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Navajo Sand Paintings


Grade level: middle and high school

The El Tovar lodge at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park was designed by Charles Whittlesey to include a sense of both European elegance and rustic charm. In an effort to promote the lodge as a tourist attraction, the Santa Fe Railway and Fred Harvey Company capitalized on the Native American culture. They promoted Native American arts, including Navajo sand paintings, as an additional enticement to visit the Grand Canyon. Across the road from El Tovar are two much smaller building that celebrate the architecture of the nation's native people, the Hopi. In stark contrast to El Tovar, the Deserbee Watch Tower and the Hopi House are replicas of traditional pueblo dwellings made of red-brown, mud bricks and wooden poles. As shown in the PBS video, The Deserbee Tower's walls are decorated by murals that reflect the design of Pueblo sand paintings. They further enhance a visit to the tower by giving it an even more authentic feel. Today, the buildings are a testament to the beautiful artwork of the pueblo people.

Sand paintings were used by the Navajo in their religious ceremonies in which the gods were called upon to heal the sick. In traditional ceremonies, the medicine man sprinkled different colored sand (ground from crushed colored rock) on the ground. In the early 1940's native artists began displaying and selling their paintings to the public. To do this, they sprinkled the sand onto an epoxy-covered board and let the epoxy and sand dry.

In this lesson, students will gain an appreciation and gain a stronger ability to relate to the Native American culture by designing and making a sand painting of their own.


    Students will:
  • Research sand paintings and their use in the Native American culture
  • Research the meaning of Native American symbols
  • Design and make a sand painting that incorporates the symbols researched above
  • Explain their painting by describing why they chose the symbols they did

National Standards:

National Social Studies Standards

Standard 1:
Culture: In a democratic and multicultural society, students need to understand multiple perspectives that derive from different cultural vantage points. This understanding will allow them to relate to people in our nation and throughout the world.

National Geography Standards

Standard 4:
The geographically informed person understands the physical and human characteristics of places.

Standard 9:
The geographically informed person understands the characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth's surface.

National Standards for Arts Education

Standard 1:
Understands and applies media, techniques, and processes related to the visual arts.

Standard 3:
Knows a range of subject matter, symbols, and potential ideas in the visual arts.

Standard 4:
Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.

Standard 5:
Understands the characteristics and merits of one's own artwork and the artwork of others.

Standard 6:
Making connections between visual arts and other disciplines.

  • Clean playground sand
  • Powdered tempera paint, variety of colors
  • Paper and pencils
  • Colored pencils
  • School glue
  • Poster board, 18" x 18" squares for each student
  • Cotton swabs
  • Great Lodges of the National Parks: Grand Lodges (PBS video)

    Start with: The Grand Canyon embodies the wild open American west.
    End with: The railroads were very instrumental in getting the national Parks established that we have in the west; particularly Grand Canyon National Park

    Start with: When the lodge opened, the dining room was managed by the company which handled all matters epicurean.
    End with: They were a real testament to the work she had done as an architect, as a woman, and as a designer.
  • Cut enough paper and poster board into 18" x 18" squares for each student
  • Mix enough sand and paint to supply your class with sufficient colored sand. You will need to mix 3 tablespoons of paint for each cup of sand. Leave some sand without paint for use as a background on the paintings.
  • Begin a class discussion about the southwestern Native American culture. Ask: What did they use for food and shelter? How did they dress? Were they nomadic or did they stay in one place? What are some examples of their art? Tell the class that they will be viewing a video that includes art work of the southwestern tribes. Tell them to pay particular attention to the paintings on the wall of the Hopi House.
  • After showing the video, have students describe the Hopi House. Tell students that they will be making their own sand painting. They will first have to research the purpose of sand paintings in Pueblo culture and peruse books and web sites to decide what symbols they will include in their own paintings.
  • Lead a whole class discussion about what they found and share ideas for the symbols they will use. Note that the paintings are very simple and the colors include mostly earth tones.
  • Give each student an 18" x 18" piece of paper and direct them to sketch a design for their own painting. Caution students that their designs should be very simple to make it easier to cover the sketch in sand.
  • Once both the teacher and student are satisfied with the design, the student can then sketch their design on the poster board. Color the sketch in colored pencil so that the final design is easier to reproduce with sand
  • Students should decide which color sand they will start with. Dip one end of a cotton swab into the glue and smear the glue onto the poster board everywhere they will use that color. Sprinkle the sand over the smeared glue thick enough for it to cover the white background. Shake extra sand back into the cup.
  • Continue as above with each color until the painting is complete. Use the natural, uncolored sand to fill in the background of the painting.
  • Students then draw a chart that shows each symbol its meaning. Below the chart they should write a brief explanation of Hopi sand paintings and the overall meaning of the one they made.
Assessment Suggestions:
    Student assessment may be based on:
  • Accuracy of the symbols' meanings
  • Participation in class discussion
  • Completion of the sand painting
  • Students research Hopi crafts that would be appropriate in the Deserbee Tower. During art class, they can try their hand at weaving a rug or making a piece of pottery.


Bahti, M., 2000, A guide to Navajo Sandpaintings

Hausman, G. 1992, Turtle Island Alphabet: A Lexicon of Native American Symbols and Culture

Parezo, N.J., 1983, Navajo Sand Painting: From Religious Act to Commercial Art

Wyman , L. C., 1983, Southwest Indian Drypainting