Native American symbols play a large part in the art and traditions of the culture. These symbols vary based on the lineage of the tribe, although tribes that have developed in close contact or from a common ancestor may share motifs. The manifestation of symbols for Navajo people, for example, is different from the depiction used by the Sioux. Despite these differences, most Native American symbols consist of a standardized way of representing certain objects, designs that represent a concept rather than a tangible item, or in some cases the combination of these two types of symbols.
Among the many Native American symbols depicting objects in many tribes, there is usually a codified way of symbolizing both the environment and animals. Environmental symbols may include the sun, the moon, and less concrete environmental features such as water or wind. The animals depicted are usually found in the area the tribe lives, and might include birds, bears, snakes, and other creatures. These symbols are almost never used solely to depict the existence of these objects, but to impress upon the viewer the meaning of those objects to the tribe.
Additional physical symbols might include mythical creatures and spirits. The symbol representing Kokopelli, for instance, represents a figure that is not usually found in the environment. Representation of mythological and religious figures may be literal and depict what those figures are thought to look like, or figurative, representing the idea of those figures.
There are also Native American symbols representing ideas rather than imitating the appearance of certain objects. Symbols representing concepts, such as an emotion, a season, or an attitude may rely on the depiction of a related object, or may be fully arbitrary. If a simplified language was used by the tribe to communicate with other tribes of different languages, there may also be symbols representing actions and other necessities of trade.
Besides the Native American symbols used in art and design, it is also important to consider how these symbols are a part of a culture. For example, if a bear is used as a symbol with a special meaning in artistic applications, then a bear in real life also shares those meanings. Objects may even be used for exactly this purpose. If feathers are symbolic for a tribe, then the use of feathers in garments relates to the meaning of feathers. Native Americans often have richly symbolic cultures, and for members of those tribes, symbols exist all over their surroundings and decorate their world with meaning.