The Native American development of art through history

February 29, 2008


If you want to learn about the Northern Indian culture, it is important for you to know about their previous history. Their past shapes their present ways of living, which also includes their culture. Which means the main questions is; how do they live today compare to how they lived before? What has European invasion done to the Native Indian population and culture?

North America, Northwest Coast, Makah Basket, 20th century.

As many other native cultures worldwide, the Native Indian tribes have been reduced, some of them destroyed by European settlers. The Indian tribes are, and have always been, as diverse as the vast land in which they live. Even from the very start they have been in interaction with nature, and spiritual devices. The tribes today have experienced a growing extinction and have fewer than 50 members per each tribe, which before flourished during the twentieth century to more than 50.000 members.


The Native American art was simple. Typical examples of art are pottery, wall-paintings, jewellery, clothing, religious masks and other functional things. They had a tight relationship with nature, on a both functional and spiritual level. The early Native American art that was made, was not made for its own sake, unlike Europeans. The form and decoration of handmade objects evolved out of daily needs and spiritual beliefs over thousands of years. Art, beauty, and spirituality are so intertwined in the daily life of traditional Native Americans that it is nearly impossible to speak of them separately. They used natural materials as stone, feathers, roots, grass, fur and such. They expressed their Native Americans’ way of living was shaped by their spiritual beliefs. Most Native people believed that they were connected to every other element of creation. Each animal, tree, or rock had its own spirit through which an individual could establish contact with the spirit world. The survival and well-being of Native people was dependent on maintaining harmony with the earth. Many contemporary Native people continue to hold these traditional beliefs. As well as art, the Indians wrote poetry. This is an example of a Night Chant, written by a Navajo-tribe. It clearly shows a Native’s vision of beauty related to Nature.

Beauty before me, I walk with.
Beauty behind me, I walk with.
Beauty above me, I walk with.
Beauty below me, I walk with.
Beauty all around me, I walk with.


When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, he described the natives (who were mistakenly dubbed as “Indians”) as “gentle, sweet, mannerly, and decorous”. However, their generosity tolerance for group ownership of land, other religions and different social customs were seen as a weakness. When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they were welcomed by the native tribes. However, the natives were shocked and confused by their guests’ insatiable lust to own the land, as the concept of owing the land as an individual did not exist to the Indians. The following years were rough. The Indians disgusted the colonist’s use of land, and they started kidnapping settlers. Among those hostages was John Smith. A legend says that Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, successfully pleaded her father to spare Smith’s life. Recognizing? 


There are several big wars were the Natives fought the settlers and Europeans. Even since the settlers came, the natives has been dominated and depressed. The natives gathered several tribes and attacked the European settlers, claiming their goods and way of life back. The famous Indian wars lasted between 1860 and 1890. The loss of land and people were expressed in the art developed throughout the years. 


The picture to the left is an example from the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina. It shows a weeping wooden sculpture, which is a typical piece of art made by natives. They use clear expressions and large facial qualities. The message is not hard to interpret. The conflict kept going on, so did their art. The art developed throughout the years, and more expressive sculptures was made as more and more natives were killed.

The US government primarily tricked and forced the Indians by convincing tribes to sign over 300 treaties until 1871. By 1887 so many tribes had been given land within Indian Territory that the US government policy was changed. From now on they granted land to individual tribe members rather than the tribe as a group. This led to further separation they became more dissolved from each other. They sent the native children into schools where their motto was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” As an organized effort the Native Americans seeked spiritual help by dancing and performing ceremonies, which resulted with banning. Within 1924 the Indians within the United States were made citizens. Indians fought in both World Wars, and participated in the fight of rights in the 1960’s. Even in the 1970’s there were protests in Washington where they called for a return to original treaty promises and gunfights.

When the natives came in contact with the European and Modern world, they also upgraded their tools and got a lot of influence. Among other things, they started painting more realistic and detailed paintings and started living more like modern citizens. The art from 20th century clearly shows a change from decoration of potteries and walls to portraits of Native Chiefs.  


Painting made by a Native American from the late 1800s.

 Today, the native people are a part of the Modern America. Still, they have continued to maintain their identities, rituals, traditions and art as tribal people. There are some over 2,4 million Native Americans still living in the US, and about 550 reservations and others live in cities and rural areas. The Native Americans still live in contact with their spiritual mind and nature. Keeping their culture at a native level has made their music and art famous all over the world. Among other things, they are the creators of the dream catcher, the spiritual eagle (and other symbolic animals) and the famous totem poles which are famous elements in modern art and shops. They express themselves in colours, which they use in clothing, body art and paintings. Still in open markets, such as the famous Native American art’s market in Santa Fe, you can buy or purchase bits of their culture.

As a summary, it is clear that their culture has changed and developed through the years. However, they have maintained their old fashion of expressing themselves. Being a Native American means living only on basic needs, loving all living things around you, mother earth and yourself. They focus on the beauty in all living things. Even their famous tents (also named Tepees) are built with a simple structure. As well as before, their art often shows still life and scenes from their daily life. We believe as a culture, the Native Americans have a lot to offer, and even more. We absolutely recommend to someday exploring this culture on your own, or just live in their world for a few minutes by listening to their music, explore their food and such. Their way of living is fascinating and inspiring for other citizens and for those who is great connected to the Modern World.

So, all in all, I hope you have learned a bit of one of the most famous cultures in the world.      


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