Art of Indigenous American Cultures
In the United States, November is National Indigenous People’s Heritage month. First recognized in 1916, this month is meant to honor the amazing history and diversity of the first people to live on the land that now makes up the United States of America. To celebrate, I thought I would share some of the incredible artistic traditions from a variety of people. Of course, I can’t cover every single tribe, so I decided to break this post up by geographic region. I hope you enjoy this celebration of art and history! So to learn more, keep on reading.
The art of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest is most famous for its woodcarving, particularly through totem poles and masks. They often serve as a visual narrative, telling stories of ancestral legends, family histories, and spiritual teachings. Each carving is a meticulous blend of symbolism, reflecting the interconnectedness of the community and their surroundings.
This totem pole is known as K 'alyaan Totem Pole and it is located in Sitka, Alaska. It was carved in 1999 as a memorial to the fallen Tlingit clan members. They died fighting to defend their land from invading Russian forces in 1804. The various animals carved onto the totem pole represent different warriors and members of the clan who fought and gave their life to protect the land. It is a beautiful testament to their sacrifice.
Another prominent artistic craft for the people of the Pacific Northwest were masks. This example is known as the Mask of the Moon and was carved around 1880 by a member of the Nuxalk tribe. It is a large circle, measuring almost 4 feet in diameter! The face at the center represents the Moon or Tl’uk. It is surrounded by stylized images of a whale and two birds. The use of blue was likely used to represent the sky, the realm of the moon.
One of the most distinctive and enduring forms of Indigenous art in the Southwest is pottery. The Pueblo peoples, renowned for their exquisite pottery, have been creating ceramics for centuries, employing unique techniques such as coiling and polishing. Each piece tells a story, with intricate designs and symbols that often echo the natural world.
This storage jar was used by the ancestral Puebloan people of the American Southwest to store water. It dates from around the 11th century CE and stands at 15 inches tall. The jar itself is made of white clay and then it was painted with a slip made primarily of black iron and other dark minerals. The abstract design is one that is often seen on water storage vessels from this culture.
It is believed that this pattern is a representation of the water cycle. It falls from the sky and is collected in rivers and storage jars or into the ground. Eventually, it evaporates back into the sky to begin the cycle all over again. This is a statement on the importance of water conservation and management for the ancestral Puebloan people. For example, this vessel was found in New Mexico. This state only gets, on average, 13 inches of water a year.
In the Great Plains, one main artistic avenue was painting on animal hides. Many art historians believe that this tradition comes from a much earlier one involving petroglyphs or rock engravings. Whatever the medium was, these objects were used in conjunction with stories to create historical records for the different tribes.
This example of a hide painting is called Hide painting of the Sun Dance and dates to the last decade of the 19th century. It is attributed to Cotsiogo, a member of the Eastern Shoshone people. The figures are made with traditional pigments and western dyes, which were obtained through trade with the settlers. Sadly, it is believed that Cotsiogo created this work to sell to tourists to help support his people after they were forced from their homes and onto the Wind River Reservation in what is now Wyoming. Tourists to the area wanted “authentic Native merchandise” and were willing to pay for it.
This hide painting contains depictions of several dances important to the Eastern Shoshone people. They include the sacred Sun Dance, non-religious Wolf Dance, and the Grass Dance. Although the figures are fairly two dimensional, there is an incredible sense of movement. We can feel the importance of the rituals through their gestures. Tragically, the U.S. government outlawed the Sun Dance until 1935 because they were trying to remove access to indigenous cultures for the younger generations.
In the northeast, many of the indigenous artistic practices center around intricate beadwork. One beautiful example of this practice is this Shakhùkwiàn or man’s coat. It was crafted by an unknown woman of the Lenni Lenape/Delaware tribe around 1840. This coat is made of deerskin, which when used in clothing, has a texture similar to velvet. There are six layers of fringe for decoration and three layers of deerskin at the top that serves as a cape to provide extra warmth.
The beadwork on this coat are all jewel tones. This was used to set them off of the tan skin and white and indigo outlines. The designs are quite intricate and we could imagine how much time and effort it took the artist to sew them into the coat. In the Lenni Lenape/Delaware tribe (and other tribes of the Northeast), beadwork was used to symbolize spiritual and physical health and well-being.
These are just a few examples of the amazing art of indigenous people across North America. There are hundreds of tribes and cultures, each with their own unique style and beliefs. I highly recommend searching and learning about the ones in your area to celebrate and honor this month!
K 'Alyaan Totem Pole. CC 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Mask of the Moon. Seattle Art Museum
Socorro black-on-white storage jar. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Hide painting of the Sun Dance. Indian Arts Research Center, School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe
Shakhùkwiàn (Man’s Coat) © Charles and Valerie Diker Collection/Photo: Dirk Bakker. Via Met Museum