Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

5.2: Indigenous Art in North America (1600s – 1800s)

  • Page ID
    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)


    What is Indigenous art in American art? The past stereotypes still prevail, images perpetuated today by media practices, educational systems, and individual perceptions. Native groups lived across North America and were as diverse in languages, traditions, rituals, and artwork as any significant population. Many cultural similarities also existed across groups. Gender had a role in each person's responsibilities; indigenous women were not limited and could obtain power. Men usually hunted, fished, and carried out warfare. Women were responsible for the household, children, and the control of agriculture. Most material things belonged to the women except hunting and war implements; she might even own the food her husband brought home. A woman could pursue multiple paths as a mother, farmer, physician, warrior, political leader, or a combination based on her choice.[1] In many tribes, property descended through the matriarchal line. The definition of property depended on tribal values. Those living in the Great Plains valued horses and moveable goods, supporting their lifestyle. Land ownership was not a consideration, as the land was for all to use. In the Pacific Northwest, oak trees were valuable property because acorns were an essential part of the diet, and women-owned specific trees passing them to their daughters.

    Indigenous art in North America during the 1600s to 1800s encompasses a rich and diverse range of artistic traditions and practices. It is important to note that there were hundreds of distinct Indigenous cultures across North America, each with unique creative expression during this time. Indigenous artists in North America created intricate woodcarvings and sculptures. Totem poles, large vertical sculptures featuring symbols, animals, and ancestral figures, were prominent among Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples. Basket weaving was a widespread artistic practice among many Indigenous cultures. Native American tribes, such as the Apache, Pomo, and Cherokee, created baskets using various materials like grasses, reeds, and tree bark. Each tribe had distinct weaving techniques, patterns, and purposes for their baskets.

    Indigenous peoples across North America were skilled in pottery-making. They created clay vessels for both practical and ceremonial purposes. Southwest Native American tribes like the Hopi and Acoma are known for their intricate pottery designs, often featuring geometric patterns and stylized motifs. Artisans utilized beads and porcupine quills to adorn clothing, accessories, and ceremonial items. Intricate beadwork and quillwork designs were created by tribes such as the Iroquois, Lakota, and Ojibwe. Indigenous peoples wove textiles using plant fibers, animal hair, and feathers. Navajo weavers, known for their exceptional skills, created beautiful rugs and blankets using a vertical loom and natural dyes. Artists often painted and drew on various surfaces, including animal hides, rock surfaces, and bark. These artworks depicted stories, legends, and cultural practices. The pictographic art of Plains tribes, like the Lakota and Cheyenne, is particularly noteworthy. Many Indigenous cultures used masks and other ceremonial objects for rituals, dances, and spiritual ceremonies. These objects were intricately carved and painted, representing spirits, ancestors, and mythological beings.

    These are the regions we will be discussing:

    • Subarctic
    • Northeast
    • Southeast
    • Plains
    • Great Basin and Plateau
    • Southwest
    • Northwest Coast
    • California
    Interactive Element: Comparing European and Native American Cultures

    The video discusses the complexities of different native groups and their comparison with European beliefs. Kim Kutz Elliott discusses how mutual misunderstandings between Europeans and Native Americans often defined the early years of interaction and trade as each group sought to make sense of the other.

    With any populace worldwide, the artwork was created using materials found in their location and culture. The art of Indigenous people was deemed "primitive," and cultural artifacts as viewed through the lens of the invading populations. Art, sacred objects, and human remains were taken and moved to unknown places or displayed as curiosities. The rightful status of the artwork was not acknowledged; much of the sacred meanings created by people for their own cultures were lost. Because native cultures were varied, the roles of men and women varied. Each village or tribe developed its style, patterns, and colors, and who was responsible for creating a particular art form. Although the female artists' names are not recorded, forgotten, or lost to history, some of their historical work remains. Their traditions and ideas are found in the artwork of the current generations. The video LEGACY describes the link of modern female artists to their past and how art forms were passed down to women through generations.

    Interactive Element: Hearts of Our People

    On Thursday, October 1, 2020, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) presented a virtual conversation about the collaborative curatorial process and the exquisite artwork by Native women featured in the landmark exhibition “Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists.” Exhibition curators Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Teri Greeves, an independent curator, and member of the Kiowa Nation, and featured artists Kelly Church (Ottawa/Pottawatomi) and Carla Hemlock (Kanienkeháka) join Anya Montiel, curator of American and Native American Women’s Art and Craft at the Smithsonian American Art Museum for this engaging dialogue.

