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Native American Crafting History
Native American crafts are, of course, an important part of Native American culture. Their crafts are a reflection of their history and traditions. These crafts have been used for centuries to tell the story of their past, present, and future. They have been used to communicate with others and preserve knowledge.
Beadwork, for example, tells the story of ancestors and freedom. They were able to escape through their beadwork in the same way. In contrast, lace is a symbol of togetherness and love. The pattern tells a story of past lives and future possibilities.
Whether you're interested in the beadwork of the Hopi, the sand paintings of the Navajo, or the silversmithing of the Navajo, this article will give you a brief history of these indigenous cultures' crafts.
This article will cover the various types of Native artworks, including beadwork, ledger art, and sandpaintings. Navajo silversmithing is perhaps the best-known form of American Indian silversmithing, but you can explore these and other styles by reading on.
Native Art Styles Covered in This Article
- Ledger Art
- Sand Painting
- Navajo Silversmithing
- Navajo Ceramics
- Kiowa Tipi
- Totem Poles
The history of Native American crafts has long been intertwined with the culture of the United States. Although many of these crafts originated as tribal traditions, they have experienced many changes over the years. In particular, the use of beadwork has changed from an exclusively utilitarian activity to one that is a highly decorative art form. During the period after World War I, there was a trend to blend tribal differences in clothing and beadwork.
Further, before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans created and foraged their own materials for beads. Such materials included carved bone, shell, copper, quill, and stone. Two types of shells—dentalium and marine—were highly prestigious in the eyes of Native Americans, and were used by various tribes to settle disputes, symbolize political office, and validate agreements.
It wasn't until the arrival of European colonists that materials such as glass and ceramic were introduced as materials for beadwork. Much of these beads came from Venice, Holland, and even Poland and Czechoslovakia at later times. While they became fairly popular items with the Native Americans, the use of traditional, pre-colonial materials persisted.
While Native American beadwork was initially performed using large beads, they later realized that using smaller beads allowed them to create more intricate designs with a wider palette. This ease of use led to an explosion in the use of beadwork throughout North America. Traders flocked to the region to satisfy the demand. Today, beadwork remains popular as an art form, even though many tribes no longer use it.
Beadwork employs many different weaving techniques. Begin your journey into traditional beadwork with the video below.
Traditional Navajo Jewelry-Making: Tools and Materials
2. Ledger Art
You can explore the role of rock art in the history of Native Americans. Native American artists used rock art to create stunning objects, including pottery and jewelry. The image of the sunstone is widely known in the modern world, as it is featured on the Mexican 20-peso gold coin.
The earliest Native American art has roots in prehistoric times, as nomadic peoples inhabited the Americas thousands of years ago. Between 1200 and 1500 BCE, descendants of these peoples began to establish villages. They created everything from baskets to blankets, from clothing and headdresses to weapons and armor. These people created a wide range of beautiful objects using wood, stone, animal skin, and clay.
The 19th century saw the forced relocation of many Native Americans to reservations, and the resulting upheavals changed their culture and their art. As a result, some people believe that Native art of this time is less authentic and less valuable because of European influences. While there may be some merit to this idea, the history of this art form should be understood in its entirety. There is a great deal of history in Native American Indian crafts and their significance for the people of the Americas, and colonial period artwork is no exception.
Ledger art is one of the most beautiful forms of Native art to coincide and be made partly possible by the forced relocation of Plains tribes to U.S. government reservations. This form of art has its roots in the Plains tribes' traditional paintings on animal hides (most notably buffalo). Such paintings often expressed themes such as tribal hunting, territorial battles, and cosmic iconography.
During the mass reduction and relocation of the Plains tribes from 1860 to 1900, many Native Americans were first introduced to ledger paper, a form of high-quality paper used by bookkeepers. Native artists utilized this medium, as well as the plethora of new and easily available colors, to create a new form of art: ledger art. Ledger artists also employed new drawing/painting utensils in their work, such as crayons, colored pencils, and water coloring brushes. (Traditionally, sticks and bones were sharpened and crafted into the brushes used on animal hide.)
