Published on July 4, 2011 by Amy
In the 1800s, westward expansion drove settlers to the Pacific Coast. When they reached the Northwest, where Washington and Oregon are today, they noticed Native Americans would place large poles in their villages. The poles were decorated, carved and painted, frequently with the shapes of animals on them. Soon these poles, totems, became some of the most widely recognized forms of Native American Art.
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Today totems are still produced, but are generally just for tourists and Native American enthusiasts. Other Native American art is still widely purchased today, including masks, wampum and pottery.
In the past, Native Americans from the Northwest United States and Canada would cut down trees, remove excess branches and then carve them into totem poles. Some totem poles stretched as high as 40 high feet, but most were shorter, around two- to three-feet tall. Native American carved pictures identifying local tribes and beliefs on the poles. Frequently, carvers used animals on the totems. Because Native Americans used mostly red cedar, the totems tended to disintegrate easily in the Northwest’s rainy environment. Totems are still produced today, and their production has increased since Westerners introduced new wood-carving tools.
Masks serve many purposes in Native American life. They are used in ceremonies. Others are given as gifts. Each one is typically handcrafted and elaborately painted. Many feature the designs of animals. Each animal has its own characteristics, and the mask’s wearer tends to embody the animal in some way. Every Native American tribe has its own clan animals, which also influences the masks’ design. The masks are made out of local wood and decorated with fur, feather and straw.
Forget cash dollars. For centuries, Native Americans in the Northeastern United States traded wampum, jewelry crafted from shells. Today, wampum jewelry is sold to tourists, and the production method is mechanized. But hundreds of years ago, Native Americans would collect brightly colored shells and use hand drills to create shell beads. The beads were hollow, and then artists strung and sewed the beads together into jewelry. Artists created belts, necklaces and bracelets. Other artists simply strung beads into a colorful design on a long band.
Today we use pottery as home décor. But for Native Americans, pottery designs began as a necessity. Pottery was a place to store goods for the fall and winter. Designs and construction methods differ by tribe. Artists would use local supplies and based designs on clan beliefs. The wood-gathering tribes traditionally did not make as much pottery.