Cliff Swallows in Native American Imagery
One of my favorite images is that of the North American Cliff Swallow.
In Legends and Lore
Omnipresent in Native American lore, the Cliff Swallow motif is used by almost all of the Plains cultures. The Lakota, Crow, and Blackfoot peoples all use various twists on the graphic – a different, but similar motif decorates shields, tipis, and garments.
Many Native American tribes believed that by associating themselves with a particular animal, they would be able to take on that animal’s special traits and characteristics. In the case of the Cliff Swallow, people admired the fast, agile flying of the bird.
By painting the image, they hoped to gain the ability to fly quickly and surely through obstacles and danger.
These beautiful birds are referred to as cliff swallows because they make their nests on a vertical cliff face, usually just under an overhang. However, despite their name, cliff swallows don’t need an actual cliff to build their nests, any sort of outcropping will suffice.
Cliff swallows generally nest in large colonies, and can form flocks that number up to 3,700 nests in one location. The back, wings and crown of an adult cliff swallow are a deep blue color, and the birds have a chestnut colored face, and a dark throat.
These migratory songbirds are most famous for their annual return to Mission San Juan Capistrano. When the mission’s church was destroyed and abandoned in the eighteenth century, the remnants of the building were taken over by cliff swallows that found the rubble to be the perfect place to build a colony.
For many years, the cliff swallows have nested in the ruins of the old stone Mission San Juan Capistrano, migrating to Argentina every winter, and returning to their colonies each spring.
In My Work
I am fascinated with the contrast inherent in the traditional use of the cliff swallow imagery, especially the idea of powerful Plains warriors desiring the attributes of this small, swift bird for themselves.
The way the bird was depicted was elegant and masterful. One of my friends is an archeologist that specializes in the symbolism used on the shields of Plains American Indian groups and he shared with me how the bird’s ability to dart in and out of small areas was one of its most prized characteristics.
In my 2006 painting, Nobility of Mind, you see a Crow man wearing a leather shirt decorated with cliff swallow images. This distinguished individual bears the articles of a great warrior:
- The images on his shirt depict his bravery and swiftness
- Ermine pelts represent his fierceness in battle
- In his arms, he carries a sacred pipe which only the most eminent and noble individuals possess
Similarly, in the 2007 painting, Buffalo Medicine Shield, I depict another Crow warrior holding a shield with a cliff swallow at the top.
To learn more
If you would like to learn more about the mythical use of animals by Native American groups, I recommend the book The Mystic Warrior of the Plains, by Thomas E. Mails, and Societies of the Plains Indians, by Clark Wissler.