Native American Sand Painting

This exploration is for all ages, as the colored smilies show. You can do the Native American Sand Painting exploration with your whole family together.

Layers of Learning Unit 2-18
Unit 2-18: American Peoples, Canada, Technology, Indian Legends

The Native American Sand Paintings exploration is a combination history and art exploration from Unit 2-18 about American Peoples. Within the unit, you will find lots more hands-on projects and explorations to help your family learn all about the Native American peoples. Layers of Learning has hands-on explorations, experiments, and art projects in every unit of this family-friendly curriculum. Learn more about Layers of Learning.

Sand painting has long been a tradition of the Native American tribes of the southwest.  The Navajo tribes, in particular, are known for this beautiful artwork that was also believed to have healing properties.  Traditionally, the medicine man of the tribe sprinkled colored sand in beautiful patterns and designs in front of the hogan of someone who was ill.  

As he made the intricate designs, he also chanted and prayed for a healing blessing.  Once he finished, he looked over his work, making sure that each part was in perfect order because the order of the art represented new harmony in the ill person’s life and body. It was this harmony that was intended to provide healing. Furthermore, it was believed that the sand paintings also acted as a portal for healing spirits that could aid the sick person.  Once the painting and chanting were complete, it was thought to absorb the illness. Finally, once completely finished, the sand painting was destroyed.

Step 1: Library Research

Before you begin the project, read a book or two about the Navajo or Southwest Tribes. You don’t need to find these specific titles, but here are a few we recommend. The colored smilies above each book tell you what age level they’re recommended for.

The Magic of Spider Woman

by Lois Duncan

A retelling of a Navajo tale about keeping life in balance.

The Life of the Navajo

by Amanda Bishop and Bobbie Kalman

All about the day to day life of the Navajo and their traditions.

American Indian Tribes of the Southwest

by Michael G. Johnson

A short, but informative read with lots of images to help the reader.

Step 2: Native American Sand Paintings

You’ll need clean sand, powdered tempera paints, card stock, and glue.

Start by mixing your sand and various colors of tempera paint in small dishes.  You’ll need about 2 Tbsp. of sand and 1 tsp. of paint in each small container. You can use any combination of colors you choose.

Next, sketch out your design on scratch paper.  Think about symmetry and combining organic and geometric shapes. The Native American sand painters sought for balance. Likewise, you should try to create balance in your own sand painting.

If you’d like, you can sketch your design lightly on the card stock you are planning to adhere the sand to.  Once your design is ready, trace one section at a time with the glue and begin carefully sprinkling colored sand on to the glue, one color at a time.

Finally, gently shake off the excess sand.  Use paper plates or a similar container to catch the excess sand. Keep repeating this process with each color you add to your sand painting.

Make sure every inch of your card stock square is covered, completely filling in your design. Look over your work and make sure you got each detail and made a balanced, ordered picture.

This project should cause you to pause and instill respect for the intricate designs of the Navajo sand painters. Their art was created directly on the ground and they couldn’t use adhesive or pour off extra sand they sprinkled. Even with the benefit of glue and getting to pour off the excess, this isn’t an easy art project. Those artists must have had extreme patience and skill to be able to complete their intricate designs in the sand, especially knowing they would be destroying their hours of detailed work at the end.

Step 3: Show What You Know

Finally, show off your sand painting to an audience and tell about the process you used to create your sand painting and how it compares with what the actual Navajo sand painters did. In addition, explain the cultural significance and what you learned about why the Native Americans created these unique paintings out of sand.

Additional Layers

Additional Layers are extra activities you can do or tangents you can take off on. You will find them in the sidebars of each Layers of Learning unit. They are optional, so just choose what interests you.

Writer’s Workshop

A sand painting by Brian Pike (1990) shared on Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 3.0

The Native Americans weren’t the only ones to make sand paintings. Artists from all around the world have used colorful sand to create art. Research “sand paintings” online and write a narration about what you learn.

Additional Layer

Navajo bracelets. The two on top are old, from centuries past. The two on bottom are new, by modern Navajo artisans. Shared on Wikimedia, CC by SA 3.0.

The Native Americans of the Southwest are also known for their beautiful jewelry design, and especially their work with turquoise.

Additional Layer

Muslim healer

Photo by Tim Cowley. Shared under CC BY-SA 4.0

Many cultures and belief systems utilize healers. Some illnesses are believed to be physical while others are thought to be a result of curses or from things like breaking cultural taboos. This Muslim healer from Malawi in East Africa creates Islamic charms. Do you know of any healing practices within your own culture, belief system, or community?

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