Further, ledger art continues to this day as an important form of Native art. For an example of contemporary ledger artists producing fine artworks today, read the following interview with John Pepion and Chris Pappan:
3. Sand Painting
Sandpainting is a traditional ancient art form of the Native American Indians. Traditionally, sandpaintings were done on the ground, but now artists are also creating them on paper. It's an art form that is meant to be temporary, as the painting only lasts for about two weeks before it fades away. Today it can be seen all over the world and is a popular art form for the rich sense of pre-colonization.
Interestingly, sand painting was originally used primarily for religious reasons and was not of serious aesthetic interest. That said, it was still considered an artwork and held important symbolic significance. Sand paintings are created by trickling crushed and colored charcoal, pollen, sandstone, and other materials onto an area of smoothed, cleaned sand.
These paintings were primarily used in healing ceremonies. The person-to-be-healed would sit in the center of the completed sand painting, some of the colored sand would be applied to afflicted areas of the body, and then, at the ritual's close, the painting would often be destroyed.
Sand Painting Example
4. Navajo Silversmithing
Navajo silversmithing is an ancient, traditional art form that originated on the Navajo Reservation. The first silversmith was Atsidi Sani, who also learned to work silver from Spanish settlers. His skills led to an entire line of silver jewelry on the Navajo reservation by the 1880s. His students eventually included Atsidi Chon, who taught his sons and others.
In 1852, Lanyade paid Atsidi Chon with a horse to learn the craft. Atsidi Chon continued teaching silversmiths from the Zuni, who had already developed their own skills in making copper, brass, and iron. By 1890, there were four generations of silversmiths in Navajo communities.
Eventually, Navajo silversmiths learned other construction methods. They could shape the silver by pounding it into dyes, greatly expanding the range of jewelry designs. But perhaps their greatest technical accomplishment was the development of soldering, which allowed the smiths to construct more intricate pieces. This new technique also enabled early smiths to set stones into the silver. Probably in the late 1870s, the first Navajo silversmiths were able to do this, marking the start of the Southwestern Indian jewelry tradition. Something that is still thriving in niche marketplaces such as Etsy.
Hopi silversmiths use an overlay method. This technique involves cutting out a design on the top layer of silver and overlaying it on another. Then, the two layers of silver are soldered together, oxidized, and polished. This process creates a unique aesthetic and durability. Moreover, Hopi silversmiths rarely use stones in their jewelry. In addition to the inlay technique, Zuni silversmiths often make jewelry with stone and shell inlay.
5. Navajo Ceramics
Navajo ceramics originated in the southwest of North America, where Spanish explorers first came across the native people. Navajo ceramics, as well as woven materials, started as simple consumer goods for trade but later evolved into vibrant works of art. Today, over 100,000 Navajos live in northern Arizona's Navajo County. Navajo arts and crafts continue to flourish as they showcase their earth-toned pottery.
The Navajos have been making pottery for over 1000 years, and a plethora of pieces are available for sale. The art is still thriving today, with non-Southwestern tribes recovering their ceramic heritage. The traditional designs of Hopi pottery can be found in the work of Diego Romero, a contemporary Pueblo ceramic artist and printmaker.
In addition to traditional patterns and colors, Romero's designs incorporate geometric patterns found in ancient Mimbres pottery but in a cartoonish style. The Navajos have adapted their traditional art to suit their new lifestyle. They use a variety of materials to create their pottery. Before embracing the use of coral, Native artists used spiny oyster shells.
The earliest Navajo pottery used only simple geometrical designs and was likely created for everyday uses. Later Navajo weavers have claimed to borrow some of their patterns from the ancient geometrical patterns of such pottery.
Pueblo Pottery With Diego Romero
6. Kiowa Tipi
The Kiowa people lived in tepees, cone-shaped tents made of sturdy wooden poles. The entrance was small and always faced east. Tepees varied in size according to how many people lived in them. The largest tepees measured 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter. Each tepee was decorated with a unique design and housed four or five people.
