North American Arts: Plains

The Plains peoples were to a large extent hunters and gatherers, dependent primarily on the great herds of buffalo and deer found in the grasslands of the prairie. These animals provided food, and the raw materials for shelter, clothing, and tools. They were also, therefore, the center of religious beliefs. Life for the early hunters of the plains was hard, however, and allowed little time or resources for decorative objects or artwork. This changed with the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century. The first explorers to land on the Gulf Coast brought horses, which were left behind. With no natural predators, and the endless grasslands of the plains, the horse quickly proliferated. For the plains hunters, the horse enormously improved the standard of living, bringing about a golden age of Plains culture, in the two centuries before European settlement brought an end to their independence and life style.

This golden age saw an explosion of decorative arts, working as always primarily with the raw materials provided by the hunt: buffalo and deer hide, to create new forms of dress and other artifacts embellished with quillwork and painting. Decoration tended to be geometric rather than figurative. However, following contact with European other forms and functions in decoration began to appear. These included painted robes that recorded tribal or personal histories. Ceremonial objects such as medicine bags and pipes, carved from the special red stone found in only one location, were typical, and functional articles such as clothing, weapons and tools were also beautifully embellished. The arrival of the Europeans introduced new materials, such as beads, which eventually replaced quillwork; and cloth, which gradually replaced skins.

North American Arts: Mississippian

The Mississippian culture was probably the most advanced society that arose in North America. This culture peaked before the arrival of Europeans, and its remains can be seen all along the Mississippi River basin, particularly in the southern United States. This was a city-building society, supported by agriculture, and marked by the building of pyramid-like mounds. The mounds supported buildings, either the residences of the ruler, or temples. The mounds and other artifacts suggest a relationship with the great pre-Columbian civilizations of Central America. Carvings in stone, metal tools and ceremonial artifacts, and fragments of textiles also share imagery with Central American sources. For more information about the Mississippian culture, follow this link.

North American Arts: Southwest

The people of the Southwest also show affinities with Central and South American civilizations. The Anasazi, a people who dominated the region as much as a thousand years ago, are also related to the Acoma and Hopi people, who still live in the region. These people are agricultural, and their religious practices involve a complex cycle of ceremonials, secret societies, and permanent towns in which extended families live communally. Their agriculture centers around corn, squash, and amaranth (a grain). These and images associated with weather, sky, and the creatures of the desert, dominate their art. The use of masks and effigies (Kachina) is important to their ceremonials. Geometric designs were used to represent the forces of nature, and the objects of everyday experience. Beautifully painted earthenware, and finely patterned baskets are also characteristic products of Southwestern peoples. The weaving of textiles, both cotton and wool, was important to all southwestern cultures. Cotton was also used by the Anasazi, and is evidence of their affiliation with the Central American cultures.

Wool, however, was only available after the Spanish introduced sheep to the Americas. The Navaho (who are related to the Apache people rather than the Anasazi-Hopi) became sheepherders and weavers after they migrated to the Southwest. Spanish influence in Southwest Native American Arts can be seen in the development of figurative motifs and elaborated patterns and color schemes in textiles and pottery.

North American Arts: Northwest Coast

The Northwest Coast, from Oregon to Alaska, is home to a group of cultures that live in settled communities, and live by fishing, farming, and hunting. Wooden houses, elaborately decorated, are shared by extended families. Religious ceremonials center around the spirits of nature, particularly those embodied in the animals and birds which figure prominently in folk tales, and serve as totems or spiritual guardians of the clan. Ancestors are revered, and descent is carefully traced back to the founding totem spirit. A distinctive feature of their ceremonials is the potlatch, in which a feast is held by a prominent individual, at which he gives away all his wealth to his guests. Such gift-giving feasts confer prestige and power on the giver.

Wood is abundant, and weaving is also done, using the wool of mountain goats and cedar bark fibers.The totem pole, a visual history of the clan, is probably the best known artifact of the Northwest coast Native Americans. The Carved panels that decorate the exterior and interior of houses feature stylized faces, birds, and animals in a bold graphic style. Similar images can be seen in the woven garments and capes made for high status individuals and potlatch gifts. The blankets or robes of the Chilkat people of British Columbia are particularly well known. This site shows further examples of Northwest Coast arts.

These graphic designs are similar to designs seen in early ceramics and bronzes from China. These people settled this region at an early date, but there is strong evidence of contact with Japanese and South Chinese seafarers beginning as early as 2500 B.C.

This link will take you to a list of Nortwest Coast Native American art images.

North American Arts: Influence

The influence of Native American art on mainstream arts in the United States is difficult to document, since to a large extent Native American culture has been either suppressed or coopted by the dominant society. Yet Native American visual ideas permeate the design vocabulary of this country. Prior to the 1890's, Native Americans were still feared as possible adversaries. Native American arts were considered primitive curiosities, and not valued. Once the Indians were safely contained on reservations, however, a nostalgic interest in Indian artifacts emerged.

Navaho rugs, originally woven as garments and body coverings, became the most well known of Native American arts. At the turn of the century, the trading posts of the Navaho reservations developed a substantial business in Navaho rugs. The Arts and Crafts Style, first developed in England, was modified in the United States, and became known as the Mission style. The style in the U.S. became associated with the characteristics of the Hispanic and Native American cultures that flavored New Mexico, Arizona, and California. As a result, the use of Native American artifacts, particularly rugs, baskets, and pots, became very fashionable in the first quarter of this century.

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