Native American Art: Thousands of Artists But Only a Fraction of Their Masterpieces Have Survived
The arts of North American natives typically fall into broad categories of sculpture, painting, quill-work, beadwork and architecture. The Native American art types are further divided geographically. To cite two examples, the Northwest Coast is known for large sculptures such as totem poles and decorations on canoes, and the Southwest Pueblo people are known for their architecture.
According to the site Native American Indian Facts: “Native American Indian Art is as diverse as the hundreds of tribes that inhabit America; each tribe having a unique culture and art forms. Evolving from simple cave drawings and carvings, traditional American Indian art grew to include intricate art in such forms as jewelry, beadwork, weaving, pottery, basketry, paintings, dolls, carvings, masks, quillwork (embroidery), and totem poles.”
Dreamcatchers are a wold-famous part of Native American handicrafts. (©balisnake/ via Fotolia)
Thousands of Artists Through the Ages
In addition to hundreds of tribes, there have been many thousands or even millions of Native American artists through the ages. Unfortunately, many of their works didn’t survive, especially the works that were done on materials other than stone, pottery, bone or ivory. The works of artists of 2,000 or more years ago, who worked in textiles, wood carvings or basket-making, for example, are mostly lost.
Most examples of native artworks that survive are of more recent times. The site Essential Humanities, North American Art, says most Native American art from North America that survives was created in the medieval period. Few pieces survive from antiquity, the site says.
The editor of Essential Humanities, Humphrey Fletcher, writes that indigenous people can be divided into cultures. For example, he writes, the people of the Northwest may have Northwest Culture customs. Each culture can have distinct sub-cultures.
He says one of the more common forms of social organization of American natives is the tribe, which is based on kinship. But a culture can include people from many tribes.
For example, there are the Sioux people who are divided into sub-cultures of Nakota, Dakota and Lakota, all of whom speak different Sioux languages. The arts of each tribe or band may be similar to other tribes, or they could have specialties that set each sub-culture apart.
There are 10 culture areas in the history of the Native Americans of the United States and Canada.
10 culture areas of the Native Americans of the United States and Canada. Map credit: Essential Humanities
The site Essential Humanities states:
A number of traditional arts are commonly found among non-urban cultures throughout the world. Examples include weaving, leatherwork, basketry, headdress and mask-making, and rock painting. Throughout North America, which remained a non-urban region up until colonial times, all of these art forms flourished.
Native American sculpture
One of the more enduring types of art forms is sculpture done in clay or stone. Wood statues, totems and figures don’t survive as long for obvious reasons.
The native sculptors who worked on a large scale are from the Northwest Coast region. They worked and still work in wood primarily. They sculpted figures, masks, canoe decorations and totem poles. They paint some of their works in bright colors and others in just red, white and black.
People of the Arctic, the Eastern Woodlands and the Southwest also worked sculptures but on a smaller scale. Arctic people made masks and figures of animals in ivory and stone.
Pueblo peoples of the Southwestern United States worked in wood to produce kachina dolls.
And Eastern Woodland people worked in wood, stone and clay to produce figures, pipes and vessels depicting animals and people.
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Cedar feast-dish cover, circa 1900, features the face of Dzunuk’wa. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Native American architecture
While ancient people in Mexico and Central and South America left complex, wonderfully realized monuments, buildings, pyramids and earthworks, this civilization wasn’t as prevalent north of Mexico. Though there are a couple of exceptions.
The people of the American Southwest, the Pueblos, made large clay-brick buildings, and kivas or prayer circles sunk in the earth and paved.
The Eastern Woodland people also made hundreds of large earthen mounds. Archaeologists say some of the mounds were burial grounds, while others had temples or great houses at their summits.
Most other North American Indian tribes lived in structures made of wood, animal’s skins or even snow and ice in the far north Inuit country.
Monk’s Mound, Cahokia. The largest prehistoric urban center in what is now the US (Oakton Community College)
Native American paintings
Paintings were done on rock, wood, pottery and leather and in a type of medium called sand painting of the American Southwest. In the Southwest, most of the designs are geometric. Where the Southwest artist depicted a figure or person, the image was usually stylized.
Some tribes painted shields or tepees, cave walls and clothing. While some pottery, cave and rock paintings survive, much other work done on leather and wood decomposed long ago.
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A 19 th century Northwest Haida tribe artist’s painting of a double Thunderbird. (Public Domain)
Native American quillwork and beadwork
Essential Humanities says quillwork merits special mention because in the entire world it was done only by Eastern Woodlands and Plains Indian artists. “Quillwork is produced by flattening and dyeing porcupine quills, which are then used to decorate clothing and birchbark containers,” the site says.
Of beadwork, the site Native American Indian Facts states:
Numerous American Indian tribes create beautiful beadwork, perhaps the best known are those of the Great Plains Indians. Native Americans originally used natural materials for their beads such as shells, turquoise, wood, animal bones, animal horns, and silver. When Europeans started trading with the Indians glass beads became available.
Native American beaded shirt (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Modern Native American art
Many wonderful artworks are being produced by Native American artists today. Some native artists depict traditional subject and themes, while others base their work in traditional subjects but add their own personal and modern quirks and interpretations.
David Bradley’s work White Earth Ojibwe Pueblo Feast Day, 1997. (CC BY 3.0)
The Denver Art Museum has a big catalog with photos of works of past and present Native American artists on its website.
Top image: Totems are found all over North America as standing examples of Native American art. Source: © Tom/ via Fotolia
By Mark Miller