Designing for Tribal Sovereign Nations in the United States

Sadie Red Wing


Native American graphic design presents a strong modality based on graphical representation to express distinctive qualities of sovereignty. The understanding behind sovereign distinction of representational forms requires the indigenous education of traditional symbolism specific to the tribal audience. Any form created by an indigenous designer reflects the identity of the intended audience, for the cultural norm of tribal communication demands identification from the form to the engagers. When engaging in tribal communication through representational forms, the visual language—of the form—needs correct translation to the fluent receiver.

A problem in Native American graphic design remains on the designer’s irresponsibility to communicate a sovereign visual language appropriately due to their lack of education in the traditional symbolism. Indigenous designers uneducated in their tribe’s graphical conventions resort to “pan-Indian” imagery when creating visual forms. The term pan-Indian refers to the grouping of all Native American tribes into a single, denounced category when classifying a genre. Pan-Indian graphic design conveys meaningless and inappropriate messages that continue the stream of Native American stereotypes. Stereotypical imagery substituted for traditional symbolism degrades the visual representation of an (already-sensitive) indigenous culture.