All too often, Indigenous people and people of color are left out of artistic conversations. With Thanksgiving approaching quickly, I began to ponder the fact that Native Americans are almost a forgotten element of Thanksgiving. It has slowly become about parades, mashed potatoes, and spending time with people you secretly hate but pretend to love. Alriiiight, so that last part might be a bit cynical, but still. Not only did Native Americans use art for many different purposes like storytelling and worship, they also believed that art was an integral part to life itself. With Native Americans getting lost in the mix, I have decided to create a post celebrating the Native American art that rarely gets recognized and give ‘em a little love.
Raven Effigy Pipe
The first piece that I have selected is a beautifully carved Raven effigy pipe, which was discovered in what is now known as Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Ohio. The pipe originates from Hopewell culture, which were different cultures and populations in the midwestern and northeastern United States that thrived from 200 BC to AD 500. The cultures were connected through trade routes, called the Hopewell exchange system. These artists crafted pipes from many different materials and potentially represented the spirit guides of the shaman who used them. The shaman would use the effigy pipe to induce a trance state that would assist them in healing rituals. Hundreds of these pipes have been discovered and are usually modeled after animals and occasionally humans. Effigy pipes show the true craftsmanship and artistry that Native Americans devoted to ceremonial items.
For the next one, I decided to focus on a traditional picture rather than a sculpture. For clarification, ledger art refers to Plains Native American drawings and paintings on cloth or paper. The term “ledger” originates from the fact that many of these drawings were created on pages of leger books. Kiowa were indigenous people of the Plains, who migrated from Montana to Colorado during the 17th and 18th centuries. This bit of Kiowa ledger art, possibly depicts the 1874 Buffalo Wallow battle. The art is characterized by bold lines and occasional blocks on solid color. An interesting tidbit about this particular medium is that men and women had different styles and focuses of their art. Women were known for abstract/geometric artwork whereas men painted more realistic events rooted in hunting or battles that were important to the tribe. Ledger art was an important way for Native Americans to record the world around them and preserve their legacy of victory and losses for future generations to come.
It would basically be a crime if I didn’t include sand painting since it really shows off just how innovative and unique Native American art can be. Created with found items such as pollen, flowers, and crushed stones; sand painting is truly an exquisite and fascinating Native American art form. To highlight this, sand paintings are called “places where gods come and go” and often depicted deities that were sacred. The paintings are characterized with colorful figures and shapes. Used mostly by the Navajo, sand painting was also important for ceremonial healing purposes. Native Americans believed that the sand painting ritual restores the rightful harmony of the forces of life, which in turn acts as a healing force for the patient. It is amazing to think of the power that Native Americans felt they could achieve through art!
Another enchanting form of expression used by Native Americans is totem poles. Towering above, the bright colors and bold shapes of totem poles demand respect and admiration from anyone who encounters them. Originating from Northwest Coast tribes, totem poles are one of the most iconic and recognizable examples of Native American art. The poles often depict animals such as the killer whale, eagle, and bear as well as people. Unlike some of the other art forms that are discussed in this article, they are are not used for ceremonial purposes. Rather, one use for the poles was similar to family crests, representing the history and heritage of families. Another unique use for totem poles is the shame pole was used to shame an individual who had done wrongdoing. The pole would be taken down once they offender made amends, but I guess a little public humiliation can go a long way in the eyes of Native Americans.
The last medium that this article will cover is weaving and blanket making. Though this was used for obvious practical purposes, Native Americans showcased their talent and skill through weaving. The Navajo created rugs, blankets, and clothes that are characterized with strong geometric patterns and a mostly muted color palette. Like the totem poles, woven items do not have religious significance, but does have significance in Navajo cosmology. One example of this is that a spiritual being named “Spider Woman” taught Navajo women how to build the first loom.
It is impossible to cover all of the exquisite art that Native Americans created. The meanings behind some of these items are so sacred and deep, it creates a very helpful insight into the world and history of the Native Americans. With Thanksgiving ~looming~ in the near future, I hope that this article helped you gain some knowledge and appreciation for the artistic legacy that Native Americans have left behind.