as a prankster, hunter, healer, musician, dancer and story teller.

In some Hopi tales, the Kokopelli's bag contains gifts that he uses to attract women. In others, he carries a baby on his back and leaves it with a young woman.

As a trickster, he appears in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples. The Kokopelli's flute is similar to the flutes used in Native American religious rituals. As a hunter, Kokopelli may play the flute to attract the mountain sheep he is hunting. The Zuni call him a rain priest and connect him and his music with the gift of rain. According to the Hopi, Kokopelli warmed the land and the winds by playing his flute as he led them to their homeland.

Some legends suggest that Kokopelli was a real ancient Toltec trader who played the flute and traveled routes between Mexico, the west coast, and the southwest.

"Hopi legend tells us that upon their entrance onto this, the fourth world, the Hopi people were met by an Eagle who shot an arrow into the two "mahus," insects which carried the power of heat. They immediately began playing such uplifting melodies on their flutes that they healed their own pierced bodies.

The Hopi then began their separate migrations and each "mahu" would scatter seeds of fruits and vegetables onto the barren land. Over them, each played his flute to bring warmth and make the seeds grow. His name -- KOKO for wood and Pilau for hump (which was the bag of seeds he always carried)-- was given to him on this long journey. It is said that he draws that heat from the center of the Earth. He has come down to us as the loving spirit of fertility -- of the Earth and humanity. His invisible presence is felt whenever life come forth from seed -- plants or animals."


Hopi Eagle Dancer Kachina

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Kachinas have long been a tradition in the American Southwest and are central to the religion and mythology of the Pueblo Indians, particularly the Hopi who live in Arizona. Kachinas, called a "tihu" by the Hopi, are considered sacred spirits. Each elaborately carved wooden doll is adorned with the costumes and masks that bears a portion of the individual kachina spirit's power.

Each tribe and village has its own distinct kachinas representing the features of the natural world such as clouds, winds, thunder, and rain. They also symbolize the ancestral spirits that help connect humans with the spirit world.There may be more than 500 in total, and all are equally important.

The kachinas dwell in sacred mountains and other sacred places. However, they spend half of each year living near Pueblo villages. During this time, the men of kachina cults perform traditional rituals linked with the presence of the spirits. They wear costumes and elaborate masks and perform songs and dances associated with specific kachinas. The Pueblos say that during these rituals each dancer is temporarily transformed into the spirit being represented.

Source: Barton Wright's: "Hopi Kachinas, The Complete Guide to Collecting Kachina Dolls."



The Ojibwa (Chippewa) believe that night is full of both good and bad dreams.When a dream catcher is hung above the place where you sleep it moves freely in the night air and catches the dreams as they drift by. The good dreams, knowing their way, pass through the opening in the center of the webbing, while the bad dreams, not knowing the way, are caught in the webbing and destroyed at the first light of the morning sun.

The Legend Of the Dream Catcher

A spider was quietly spinning his web in his own space. It was beside the sleeping space of Nokomis, "the grandmother". Each day, Nokomis watched the spider at work, quietly spinning away.

One day as she was watching him, her grandson came in. "Nokomis-iya!" he shouted, glancing at the spider. He stomped over to the spider, picked up a shoe and went to hit it. "No-keegwa," the old lady whispered, "don't hurt him."

"Nokomis, why do you protect the spider?" asked the little boy. The old lady smiled, but did not answer. When the boy left, the spider went to the old woman and thanked her for saving his life. He said to her, "For many days you have watched me spin and weave my web. You have admired my work. In return for saving my life, I will give you a gift." He smiled his special spider smile and moved away, spinning as he went.

Soon the moon glistened on a magical silvery web moving gently in the window.

"See how I spin" he said. "See and learn, for each web will snare bad dreams. Only good dreams will go through the small hole. This is my gift to you. Use it so that only good dreams will be remembered. The bad dreams will become hopelessly entangled in the web."


Read About The Southwestern Culture and Art

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    • adamfrench profile image


      8 years ago

      Impressive lens, thumbs up

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I guess I live in an appropriate location to appreciate Southwestern art and tradition!

    • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

      Kathy McGraw 

      9 years ago from California

      Having quite an interest in Southwestern Art I really enjoyed this. Southwestern Art is fun to make and quite colorful for decorating. Blessed by and Angel :)

    • WendyArts profile image


      10 years ago

      I really enjoyed your lens and the way you focused on some of the wonderful symbols of the Southwest. Just added this to the lensroll on my Southwest Art lens.

    • Natalie W Schorr profile image

      Natalie W Schorr 

      10 years ago

      And lensrolled to my Chile Peppers lens

    • Natalie W Schorr profile image

      Natalie W Schorr 

      10 years ago

      As a former Arizonian I say well done! Very southwest. 5*

    • Kiwisoutback profile image


      10 years ago from Massachusetts

      I'm researching a lot of this stuff online right now, it fits in perfectly with a lot of the lenses I'm working on! I'm lensrolling it my Monument Valley and Mesa Verde lenses.

    • teamlane profile image


      10 years ago

      Blessed by a SquidAngel today!

      ~ Colleen :o

    • BrianRS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      10 years ago from France

      Welcome to the < href=""&... Design, Soft furnishings and Decor Group. Never seen chilli peppers used for decorating before but I think I like it, you have some really good ideas in here.

    • tandemonimom lm profile image

      tandemonimom lm 

      10 years ago

      I live in the Southwest so this is all wonderfully familiar. Great lens, and congrats on making Giant!

    • Yakodzuna profile image


      10 years ago

      Hello! Awesome Ideas! Definitely 5 stars! Thanks for sharing it! Marry Christmas!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      So festive! Michelle, I wanted to drop by and wish you a wonderful holiday season and health, happiness and prosperity for 2009 - Kathy

    • KimGiancaterino profile image


      10 years ago

      I love the cactus with tree lights! Welcome to All Things Travel.

    • gbenton789 profile image


      11 years ago

      Great lense! Love Southwest Christmas.

    • gbenton789 profile image


      11 years ago

      Great lense! Love Southwest Christmas.

    • piedromolinero profile image


      11 years ago

      It is always nice to learn something about different Christmas traditions. Thank you for sharing this and welcome to the Christmas decorations group.


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