Published on June 4, 2013 by Amy
Indian art is enjoying a renaissance in the realm of Indian arts and crafts, where many Indians, using traditional techniques and forms, have found reliable markets among both tourists and serious collectors; and in the realm of fine arts, where Indian painters and sculptors, in a burst of new esthetics that blend the traditional with the modern, have developed international reputations. Native North American culture in both the United States and Canada is a national treasure. Its renewal is everyone’s renewal.
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Art for Native North Americans was not an entity unto itself, but an integral part of other activities, whether in the creation and decoration of objects with strictly practical purposes, such as hunting and fishing equipment, or in the making of objects for ceremonial ends. Likewise, the dramatic arts were a function of religion and ritual. The Indians considered their rituals essential to their survival.
Contemporary Indians of the Southwest especially are known for their silver jewelry. The most well known three tribes are the Hopi, the Navajo and the Zuni with their typical designs. Hopis use the so-called overlay technique for their jewelry which characterizes the Hopi style. One of the hallmarks of Navajo jewelry is the extensive use of turquoise. Zuni artists are world renowned for their channel inlay patterns, they use turquoise and pipestone, and incorporate silver, jet, lapis lazuli, malachite and shells. (See more at “Indian Jewelry”)
Although Native North Americans had not entered what is called the Iron Age in other parts of the world, they made extensive use of metals in varying parts of the continent. The most extensive metallurgy occurred in Mesoamerica – beautiful craftsmanship in gold, silver, copper, zinc and tin – introduced from South America during the Classic age. In Postcontact times, the European influence brought metalwork to other peoples. Metal trade goods were highly valued, not just as efficient tools but also for the raw materials in them. By 1800, Iroquois peoples of the Northeast had mastered silverwork, and it soon spread to other parts of the continent.
Indians were masters of woodwork, especially in the heavily forested parts of the continent, such as the Northwest Coast. Among the many wood or bark objects of native North Americans were houses, boats, bows and arrows, shields, cradles, pipes, utensils, drums, masks and totem poles. After the introduction of iron tools by European traders, woodworking enjoyed a new burst of energy and expression.
At the center of Hopi and Zuni spiritual life are the Kachinas. Kachinas are considered to be supernatural beings, who live among the clouds and bring fertility and growth for the people. They also help in many of the everyday activities of the villages.
Kachina dolls are small carved and painted wooden sculptures, typically used in the Southwestern cultural area. They were made as toys for children and to represent the Kachina spirit. At the various ceremonies they appear in traditional costumes as masked impersonators.
Kachinas have a very special importance in the religion of the Hopis.
Pottery making was widespread among the Indians of North America. Only peoples of the Arctic, Subarctic, Northwest Coast, California and Columbia Plateau had little pottery. Two basic, virtually independent pottery areas are recognized – the Southwest and the East. In differing parts of these regions were found two basic pottery-making techniques – coiling, with a coil of clay built up from a base; and modeling and paddling, with clay placed over a jar mold, the potter turning the mold while patting the clay with a stone, than paddle. Sometimes the two techniques were combined. Various decorating methods were used: painting; stenciling; negative designing, which involved painting the background black; corrugation or smoothing the inside with the ridges of the coil showing on the outside; incising or scratching the wet clay; engraving or scratching the hard clay; impressing or pressing the soft clay with fingers, shells, or other objects; and stamping or tapping the soft clay with a throng-wrapped paddle. Native North Americans did not use the potter’s wheel until Postcontact times.
Native North Americans added design to their crafts through painting, dyeing, and engraving. They extracted their paints form a variety of raw materials – earth with iron ore for reds, yellow and browns; copper ore for green and blue; soot or graphite for black; and clay, limestone and gypsum for white -, and used them to decorate teepees, shields, pottery, ceremonial objects, etc. Body paint was also used for symbolic purposes, i.e. to indicate social position or an intent to make war. Indians extracted dyes from plant sources – berries, roots, barks – to color textiles, basket materials and quills. Different forms of expressions came to be highly developed in different parts of the continent – for example, pottery painting in the Southwest, animal skin painting on the Great Plains, wood engraving along the Northwest Coast, ivory engraving in the Arctic, and bark engraving in the Subarctic. In Indian society everyone participates in art to some extent. Painting, as an art is always a reflection of the Indian life.
The making of baskets was interrelated with that of textiles in a similar use of advanced weaving techniques. Native North Americans created hundreds of exquisite forms for a variety of purposes – carrying, storage, cooking, and other specialized applications, such as for fish traps or hats. Indians had three basic techniques for their basketwork. Plaited baskets have two elements crossing each other, a warp and a woof. Twined baskets have a set of vertical warps and two or more horizontal wefts that twine around each other as they weave in and out of the warps. Coiled baskets have thin strips of wood, fibers, leaves, or grass wrapped into a bundle and coiled into a continuous spiral. Some baskets were covered with resin to hold water.
In addition to animal skins, Indians also made clothing, blankets, bags and mats from woven fabrics. Plant fibers, such as the inner bark of cedar trees, and cultivated cotton, as well as wool from buffalo and other animals, served as the raw materials to make yarn. Only Indians of the Southwest had true looms. In postcontact times, Indians of the Southwest, especially the Navajos, raised sheep for wool. Navajo rugs are very famous for their special colorful designs and detailed artwork.
In postcontact times, starting about 1675, eastern Indians began working with European glass trade beads. From the East, the craft spread to other parts of the continent, especially those places where quill-work had been developed. Like quills, beads were applied in a variety of geometric and naturalistic designs on clothing, pouches, quivers, and other articles. Beadwork techniques included weaving and netting, plus spot-stitch and lazy-stitch sewing.