James Little Wounded: Symbols & Color

The expressive imagery and powerful colors Minneconjou Lakota artist James Little Wounded uses in his artwork are not only beautiful, but they are also filled with meaning. In this snippet, James explains some of the symbolism he uses and the importance of color in his pieces. He also talks about the significance of a warrior shield.

[Rose] Here, we have some examples of some two cover shields. They speak volumes about the People - they weren't just warriors, they were men who lived a life and told a story.

[Jame Little Wounded] Yeah, they (shields) weren't just colorful things to look at. All the colors have meaning and symbols. On the inside was the color of the designer…it could also have animal figure on the inside that protects.

(referring to the shield he's holding) This color (blue) is a spirit from side to side and the outside (orange) is harmed. Here we have a buffalo coming out of the spirit world, the night (night refers to the side with the stars on a blue background…this is a Ghost Dance shield). It (the buffalo spirit) is coming out of the night to help the warrior become bullet proof.

You can tell the buffalo image is a spirit because of the double outline, this makes him more mysterious.

People wanted to make their shields to look as fierce as they can to show the enemy that they have strong spirits helping them, protecting them.

[Rose] This was also a way to tell the other person what they were up against - you're not just facing a person, but you're facing the spirits that guide me, the life that I live…that's what you're facing, too.

[James] (referring to the amulet on his shield) The buffalo amulet, this stands for the spirit and also the Lakota people. They call themselves the Buffalo Nation. A lot of my amulets are the buffalo. I put them there for our people.

(pointing to the geometric forms on the bottom of the shield) These are the arrows that come towards the warriors. The little strings (leather ties) are warding them off, stopping the arrows and bullets.

[Rose] And the dragonfly (images on the shield)?

[James] We believe the dragonfly is the spirit of our ancestors coming to see us. People that pass on will come to see us. Dragonflies or butterflies…

[Rose] …give us messages of encouragement. The Plains Indians never made it a habit of chasing off their dead. They invited them to stay with them and help them and guide them.

I remember Elizabeth Fast Horse would leave food on her plate for her ancestors to make sure EVERYBODY ate good.

[James] Yeah, we do that a lot.

[Rose] As far as colors…the colors you are inspired by…probably everything around you?

[James] Yeah, people always ask about the colors. My grandmother always told me, "Just look around you…there's color everywhere, even when you don't 'see' it". When I was a kid, I looked at the trees, the sunset…and I saw what she meant - everything is outlined in color.

[Rose] Some folks would call that an aura…it has an energy and energy is a color.

[James] Yeah, I image the word that she meant was "spirit". She also said everything is sacred. Of course we all learn that - the rocks and trees, everything is sacred and has a spirit. Even color.

[Rose] Even in our modern times science has proved that, everything has an energy. Everything…and she knew that, and she didn't even has science class.