Art, Indian

views updated Jun 11 2018


ART, INDIAN. Although day-to-day existence took precedence over artistic endeavors, Native Americans beautified even mundane objects in some manner. Artifacts found in burial mounds of the eastern Woodland tribes show that pottery vessels, made for holding liquids or storing food, were both useful and ornamental. Bowls and jars were decorated with relief, achieved by textured stamps or carved by paddles. These tribes also molded bowls into shapes of birds, fish, reptiles, or human heads, which may have had mythological significance. Carved shells were used to ornament the nose, ears, and wrists. Several frequent designs carved on this early jewelry were birds, spiders, serpents, the cross (probably directional), and the scalloped disk for the sun.

Art of the Plains Indians, who were semi-sedentary before the introduction of European horses, centered on pictographic displays painted on hides used for tipis and clothing. These flat dimensional pictures served mnemonic purposes and often depicted special events.

Indians of the northwest coast carved totem poles that towered above their longhouses. Abundant forests provided the raw material for the poles, as well as for highly decorated watertight wooden boxes and elaborately carved wooden masks, used to disguise the wearer, helping him or her to capture the spirit of supernatural beings. The totems carved on the poles and the masks depicted animals or supernatural animals, such as the thunderbird, in unconventional forms. Flat-dimensioned animal body parts were not necessarily anatomically arranged. The Indians also carved totems on bones and tusks.

In Alaska's arctic regions, long winter nights allowed the Indians to decorate their tools and clothing, and sometimes just for pleasure they made toys and games out of animal bones. Their elaborate ceremonial masks rivaled

those of the northwest coast Indians, and Indian women wore intricate finger masks for ceremonial dances.

The sedentary lifestyle of the southwest Indians led to their developing advanced skills in making pottery, jewelry, baskets, and woven cloth. Different tribes could be recognized by their specialized decorations. Geometric designs, spirals, dots, frets, bands, bars, zigzags, and terraced figures graced the pottery of the Pueblo tribes. The Hopis stylized birds so that individual species could not always be identified. The Zunis used triangles, open circles, coils, diamonds, arches, and scrolls. Their ceremonial masks were easily identified by rolled collars of feathers.

Following the arrival of Europeans, the Navajos borrowed weaving techniques from the Pueblos, but instead of using cotton, they used wool from recently acquired sheep, weaving from the bottom up on upright looms. Sometimes the weaver drew intricate patterns in the sand, but usually she kept the design in her memory. The Navajos were also known for their unique sand paintings using different-colored sand and gravel. Large paintings required several painters as well as an artist to grind the colors. Generally used in healing ceremonies, the sand painting was made between dawn and sunset and was destroyed after its use.

With the arrival of Europeans, Indian art gradually changed from utilitarian to commercial. Indians adopted European tools and materials. Indians in the east sold baskets made from wood splints, instead of baskets woven from thin grass fibers. The Navajos also made blankets in serape style for soldiers.

The arts and crafts movement in the late nineteenth century, coupled with the growth of tourism, led to an increased interest in Indian art. In actuality though, Indians were not practicing their traditional arts, but were producing new art strictly for sale. Once consumers put Navajo blankets on floors, the Navajos adapted the idea and changed their rugs, which became their dominant product. Pueblo Indians manufactured ashtrays, candlesticks, and figurines instead of their traditional bowls and jars. California Indians adapted their basketry tradition to this modern marketplace as well. This commercialism sparked the debate about what in Indian art was valuable as fine art, what was valuable as craft, and what was valuable as ethnographic history.

Western art techniques were taught alongside traditional practices at Indian schools, especially those in Oklahoma and New Mexico. With drawings on paper and canvas, Indians made their art forms more comprehensible to non-Indians. Yet, they also incorporated elements of traditional forms.

In 1939, the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco featured Indian art; in 1941, the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited Indian art on three floors and drew attention to Indian art. From 1946 to 1979, the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, held juried competitions for Indian art. The competitions set

the standard for what was considered Indian art—a flat, pictorial style.

Indian artists Oscar Howe, Joe Herrera, and Allan Houser led the way into the modern period. By exploring form and content, they captured the spirit and mythical traditions of their people through abstractions and modern mediums. A force in this development was the establishment in 1962 of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In 1989, the National Museum of the American Indian was established within the Smithsonian Institution with exhibition facilities designated for New York and Washington, D.C. Other museums that feature major displays of Indian art include the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, California.


Berlo, Janet C., and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Naylor, Maria, ed. Authentic Indian Designs: 2,500 Illustrations from Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. New York: Dover, 1975.

Taylor, Colin F., ed. Native American Arts and Crafts. London: Salamander Books, 1995.

Whiteford, Andrew Hunter. North American Indian Arts. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.

Veda BoydJones

See alsoDance, Indian ; Indian Oral Literature ; Music: Indian ; National Museum of the American Indian ; Tribes: Southwestern ; andvol. 9:Land of the Spotted Eagle .

Indian Art

views updated Jun 11 2018


INDIAN ART. SeeArt, Indian .