NATIVE AMERICAN ARTS

– Joseph D. Horse Capture

Native American arts have long been renowned throughout the world for their quality, iconography, and aesthetic appeal. Like all artists, Native American artists created from their hearts, reflecting their belief systems, artistic ingenuity, and cultural experiences. Each geographic region of North America has its own distinct Native American artistic style and integrity.

Plains people incorporated many elements from their world into their artworks. Traditionally, they adorned animal hides with porcupine quills, earth pigments, and other natural materials, creating clothing, tipis, and utilitarian objects. When European traders introduced new materials, such as beads, Plains Indian people modified older techniques to incorporate newly acquired materials.

Plains artists had defined gender roles. Men decorated buffalo hides, illustrating their prowess in battle and showing them defeating their enemies or taking their horses. Although early hide paintings appear to show random figures, the warrior-artist drew them in a specific order. The scenes drawn or painted on the hide told a battle story of the owner. Traditionally, the owner of the hide wore it on his back, draped over his shoulder so the pictographs could be seen. If someone were to point out a particular scene painted on the hide, the owner could take the hide off and tell the story of his bravery. Although many of these pictographs can be interpreted today, they were originally intended to act as visual aids to enhance the owner’s recounted story.

Over time, as buffalo herds became depleted, the tradition of drawing on hide was replaced by drawing in ledgers or sketchbooks. Warrior-artists continued recording their exploits, using different materials such as paper, pencils, and pens. Details that could be recorded more easily with the newer media appeared on these drawings, which showed, for instance, specific types of moccasins, leggings, or weaponry. On a buffalo hide, only one series of story scenes could be recorded; but in the easily portable drawing books, many stories could be preserved.

Plains women traditionally beaded, quilled, or drew symbolic geometric patterns. They were also prolific artists, using beads or porcupine quills to adorn utilitarian objects such as bags, dresses, shirts, and moccasins. Women were required to stay within their tribal styles when decorating objects and to use specific colors, patterns, and techniques. But they also exercised artistic freedom. Working within the limits of tribal traditions, women made some of the most striking objects on the Plains.

Many of the geometric patterns they created referenced stories that were embedded in tribal oral traditions. An example is the image of the turtle; turtles figure prominently in many Plains Indian creation stories, and turtle imagery is often found on objects and clothing made by and for women, who have the sacred gift of creating life. Dresses and amulets often feature turtle imagery. A woman would keep the umbilicus of her child inside a turtle amulet, which further emphasized the sacred connections among women, children, and the turtle.

In the Woodlands region, men created sculpture that was known for its strong, elegant presence. Their feast ladles consisted of a shallow bowl with a handle carved into the shape of an animal head or bird, referencing clanship or a personal totem.

Men and women in the Woodlands both created highly decorated functional objects. The men sculpted wood into bowls, spoons, pipes, and clubs. The women wove bags and mats and made a variety of birch-bark containers and other items. They also constructed and decorated animal-hide clothing. With the introduction of European materials such as beads, cotton, and broadcloth, Woodlands female arts
became more decorative and elaborate than before. Among the Anishinabe (also known inaccurately as Chippewa), beadwork eventually replaced quillwork, retaining the latter’s floral patterns and
designs. The importance of beads is reflected in the Anishinabe name for beads, manidoominensag, meaning “berries of the Great Spirit.”

The tribes of the Northwest Coast have the strongest sculptural traditions in North America. The rich natural resources of the region, which included cedar and spruce forests, provided many artists with the materials to create objects of the highest aesthetic quality.

The most iconographic symbols of Northwest Coast art are totem poles. Totems were used for a variety of reasons, including marking territory occupied by a family and honoring the deceased. The figures carved on a totem pole represent the animals associated with a family’s crest. Each animal has meaning and refers to a traditional story. The sequence of animals in the totem’s entire design tells a story, and a person from the family that commissioned the carving can interpret these stories, as this information is passed down through the generations. Visitors who are trained in how to translate the visual language of an area can also read the totem poles.

Northwest Coast artists have developed the incredible skill of fitting two- and three-dimensional designs into objects without sacrificing the integrity of either the design or the object’s function. Careful examination of a totem pole reveals this skill. The artist’s technique allows the figures to become part of the overall sculptural form as they wrap around it. Similar techniques are used to carve boxes. The artist maintains the form of the box, but divides the figure into separate sections, carving one on each side. As a whole, the figure completely wraps around the box, but when each section is examined separately, only portions of the figure can be seen. In some cases this style has been abstracted to an extreme, and the figure carved on the box is barely discernible.

 

­—Joseph D. Horse Capture