    During the period spanning the 1600s to the 1800s, historians employed geographic labeling to classify various cultural groups. These labels (5.2.1) included the Arctic and sub-Arctic, the Northeast Woodlands, Southeast, Plains, Southwest, Great Basin, California, Plateau, and the Northwest Coast. Within each of these regions, the artistic patterns often shared similarities due to the availability of materials and inter-regional trade. For instance, the specific type of clay found in an area played a significant role in influencing the style of pottery. Similarly, the local fauna and flora determined the ornamentation and style of clothing. However, the advent of European invasion and colonization had a profound impact on indigenous artwork in most regions after the 1600s. This period of colonization brought about new materials and artistic styles, significantly altering the indigenous peoples' traditional art forms.

    Map of North America with colors to separate out the different regions
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of geographic designations (Public Domain)
    Interactive Element: Native American Societies Before Contact

    What was life like in North America before Europeans arrived? In this video, Kim Kutz Elliott explores how different environmental factors in North America shaped various Native American societies.


    Mostly Algonquin-speaking people (Cree, Ojibwa, Naskapi) inhabited the Subarctic region and followed a nomadic life into the 19th century. Archaeologists believe they had the longest uniformity of cultures of the native peoples and followed their traditional lifestyles for over 7,000 years until their initial contact with Europeans. [2] The land stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific across mountains, tundra, and forests. The weather was too extreme to grow crops, and they depended on the bountiful natural flora and fauna for all aspects of their lives. The people generally lived in small groups; however, travel was possible across flat tundra and multiple rivers and lakes. Various types of artwork were developed in different areas based on natural resources available and later materials brought by Europeans. Initially, female artists used moose hair to sew and embroider designs on clothing or porcupine quills for baskets. The traders brought glass beads, and women artists wove them into their designs.

    Bandolier bags were based initially on the bags the soldiers from Europe used to carry their ammunition, a concept adopted by multiple Native American groups across the Sub-arctic and Northeast regions. Men wore them with the wide strap across the chest and the bag section resting on the hip, not intended for battle but rather as decorative elements and part of ceremonial clothing. Women made the Bags, and the early ones (5.2.2) were generally made from native-tanned leather for the base and decorated with porcupine quills softened, dyed, and bent into the required shape. White quills formed the zigzag pattern across the bag and the stripes on the handle. The artists added deer hair, yarn, and natural fibers to complete the bag. The later Bandolier Bag (5.2.3) demonstrates the influence of trade with the Europeans and the acquisition of glass beads, yarn, and ribbons. The women artists changed from porcupine quills to glass beads, adopting new ideas to decorate their clothing and bags with different colors and techniques. The patterns were intricate, the beads reflected light, and the ribbons moved in the breeze. The video demonstrates the intricacy of the bandolier.

    A beaded bag and shoulder strap in different colors made from natural materials
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Early bandolier bag (ca 1780, tanned leather, porcupine quills, dye, metal cones, deer hair, vegetal fiber, wool yarn, 54.6 x 19.7 cm) Public Domain
    A shoulder bag made from wool and cotton woven in multiple colorsFigure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Ojibwas bandolier bag (1800s, wool, cotton, glass, 99.1 x 28.6 cm) Public Domain


    Interactive Element: From Quills to Beads

    Shoulder Bag, 1840-1850, Delaware, Lenni Lenape, cotton, wool, silk, glass beads, tinned iron, brass, bone, 29 1/2 inches high (Newark Museum of Art)

    The Naskapi Coat (5.2.4), also known as the Naskapi parka or Kamestastin parka, is a traditional garment worn by the Naskapi people, an Indigenous group residing in the northeastern regions of Canada, primarily in Quebec and Labrador. The coat is specifically designed to withstand the harsh winter climates of the subarctic and provide insulation and protection from the cold. The coat is typically made from caribou or moose skin, known for its excellent insulating properties. The skins are carefully prepared, tanned, and sewn together to create a warm and durable garment. The coat features a large, fur-trimmed hood that provides warmth and protects the head and face from the elements. The fur used for the hood is often sourced from animals such as coyotes or wolves.

    The Naskapi coat is typically knee-length or longer, offering coverage and warmth for the wearer's entire torso. The design often includes a loose and roomy fit to allow for layering of clothing underneath and ease of movement. The coat may be adorned with decorative elements such as beadwork, embroidery, or fringe, which can vary depending on the personal style and preferences of the individual maker. It is designed to be highly functional, protecting against cold temperatures, wind, and snow. It often includes adjustable drawstrings or ties to secure the coat and prevent heat loss. The Naskapi coat represents the cultural heritage and adaptation of the Naskapi people to their environment. It is a practical garment for extreme weather conditions and reflects their traditional craftsmanship and artistic expression. Today, while many Naskapi people continue to value and wear traditional clothes, contemporary adaptations may incorporate modern materials or design elements while still honoring the cultural significance of the coat.

