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:
and deer hide, to create new forms of
dress and other artifacts embellished with
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
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
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.
Questions or comments? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.