The finding of the American continent in the 15th century led Europeans into contact with cultures whose peoples practiced a way of life and an ancient art stabilized millennia before, sometimes living under Neolithic conditions well into modern times. The Native North American Indian was primarily a hunter and food gatherer. His cultivation of agriculture was limited and semi-nomadic, using a ‘slash and burn’ method of cultivation, harvesting a crop and moving on. His way of life was bound to conflict with the new settlers from Europe, whose agricultural enclosures drove the Indian from his home ground.
It is difficult for men to appreciate the culture and art of a bitter enemy, and for most of the history of North America the settler was in a state of perpetual warfare against the Indian, until the latter was almost destroyed both physically and culturally. The settlement of North America is perhaps the most complete in history, and the crafts of the native Indian inhabitants have only really become appreciated as the culture that produced them is dying. For too many 19th century Americans living in the large cities and towns of the east coast, the nearest they got to native American art was the pictures of Frederic Remington (1861-1909) – the famous portrayer of the Cowboy West – and the frontier landscapes of Thomas Cole (1801-48), George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).
North American Indian Art
To appreciate the nature of the tribal art of the Indian peoples of North America, one has to visualise cultures in which daily life, religious belief and artistic expression are not seen as separate activities but as communal rituals, celebrating either the power of nature and supernatural forces or some essential human activity such as hunting. A pot made by an Indian artist of the south-west has a break in the encircling line of the jar, the ‘exit trail of life’, because the pot has a life of its own. A child’s moccasin, made by a Plains Indian, is embroidered with a zig-zag snake pattern as a protection against snake-bite. Once we recognise the nature and purpose of decorative art in North American Indian civilisation, we can respond to the design and symbolism of a whole range of American Indian folk art, including, baskets, blankets, pots, murals, beadwork on pouches and bags, head masks and sculpture. To put it another way, Native American Indian art was not intended to be appreciated purely for its aesthetics: it had a specific role to play in pictorializing the values and events of the Indian way of life, while serving basic needs like warmth and shelter. For an iconic painting (by a non-Indian) which reflects some of the environmental values of the American frontier states, like New Mexico.
Early Woodland Art
The North American continent was first peopled by hunters who crossed from Siberia across the Bering Straits about 25,000 years ago. Gradually with the cultivation of maize, nomadic hunting communities became settled agricultural ones, and the making of effigies, pipes and other cult objects became distinctive elements in a diverse culture that spread along the eastern seaboard area of North America known as the woodlands. Although there were several distinct cultures within the region, they all buried their dead in earthen mounds, which has led to the preservation of much of their art. Due to this practice, the cultures as a whole are referred to as the Mound builders.
The Woodland Period spanned roughly two thousand years: c.1000 BCE – 1000 CE, and is usually dividied into three periods: early, middle, and late. Early Woodland culture is noted for the ceramic art and pots of the Deptford culture (c.2000 BCE – 200 CE), as well as the carved stone tablets, animal hide costumes and engraved shells of the Adena culture.
During the Middle Woodland culture, two areas in particular developed a strong culture of visual art, the Hopewell near Ohio (100-500 CE) and the Mississippian (800-1500 CE) (see below). The Hopewell Turner mound serpent made from mica is thought to be a clothing ornament and its production was based on a technology that included whetstones, grindstones, hand hammers, chisels and flint knives. Many of these objects have been found in burial mounds together with stone tobacco pipes decorated with bird imagery, and ornaments of stone, flint, mica and pearl. The Hopewell artists also left fine pottery, textile fragments and miniature clay figures often with infants on their backs, kneeling or standing, representing the first clearly humanistic genre in Native American Indian art. In addition, they produced a wide range of jewellery and sculpture in soft stone, wood, and even human bone.
The Mississippian culture of the south-east Woodland culture flourished (800-1500 CE) throughout an area east of the Mississippi river which includes today’s Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. It encompasses tribes like the Caddo, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Natchez and Wichita. A settled culture, based on maize agriculture, its people built a more complex form of platform mound and evolved more advanced pottery techniques. Mississippian culture artifacts include shell chokers and cups, small-scale figurative stone sculpture, copper plates like the Wulfing cache, and ceremonial masks. [To compare ceremonial masks from other ancient cultures, see: African Art as well as Oceanic Art.]
Late Wooldland Art
Woodland artists developed a many-sided design of visual decoration that depicted and appeased the supernatural spirits who inhabited the flowers, animals, the sky and the stars. Animals like the otter and the muskrat became clan symbols, and medicine bags were made from their pelts to appease the essences of Nature. A beautiful 18th-century Michigan pouch celebrates the power of the underwater panther, a very widespread image of unpredictable force.
