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Native American art is as varied in medium and style as the tribes that produce it. There are more than 330 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States and each has its own unique artistic culture. Many tribes are known for basketry while others are exceptional weavers, beaders, potters, jewelry makers or carvers. A tribe’s traditional colors, patterns and symbols help distinguish its work from that of other Native American nations.
Basketry is a Native American art that also has a practical purpose. One of the oldest Native American arts, basketry is practiced by a majority of tribes that weave with whatever material is native to the land. The Cherokee and other southeastern tribes weave with split river cane, tribes from the Great Lakes region use sweet grass or black ash, and Native Americans from California perfected the coil basket made with willow, sumac or basket rush. Patterns and symbols unique to each tribe can be woven into the baskets as decoration and materials are commonly dyed for a colorful effect.
Carvings of animals, masks and important tribal symbols are a common Native American art. The Inuit of Alaska can carve detailed works in soapstone such as a polar bear or seal. A hand carved Formica could be associated with the Hopewell tradition. The recognizable totem poles are large sculptures normally carved from cedar trees by tribes of the Pacific Northwest and serve to narrate important events or represent a tribe’s powers. Additionally, mask carving is a tradition of many tribes including the Cherokee, which make booger and effigy masks from gourds or copper. Masks are important elements in dances and other ceremonies.
Some tribes have a storied tradition of textile or fabric art. Navajo women weave rugs from wool with designs that can be abstract and that may reflect Persian and Spanish influences. Some Navajo weavers such as Clara Sherman have received national acclaim. Some prairie tribes practice a sophisticated applique technique with ribbon used to decorate ceremonial clothing. Ribbon, some with shapes cut out, is layered and secured with thread to create a multicolored design. Colorful shawls are also made using ribbon work.
The Native American pottery tradition dates back to well before the arrival of Europeans. Pottery is traditionally made by hand and fired in a shallow pit covered with brush. Pottery can be simple and practical or decorative and elaborate. Human and animal effigy pots are common works in Native American art. Ollas, large unglazed and round pots with wide openings, are still produced for sale to collectors by Southwest tribes.
Basically, there are numerous forms of Native America art just as diverse as the many different cultures the art represents.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the main categories of Native American art?
Native American art encompasses a wide array of forms, primarily categorized into visual arts, performance arts, and storytelling. Visual arts include pottery, basketry, textile weaving, beadwork, and jewelry, while performance arts cover music, dance, and ceremonial activities. Storytelling, an integral part of Native American culture, is expressed through oral traditions, pictographs, and symbols that often accompany other art forms.
How does Native American pottery vary among different tribes?
Native American pottery is distinguished by regional and tribal styles, materials, and techniques. For instance, Pueblo pottery from the Southwest is known for its polished and painted earthenware, while the Iroquois of the Northeast are recognized for their ash splint baskets. Each tribe's pottery reflects its unique cultural heritage, with variations in clay composition, firing methods, and decorative motifs.
What is the significance of beadwork in Native American cultures?
Beadwork is a highly valued art form among Native American tribes, serving both aesthetic and communicative purposes. It is used to create intricate patterns on clothing, accessories, and ceremonial objects, often conveying social status, tribal identity, and spiritual beliefs. Beadwork designs can be symbolic, representing stories, clan affiliations, or natural elements, and are crafted with immense skill and patience.
Can you explain the role of textiles in Native American art?
Textiles in Native American art are not only practical but also carry deep cultural significance. Woven items like blankets, rugs, and clothing often feature complex patterns and colors specific to a tribe or region. For example, Navajo rugs are renowned for their intricate designs and use of natural dyes. These textiles are a form of artistic expression and are sometimes used in trade or as ceremonial gifts.
How has Native American art influenced contemporary art and culture?
Native American art has significantly influenced contemporary art and culture, with its aesthetics, motifs, and techniques being incorporated into modern art forms. Artists of Native American descent and others inspired by their traditions continue to explore and reinterpret these cultural expressions. This cross-pollination has led to a broader appreciation and understanding of Native American art's richness and diversity in the global art scene.