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North American Native art

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 Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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