Native American Art History

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  • 0:03 Native American Art History
  • 0:46 Petroglyphs & Plains…
  • 1:39 Quillwork, Beadwork &…
  • 2:38 Pottery, Basketry & Weaving
  • 4:30 Flutes, Pipes & Totems
  • 5:59 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

Native American art history gives us a glimpse of the world as it was thousands of years ago. This lesson focuses on the earliest forms of Native American art and the relationship to art today, covering hide painting, quillwork, totems, and several other art forms.

Native American Art History

In all Native American art, the artist strives for balance, harmony, beauty, and order. The designs and symbols were often forms of communication or a way to honor the gods. However, the types of art created by Native Americans differ by the geographic area and lifestyle of the particular tribe.

Sedentary groups might make practical art like baskets and pottery, while nomadic groups may express art through transportable items like elaborately designed buffalo skins used for clothing or tipis. As the traditional way of life and livelihoods changed, many tribes began to sell their baskets, pottery, blankets, beadwork, and jewelry to provide income for their families.

Petroglyphs & Plains Hide Painting

Petroglyphs, or rock carvings, are a very early form of art. Northwest of Reno, Nevada, near the dried up Lake Winnemucca are the earliest known petroglyphs in America. These rock carvings are believed to be between 10,500 and 14,800 years old and feature repeating designs of dots and swirls. Archeologists believe that many of the petroglyphs are a means of recording events.

For the nomadic tribes of the plains, all possessions had to be portable. To honor their gods, they painted elaborate designs on buffalo hides. These hides were then made into everything from tipis, clothing, and robes to drums and shields. Men painted symbols of battles or hunts while women painted geometric designs. The Lakota also used hide painting to create Winter Counts, which were pictorial histories of tribes.

Quillwork, Beadwork, & Sand Painting

Porcupine quillwork is the oldest type of Native American embroidery, made by the tribes of the Great Plains. Porcupine quills were dried, flattened, and dyed with plants, berries, and lichens and then arranged into designs and stitched to buffalo hide clothing, moccasins, medicine bags, jewelry, war shirts, and horse blankets. Frequently, materials such as shells and animal teeth were also added into the designs. Later, more colorful glass beads obtained from European traders were assimilated.

Navajo healers use sand paintings in their healing ceremonies. The sand paintings are retellings of the memories of the traditional healers and are created to invoke the Spirit to cure illnesses. These ceremonial sand paintings are destroyed when the ceremony is over to represent the temporary nature of the work.

By the 1950s the artists learned to glue the sand to boards in order to market the sand paintings. This has preserved the beauty of the art for everyone to enjoy.

Pottery, Basketry, & Weaving

By the third century C.E., the sedentary, agricultural Anasazi tribes of the southwestern United States were making pottery as storage containers for grains, seeds, water gathering, and food preparation. Some pieces were also used for ceremonial events. Dry lumps of clay were dug up, soaked, and cleaned, making the clay shapeable. Pottery was hand built from coils and then finished by scraping and polishing the surface until it was smooth. Decorative designs and natural pigments were added, and the pot was pit-fired using dung as fuel.

Basketry was also needed by agricultural tribes for storage containers, and baskets from ancient Southwestern tribes have been identified as almost 8,000 years old. Some baskets were woven in the rib style, where the ribs form a skeleton of sorts for the horizontal bands to weave over and under. Others are woven coil style, where a bundle of twigs, pine needles, or grass is bundled into a core 'snake' while additional fibers are wrapped around the coil and stitched together. Designs incorporate symbols that are often linked to nature.

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