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Indigenous Design: Beyond Medicine Wheels, Ox Carts, & Inukshuks

February 15, 2019

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Why you should think twice about using cultural and spiritual symbols in your graphic design.

We must be more careful when using cultural symbols in logos and brands. By using the feather, the Infinity Symbol, the Inukshuk, and the Medicine Wheel for every type of Indigenous organization, the meaning and the teachings behind our symbols are being diluted, lost, or overlooked.

The intent of this article is to open a discussion around the appropriate use of Indigenous culture and spirituality into graphic design projects, particularly logos and brands.

Today, we’ll focus on the Medicine Wheel as an overused element in Indigenous design, however other elements may also include the Ox Cart and Infinity Symbol for the Métis, the Inukshuk and Igloo for the Inuit, and a Feather or Medicine Wheel for First Nations. I’d like to build the case that there are numerous ways to create visually appealing designs that communicate ideas effectively and that we’re not limited to the standard “go-to” Indigenous design elements that often get overused.

 

Brand

Brands Tell Stories

We use brands in business, marketing, and advertising. As there are different definitions of branding, for this article, we will use the following definition from the American Marketing Association Dictionary [1] :

“A brand is a name, word, design, symbol, or other feature that distinguishes an organization or product from its rivals in the eyes of the customer.”

The purpose of a brand is to: deliver a message, confirm credibility, connect an audience with a product or service, encourage customers to buy, and build up customer loyalty over time - it’s a lot to accomplish with only a few symbols, images, and messages.

For a brand to succeed, it’s essential to understand the wants and needs of the consumer and prospects. It’s an expression of who you are and what you offer. A strong brand is critical in your marketing communications and it should tell the story of your business or organization.

 

MW

A Closer Look at the Medicine Wheel

Having a Medicine Wheel in a logo is one example that has become shorthand for “We’re an Indigenous organization.” And while it’s great to showcase your organization’s Indigenous leadership - especially if you serve Indigenous customers or clients - the Medicine Wheel is not the only or even the best, way to share this with your customers.

As a cultural person, I believe everyone could and should have a greater understanding of the many lessons the Medicine Wheel has to teach us. What I want to talk about is how Indigenous organizations, leaders, and entrepreneurs often use the Medicine Wheel in logos and brands for Nations, products, organizations, services, events, and everything in between.

To put this discussion in the context of appropriate use of Medicine Wheels I’ll briefly explain what I have been taught about it.

The Medicine Wheel goes back generations. Our ancestors have used and shared its teachings for thousands of years. It’s evolved and adapted over time, but most people are familiar with its current form. The Circle with the four coloured quadrants of white, yellow, red, and black.

The four colours represent the four different races of humanity. They also serve the four directions (North, East, South, West), the elements (Air, Fire, Water, Earth), the seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall), the parts of a day (Dawn, Noon, Dusk and Midnight), the four sacred medicines (Sweetgrass, Tobacco, Cedar, and Sage), the stages of life (Birth, Growth, Maturity, and Death), and the essence of what makes us human (Intellect, Emotion, Spiritual, and Physical). Each quadrant also represents a spirit animal (in Ojibway teachings the animals are the Buffalo, Mouse, Eagle, and Bear).

J. Dumont describes the evolving Medicine Wheel design in Culture, Behavior, & Identity of the Native Person [2] as "the circle, being primary, influences how we as [Indigenous Peoples] view the world. In the process of how life evolves, how the natural world grows and works together, how all things are connected, and how all things move toward their destiny. [Indigenous Peoples] see and respond to the world in a circular fashion and are influenced by the examples of the circles of creation in our environment".

 

pan

Alternatives to Pan-Indigenous Design

It is clear, upon a quick explanation of its meaning, why the Medicine Wheel is a popular symbol for Indigenous organizations. It represents every aspect of physical, spiritual, and emotional life. However, a defining trait of a successful brand is its specificity; how can you explain who you are and what you do as an organization by using a symbol that encompasses every aspect of life?

Unique brands stand apart from their competitors. The Medicine Wheel or another sacred iconography in graphic design is becoming the default image for Indigenous organizations. Therefore, your brand is likely to become overlooked.

However, there are even deeper consequences of using stereotypical Indigenous iconography in your brand design. Sadie Red Wing, a graphic designer and advocate for tribal visual sovereignty said "we have a whole visual language to explore and expose (not exploit), and it doesn't have to be stereotypical. Give 'em something they aren't used to seeing."

There is also a great risk of perpetuating what Red Wing [3] calls Pan-Indianism, "a philosophy and movement promoting unity among different American Indian groups in the Americas regardless of tribal or local affiliations." What this results in is the same images (dreamcatchers, feathers, arrowheads, turtles, Medicine Wheels, and headdresses) used as an Indigenous indicator rather than representing their spiritual roots. This applies to the overuse of the Medicine Wheel iconography.