    The Naskapi coat incorporated different styles of European coats, the design based on the needs of the person who wore it and the Naskapi artist. They used colors from natural products, ground them into powder, and mixed them with a binder. The proteins and lipids from salmon eggs made a suitable binder with the pigment. The fish egg acted much like the egg tempera used for the frescoes of civilizations along the Mediterranean, a durable process. "Together, the female artist and the hunter who would wear this coat conceived the geometric, colorful design based on the man's dreams of the motifs that would give him power and ensure his success in the hunt. Coats like this example were worn for only one caribou hunting season, as the Naskapis (Innus) believed they lost their protective power over time."[3] A similar coat is seen in the video, along with the preservation methods museums use today to protect items in their inventory.

    Coat made out of leather with painted abstract lines
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Naskapi coat (1820, tanned leather, pigment, 105.4 x 175.9 cm) Public Domain
    Interactive Element

    Exhibiting textiles comes with a lot of preparation. You can learn more about what our Restoration and Conservation Lab team did before showing, for the first time, the Ceremonial Coat made by a Naskapi Artist. The artwork is on display in our new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. This video is part of a series presented in Our Stories.


    Although prehistoric art existed in the region for thousands of years, early contact with European explorers and settlers from the 1600s changed indigenous art concepts. Different explorers, missionaries, and settlers wrote about, sketched, and unfortunately "collected" art and arbitrarily defined cultural characteristics. "But this emphasis has resulted in a frozen time perspective and an erroneously narrow view of the great historical depth, diversity, and richness"[4] of the art history existing in pre-contact Native peoples.

    The Iroquois-speaking people (Oneida, Seneca, Erie, etc.) inhabited the northern part of the region and were most affected by the invasions of people from Europe. Algonquian-speaking people (Pequot, Shawnee, etc.) lived in the southern sections. They had farms and permanent villages and based their artwork on their social institutions. The European colonists forced the different groups to fight against each other, taking sides in the European battles to control the territories. By the early 1800s, most native peoples migrated to the West or were forced to leave and resettled elsewhere. After the 1600s, the contacts from the Europeans changed the economy of the indigenous people by establishing different trading partnerships. As the European incursions expanded and they seized Indigenous territory, their local economy was severely disrupted. By 1800 the native populations were restricted to reservations, and their lifestyles changed forever. Men traditionally carved wooden objects, while women artists made baskets and did embroidery, quillwork, and beadwork.

    Both male and female Iroquois wore Moccasins (5.2.5) made from one piece of deer or elk skin, which were smoked to create durable and sturdy leather. The moccasins had a seam up the back for the heel and one stitching on the front across the top of the foot, while the bottom was flat, comfortable, and durable. Around the ankle, the sides are folded down a few inches for the cuff and decorated. Initially, the decorations were made from porcupine quills, and after the Europeans came, they used glass beads. Sometimes the beadwork was sewn on a separate piece and then attached, and when the moccasins wore out, the beadwork could be removed and used on a new pair.

    A pair of moccasins made of leather and beaded
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Moccasins (Moccasins (pair of) made of leather (!!), skin (smoked), quills (porcupine), hair, beads, brass) CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Wampum Belts (5.2.6) were initially used for storytelling, ceremonies, and trade. The Europeans who first came to the region thought the indigenous people used wampum as money and wanted to trade with them. The original wampum was made from white beads made from the inner part of a whelk shell. The purple or black beads came from quahog clamshells, with two rows of dark beads forming the pattern. Women artists made the beads by cutting the pieces, piercing a hole into the shell, and strung onto deerskin cords, sinew, or other strong fibers. The process was difficult and time-consuming, making the wampum belts valuable. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the women used beads brought by the colonists, increasing their production. The wampum belts became a way to record events, badges of offices, record names of people, and other ceremonial meanings. Between different tribes, the beads were used for treaties or other official events.

    White and blue beaded belt
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Traditional wampum belt (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)


    The Southeast culture was based on agriculture in the fertile region, growing maize, tobacco, and beans. The people lived in villages, and their houses, burial sites, religious sites, and storage facilities were frequently constructed in the shape of mounds. They each developed hierarchical societies with powerful chiefs as rulers and those in leadership positions. From this area came names familiar today; Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole, and others. Large numbers of people perished from diseases introduced by the European settlers, and by 1830, only about 100,000 Native Americans lived in the territory. However, the European colonists wanted to expand their farms to grow cotton. The Indian Removal Act forced the relocation of most of the native people into the plains region, a journey called the Trail of Tears, reflecting on the human toll and misery of the relocation.

