Tribal Art

Published on September 8, 2011 by Amy

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Good Old Buffalo Days, by Donel E. Keeler
Good Old Buffalo Days
by Donel E. Keeler

If your understanding about Native American tribal art is a row of totem poles, or perhaps a set of turquoise jewelry, it is time to think again.

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It is true that some northern tribes made great use of totem poles as an art form; and there are, indeed, some southwestern peoples who focus on producing breathtaking turquoise and silver jewelry. However, the differences in Native American tribal art are as varied as the artists who create them. It is also important to recognize that tribal art is not only historical; there are many Native American artists who continue to create gorgeous tribal art as both recreation and industry.

Art as Symbols

Most Native American tribal art is created as symbols for an idea, an event, or a religious purpose. Because many tribes see the earth as a spiritual plane, they might create artwork that uses animals or geographic formations as a focal point. For example, a blanket might feature an eagle and a bear, or a tapestry may be an interpretation of a local mountain range.

While certainly not every tribal art creation has a deeper spiritual meaning, most Native American artists use their work to relay an understanding about the inter-connectedness of all living things.


Because Native American tribes live in such diverse climates, many artisans will use materials that are of practical use in the area. Tribes in colder climates may specialize in creating lovely woven blankets that tell a story or memorialize an event by using symbols of that particular group. Native American artists use dyed material to make colorful blankets that can also serve household purposes in the winter season.

Another specialty of northern tribes throughout history is the unique art median of the totem pole. These totem poles would most often tell stories, or might even memorialize the entire life of a great warrior. Faces of animals or people were clearly carved, and often wings were added to the top of the pole.

No discussion of Native American tribal art would be complete without mentioning the unique pottery of many of the Southwestern tribes. These bowls and mugs are painted and dyed with symbols of animals or spiritual icons; and these pieces of pottery can be used not only for ceremonial purposes, but are also a practical household item.

Finally, many Native American tribal art is made using the medium of basket weaving. In traditional eras, these brightly weaved items were used to transport fruits and vegetables, but today most buyers will preserve these pieces for display purposes only.

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Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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