To quote Stuart Hall, "meaning is what gives us a sense of our own identity, of who we are and with whom we 'belong." [4] If we use the same images over and over, particularly if the image is not from your own beliefs, we not only risk reinforcing stereotypes but also risk homogenizing Indigenous beliefs and culture. As graphic communicators, we need to dig deeper and not use stereotypical images in our visual communications.

OK, but is there a compromise? Or some middle-ground?

There’s always compromise and flexibility in life. If you are a designer, you may have a client come to you with a clear vision of what they want and you may want to not come off as being disrespectful when you’re asked to add an Infinity Symbol, Inukshuk, or Medicine Wheel to the logo. If you are tasked with developing a logo for an Indigenous-focused organization that you work at, you may have a board of directors, Elders council, or other advisory groups that will all have input. We often work in collaborative environments within the Indigenous community and consensus building is rooted in how we work.

If you must incorporate a particular cultural or spiritual element into the design, I recommend that you first consider the teachings it provides and what other solutions you can incorporate into your brand strategy, mission, or brand values. For example, you can incorporate the Medicine Wheel into your organizational culture. But using a sacred image as part of your iconography to identify yourself as an Indigenous organization is not only perpetuating a stereotype but also not telling your customers and stakeholders who you are.

Case Study: When Co-Branding Comes into Play

NAHC

It may not always be possible to exclude this type of iconography when dealing with multiple organizations and clients that use them. For example, Sport Yukon had approached us to design the 2019 National Aboriginal Hockey Championships (NAHC) brand. It had to be unique and identify with the spirit of the Yukon through an Indigenous lens. Our final solution represents the north, the Yukon First Nations, and the sport but we also used three icons: the Infinity loop, Inukshuk, and the Eagle.

Wait a second. The Infinity loop, Inukshuk, and Eagle? Why did we do this? It’s a direct contradiction with everything we’ve already stated in the article! You’re not wrong. However, this is a case where we needed to make some compromises.

These three icons represent the branding for the Aboriginal Sports Circle, the organization that first founded the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships in 2001. Because they are the founding organization, we needed to include their branding into the logo. This is sometimes referred to as co-branding.

In this case, we used the Aboriginal Sports Circle brand in conjunction with the new brand for the 2019 NAHC.

Case Study: Incorporating Indigenous Art & Teachings

In some cases, we are invited and encouraged to use spiritual symbols and icons provided that there is a good rationale for their use. For example, the Turtle Island Institute (TII) needed a logo for their organization that has roots in Anishnaabe and Ojibway culture and territory.

The Turtle Island Institute is a global First Nations-led Social Innovation “Think & Do Tank” that seeks the transformation of social-ecological systems towards a more balanced (spiritual, mental, emotional, physical) and sustainable world, to pursue Anishinaabe Mino-Bimaadiziwin (The Way of a Good Life). The final logo incorporates the Ojibwe creation story of Turtle Island. It also incorporates important elements that communicate the connections and interactions within a group of people and to showcase the power of knowledge generation, dissemination, and facilitation.

TII

In some cases, we develop options during the creative process that the client loves so much that they’ll even purchase those as well. TTI ended up purchasing the one on the right for use on their research report covers.

TTI2

Moving Forward

Remember, a great brand must be original and unique. Rather than resorting to stereotypical “Indigenous” iconography, consider challenging yourself to come up with something unique that shows your customers, without a doubt, who you are as an organization. Odds are you will rework your design several times (the original concepts aren’t always the best solutions), but the result will be something you, and your organization, will be proud of and will certainly make you unique.

To help inspire you, I’ve compiled a list of additional resources of effective and beautiful logo designs from Indigenous organizations across North America and beyond.

Shäna Dákeyi Käy / Youth on our country. A Youth Wellness Gathering
3 Nations, 1 Voice - Kaska, Tahltan, Tlingit Youth Gathering 
The Singletrack to Success
X-ing Design 
Makoose
NICWA (National Indian Child Welfare Association) 
Kelly Jackson - Spirit of an Ikwe
Aboriginal Investment Consulting LP
Native Women’s Association of Canada
CANDO - 23rd Annual National Conference
Marlena Myles
Indspire
Reconciliation Canada
ingeous studios


References

  1. American Marketing Association Dictionary. Retrieved 2011-06-29. The Marketing Accountability Standards Board (MASB) endorses this definition as part of its ongoing Common Language in Marketing Project.
  2. Dumont, J. (1989). Culture, behaviour, & identity of the Native person. In NATI-2105: Culture, behaviour, & identity of the Native person. Sudbury: Laurentian University Press.
  3. Sadie Red Wing, Pan-Indianism. https://www.sadieredwing.com/pan-indianism
  4. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, edited by Stuart Hall. Page 3.

Mark Rutledge, CGD

Mark RutledgeMark Rutledge is a veteran graphic designer with over 25 years of experience. He is National President of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada and Lead Designer at Animikii Inc. Mark has worked with Fortune 500 companies as well as grassroots and non-profit organizations. Mark is Ojibway from Little Grand Rapids First Nation in Manitoba and works from Whitehorse, Yukon.

February 15, 2019

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