North American Native art

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

North American Native art

North American Native art, diverse traditional arts of Native North Americans. In recent years Native American arts have become commodities collected and marketed by nonindigenous Americans and Europeans. Originally, these objects were produced in different cultural contexts and for altogether different purposes. In many cases native peoples endowed utilitarian objects with aesthetic qualities not strictly related to the objects' primary function. In addition, some groups produced articles symbolizing status positions or items of religious significance.

Characteristic Objects

The material culture of the Eastern Woodlands groups (such as the Cherokee and Iroquois—see Eastern Woodlands culture), for example, included decorated pottery and baskets, quillwork and beadwork, birchbark utensils, plaited sashes, and carved wood ritual masks. Early Woodland cultures, including the Adena and Hopewell, are renowned for their elaborate grave offerings, including copper plates and earspools, objects made of other minerals (e.g. mica, silver, meteoric iron), shell and pearl beads, and ceramic vessels and figurines.

The mainstay of life for the Native Americans of the Great Plains (such as the Arapaho, Blackfoot, Crow, and Sioux) was the buffalo, whose skin, both rawhide and tanned, was used for clothing, containers, tepee covers, and shields. Triangular and quadrangular designs were often painted or embroidered on these items, with beads and porcupine quills. Featherwork, of which the familiar "war bonnet" is a prime example, was lavish. California, Great Basin, and Plateau groups (Pomo, Nez-Percé, Paiute) lived by gathering, hunting, and some fishing. They developed basketry, especially in N and Central California, as a highly refined art. Using a great variety of materials, these groups created many different basketry forms and techniques to make such items as baby carriers, collecting and winnowing baskets, fish weirs, and hats. As cooking and serving containers, the baskets were watertight. They also fashioned ceremonial and "gift" baskets imbued with religious significance. Featherwork was used for headdresses, capes, skirts, and mantles, in dance costumes, and as decoration, together with beads, on baskets.

In the Southwest, Native Americans generally practiced agriculture and lived in settled villages. In that region pottery making, particularly of jars and bowls, is still today a highly developed art with a rich tradition extending back to pre-Columbian times. An art of strong, graphic, geometric design developed for pottery decoration. Southwestern groups cultivated cotton to be spun into yarn, and used a backstrap loom with heddles prior to European contact. The Spaniards brought sheep to the region, which the Navajo adopted for weaving intricately patterned woolen rugs and blankets. Many designs for blankets were adapted from the ritual sandpaintings of the Navajo. The Hopi (see also Pueblo) and Zuni developed brilliantly carved and ornamented kachina dolls to represent living spirits; these are greatly valued by collectors today. After the Spanish conquest, silverworking evolved among the Southwestern Pueblo groups, especially among the Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi, who perfected it to the level of fine art, largely as jewelry.

On the heavily forested Northwest Coast, the Native American groups (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Nootka, and Salish) developed elaborate woodcarving techniques used to fabricate tools, houses, huge dugout canoes, totem poles, and other heraldic and ritual posts, as well as outstanding masks, bowls, and ladles. Human and animal figures were stylized to abstraction in this work. In addition, they made superb basketry and clothing by twining, and produced metalwork weapons and jewelry. In Arctic regions the skin and fur garments of Eskimo groups were elaborately tailored and occasionally decorated.

Eskimos carved sculptures of Arctic animal life (including seals, walruses, and polar bears) and hunting motifs, using stone, ivory, and bone, and made elaborate ceremonial masks. The subjects of their work were chosen from their extensive mythology as well as their everyday experience.

The Effects of European Contact

It is important to note that prior to European contact, Native American groups did not generally produce art for its own sake. Objects, often utilitarian in function, were adorned with symbolic elements drawn from their daily lives or cosmologies. In other instances minute differences in design motifs on clothing or residential structures served as differentiating mechanisms, rendering the identity of the group immediately apparent to knowledgeable outsiders. Standards of beauty, to the extent that they were considered at all, were based on traditional notions, not on innovation or experimentation away from the cultural norm.

With the coming of European populations and the devastation of Native American cultures, artifacts were avidly sought for museum and private collections. That early collectors attributed great value to often mundane objects almost certainly struck historic Native Americans as odd, so that when the articles were not stolen outright they were usually acquired by buyers at "bargain" rates. This has provoked numerous conflicts in recent years as Native Americans become increasingly vocal in calling for the return of museum items symbolizing their cultural heritage. In recent years the abject poverty of surviving Native American populations, combined with the growing demand for artisans' commodities in industrialized countries, has stimulated the emergence of increasing numbers of North American native artisans. Art has thus become a cottage industry serving tourist markets as well as demand by more discriminating collectors. Among the most sought-after articles are works of jewelry, Eskimo sculpture, as well as the textiles and ceramics of the Southwestern groups.

Major Collections

Museums with major collections of North American native art include the American Museum of Natural History, New York City; Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, New York City; National Museum of Canada, Ottawa; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard, Cambridge, Mass.; Provincial Museum, Victoria, British Columbia; Robert H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology, Univ. of California, Berkeley.

Bibliography

See F. Dockstader, Indian Art in America (3d ed. 1968); A. H. Whiteford, North American Indian Arts (1970); J. Highwater, Arts of the Indian Americas (1983); E. L. Wade and C. Haralson, The Arts of the North American Indian (1986).

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