Kiowa warriors painted their tepees, often to match the designs on their shields. honored warriors created depictions on their tepees which reenacted their exploits in hunting and battles. Important families also developed tepee imagery that was unique to their lineage. Over time, such artwork came to have the same significance that the Medieval coat of arms would have for European families.
Interestingly, men were the painters of tepees, while women were the ones who constructed them from bison skin and wood.
Further Info on the Kiowa People
The Kiowa community is composed of approximately 12,000 members. Most of them live in Oklahoma, but others reside in other parts of the Southwestern United States. The Kiowa tribe is governed by a council, with each council having a chief. There is a strong bi-lateral kinship system among the Kiowa, with societies for both sexes, based on age and gender.
The Kiowa believed that supernatural forces gave them power. During the Sun Dance ceremony, Kiowa people gazed into the Sun, which they revered as a spiritual force. Although the U.S. government banned this ritual, the Kiowa still practiced it today. The last Kiowa Sun Dance was held in 1887, after which the U.S. government imposed laws banning the practice.
While the Kiowa were relatively few, they were respected as fierce warriors who roamed across the Great Plains. Their resistance to American settlement helped them become legends. The Kiowa lost their reservation, but their traditions remained intact. During the period of Lewis and Clark, they traded with other tribes and traded with them. One of the most important traditional crafts of the Kiowa was leather. They wore travois, stuffed animals made of deerskin, and decorated their food and water containers with paint.
7. Totem Poles
The Northwest Coast tribes of Washington State and Oregon are perfect examples of this art form. Their art is rich in mystical and personal history, and their culture is reflected in their totem poles. Totem poles display human and tribal forms that represent the nine spirits of each tribe.
The totem poles themselves have a profound meaning, with meanings that extend far beyond the physical world. Certain totem poles were often a symbol of life and death, such as mortuary poles that contained the remains of a deceased member of the tribe. More than a craft, this became an essential part of the life story of the people.
Other types of totem poles include the memorial or heraldic pole, which was erected to commemorate the past owner of a home and honor the new one. There were seen ridicule poles—these were carved upside down and represented an important member of the tribe who had failed in some way.
Totem poles were supernatural objects that represented guardian or ancestral figures that were respected, though not worshipped. The many carvings and images on totem poles often depicted scenes or events from family lineages, all in the form of concise pictographs. In this way, they often depicted a family myth; however, the true story behind each totem pole is difficult to discern since the individual family members are no longer around.
Totem poles are thus, in some ways, similar to the tipi of the Kiowa people, in so far as they act as a kind of analog to the Medieval coat of arms.
Native Indians Have Played a Role in the Development of Textile Art
The Native Indians have played a significant role in the development of textile art. They have been using textiles for centuries to create their own unique works. Textile art is a form of artwork that includes fabric, thread, and other materials like beads and buttons. The Native Indians were able to create this form of art because they had the knowledge and skills necessary to do so. Their work can be seen in the influence of products and styles such as Navajo rugs and the Pueblo pottery.
The Native Indians were able to create textiles that were both beautiful and functional. They used the art of weaving at a young age, teaching youth how to create pieces that would be resistant to wear and tear. In contrast, most modern-day people have not had this type of experience because they are unable to create the same type of art with the time, patience, and skill of the Native Indians. If you support traditional crafting, then you should definitely check out these types as part of your next nice home addition. You’ll be keeping a historic craft line alive.
However, be sure to purchase from ethical sources, such as those found on the following helpful list:
Further History of Navajo Silversmithing With Ernie Lister
- Trade Beads | Illinois State Museum
- Top 10 Visitor Questions to the Plains Indian Museum | Buffalo Bill Center of the West
- Sand painting | Britannica
- Plains Indian Ledger Art | Ledger Art History
- Native American Ledger Art and the US Conquest of the Plains | Consequence Forum
- A History of Southwestern Silversmithing | The Cameron Trading Post
- Craft in America Craft in America | Diego Romero
- Navajo Arts – pottery | Discover Navajo
- Kiowa – Painters of the Plains | Kansapedia – Kansas Historical Society
- Totem pole | Purpose, Animal Meanings, & Facts | Britannica
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Kit