The encounters between this woodland culture and the first European colonists from the 16th century onwards led in many instances to the complete destruction (by warfare or disease) or removal further west of the woodland peoples. We can, however, gain a sense of the naturalistic power of the arts of this woodland culture from such artifacts as the mantle of Powhatan (the leader of the Algonquin tribes shortly before the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607), or from the embroidered belts, porcupine quill-work, pouches and moccasins that continue to be made to the present day.
South-East American Indian Culture
Pre-Columbian art – mostly wooden artifacts, including some dating back to 8,000 BCE – have been discovered in Florida. However, most wooden items that are carved and painted, date from the 1st century CE onwards. They include animal carvings, face masks, tablets, plaques and human effigies from the unique Key Marco Hoard, uncovered by archeologists in 1896, which included some of the finest Neolithic Native American Indian art ever found in the United States. Among the various tribes of the south-east, the Seminoles are famous for their crafts, notably textile art, including doll-making and patchwork clothes.
Indian Art Of The Plains
The plains area of North America extends from west of the Mississippi river to the Rocky mountains, and from the Saskatchewan river in Canada to central Texas. Tribes have inhabited the Great Plains for millennia. It was here, in Oklahoma, that a unique piece of prehistoric art – the Cooper Bison Skull, the oldest painted object in the history of Native American Indian art – was discovered, dating to the Paleolithic culture of 10,900-10,200 BCE. Historically, the early Plains cultures are divided into four eras: Paleoindian (c.10,000-4000 BCE); Plains Archaic (c.4000–300 BCE), Plains Woodland (c.300 BCE–950 CE), and Plains Village (c.950-1850 CE).
A distinctive nomadic culture developed in the plains built around the horse and the buffalo, though there were also some agricultural communities. Many of the tribes, the Sioux, the Commanche and the Blackfeet were warrior societies with a complex system of honours and rewards signified by pipes, feathered bonnets, horse-hair and scalp-fringed war-shirts, and medicine hoops, all decorated with signs and emblems. Face painting as well as all-over body painting was practised as battle and hunting scenes were painted on to skin robes and rawhide, with paints made from coloured earths. Other forms of Indian body art included tattoos and piercings. Beadwork was an essential part of Plains Art. A hundred and twenty thousand beads have been counted on a single Commanche cradle. Other types of Indian applied art from the plains included porcupine quill embroidery, and jewellery art made from dentalium shells and elk teeth. In the Plateau region, also called the Intermontaine and upper Great Basin, tribes like the Yakama, Umatilla, Cayuse, Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe, practice weaving, beading and basket-making.
South-West and Far West American Indian Art
Successors of the Ancestral Pueblo, or Anasazi tribes, (1000 BCE–700 CE), whose culture formed in the American southwest, following the introduction of corn from Mexico in about 1200 BCE, the Navajos, Hope and Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and Arizona represent one of the strongest surviving cultures of North America, stretching in a continuous arc of change and development from 400 CE to the present day. Examples of woven baskets and blankets, pottery, jewellery (noted for its use of turquoise, jet, and spiny oyster shells), cottonwood carvings, silversmithing and sand-painting survive and flourish. A refinement of the picture-writing of the Plains are the Navajo sand-paintings. This unique form of sand art was allegedly an inspiration for the invention of action painting by the famous 20th century artist Jackson Pollock (1912-56). See also: Jackson Pollock’s paintings (c.1940-56). The designs are formed by sprinkling coloured powder made from earths, rocks and charcoal, spread on the floor of the medicine lodge. The artists are medicine men and the paintings are part of a healing ceremony. Colours are sifted through thumb and forefinger and the design is from memory. After the ritual the painting is destroyed.
North-West American Indian Art
Native American Indian art in the Northwest is embodied in the cultures of tribes like the Kwakiuti, Bella Coola, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit, living in the coastal areas of Oregon, Washington State and British Columbia. A highly expressive art of wood-carving developed amongst these peoples that ranks with the sculpture of the rest of the world in its variety and its stylistic vigour. Based on the Potlach feast that celebrated Nature’s abundance, a connected symbolism of totem poles displaying tribal, human and animal forms, often in heavy masks, was created. A visual vocabulary of animal eyes, ears, paws, tails and fins recalled past, present and future in one of the most elaborate rituals of the native Americans. The designs are highly abstracted, expressionist and vividly coloured. [To compare Native American Indian totem poles with the pole art of Africa, see: African Sculpture.] This powerful iconography is also present in Northwest Coast Transformation masks, blankets, baskets, bracelets and canoes. Northwest natives were also the first indigenous Americans to master metalcraft. Copper and iron (largely obtained from whaling ships) were fashioned into fighting knives, masks and tools. Further north, the Inuit culture (formerly known as Eskimo art and culture) was one of the most precariously balanced on the North American continent, hovering between subsistence and survival. However, ivory carving and wood sculpture, festival masks, sealskin and woven bags decorated with magical natural symbols, are all featured within the traditional types of art practised by the Inuit