    The Lidded Basket (5.2.7) was made from the canes growing in thick forests along the rivers. The river canes were gathered by hand, and the hard-exterior parts split into strips, ready to be woven. The lidded basket has diagonal lines along the base, darker triangles around the sides, and rectangles decorating the top. Some patterns were based on the natural colors of the canes, and other strips were dyed with walnuts or berries to produce specific colors. Baskets were an essential part of life both in mythology and in practical uses life. In the early 1700s, the Creek people moved to the southern part of Florida with settlements in central Florida to the Gulf Coast. Pottery was an essential part of life, and the women used different techniques depending on the availability of natural products. The Brushed Pot (5.2.8) is deep, flaring the top outward. They used grass or pine straw to brush decorative strokes on the vessel. The strokes can be horizontal or vertical and generally cover most of the pot.

    woven basket from split canes and a two color design
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Cherokee basket (ca 1720, split cane, dye) CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
    chattahoochee brushed etowah id.jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Chattahoochee brushed pot (Photo by Lloyd Schroder, Courtesy of the Artist)


    The Plains area was a vast space across the country from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi, filled with mountains, plains, tablelands, and river valleys. Initially, the people were hunters or farmed in small communities, the regions filled with wildlife of all kinds. Many people moved throughout the region to follow the weather, water, fields they could cultivate, and animal food sources. When the Spanish came with their imported horses, the local groups (Crow, Comanche, Arapaho, Sioux, etc.) used the horses as a resource to pursue the bison, adopting a more nomadic lifestyle. They made tipis from the hide of buffalos around lodgepoles, easy to assemble and move to follow buffalo or avoid danger. White traders' excursions into the area brought guns and disease to the people; governmental hunters exterminated most of the herds of bison until the people were finally forced onto government-run reservations.

    Bison, deer, sheep, and antelope were abundant in numbers on the plains, and an essential part of the life of the people, providing food and hides for their shelter, clothing, and other necessities. The thick, heavy buffalo skins were valuable as blankets in the cold winters, while the lighter and thinner deer and antelope hides were used for clothing. To make anything from the hides was difficult and complex. The men were the hunters, following the herds and bringing back the animals, and the women prepared the hides.

    The women work to prepare the hides by removing the hair and tanning the skin. It is messy, hard work and requires muscles and brains—the muscles of the women and the brains of the animal! Brain tanning is when animal brain tissue and water are rubbed onto the hide. In one tanning method, the hide is soaked in water mixed with ashes for several days. Then it is put on a wooden frame, and the hair is scraped off. Next, the cooked brains of the animal are applied to the hide to soften it. The hide is then rinsed, stretched, and pulled until—as one dressmaker says—your arms are "so tired, they feel like they will fall off!" This process is called "brain-tanning" and is still used today to prepare hides made into dresses, shirts, jackets, purses, and other items.[5]

    The women of the plains' regions demonstrate their artistry through their history of decorating clothing and other articles. Before the Europeans brought glass beads, they used paints, natural minerals, and fat from the plentiful bison. They found the hip bone in the bison very porous and able to hold paint, a valuable tool, along with grasses. Porcupine quills could be cut and dyed for color. Other animal bones, teeth, or claws made attractive decorations or supported ritualistic meanings.

    After cleaning the tan hide, women adorned the clothing with sacred designs or symbols of life using paint or beads and porcupine quills. The Robe (5.2.9) was tanned and painted with a traditional Arapaho design, a box-like structure in the middle filled with precisely painted triangular shapes. The outside edge is bordered by yellow and red lines reflecting Arapaho's use of dynamic colors. The Sioux Dress (5.2.10) was made from native-tanned leather and was probably used for ceremonial purposes. The elaborate glass beading forms a bright blue background with meaningful symbols in green, yellow, red, and black beads across the top. The fringe was cut in small strips from leather as part of the sleeves and bottom and added to the dress, giving the woman another movement.

    Tanned leather ceremonial dress with beaded designs
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Arapaho robe (c. 1875, tanned skin, paint, (140 × 157.5 cm) Public Domain
    Dress made from tanned leather and blue glass beads woven at the top into designs

    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Sioux dress (1800s, tanned leather, glass beads, 144.8 x 124.5 cm) Public Domain


    All types and styles of bags were made and used throughout the different regions. The parfleche bag (5.2.11), made from hide, was shaped like an envelope used by men and women to carry pemmican or other dried foods. The women decorated each bag abstractly to symbolize the natural landscape of the plains, rivers, hills, or a family symbol. A hide was cleaned, tanned, stretched into shape, then soaked and dried over a smoky fire to make the hide very hard. To create the design, she incised, painted, and fringed the hide. The Tobacco Bag (5.2.12) was also made from hide and elaborately decorated. Males used the bag to transport pipes and tobacco for ritual ceremonies. The bag was painted, then the hanging strips were covered with beads and horsehair using patterns developed by the female makers.

    Carry bag made from leather with painted elements

    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Comanche parfleche (1850, bison rawhide, pigment, tanned leather, 83.8 x 29.2 cm) Public Domain
    A tobacco bag and pipe holder made from leather and beaded in many colors
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Cheyenne tobacco bag (ca 1870, tanned leather, pigment, glass beads, metal cones, horsehair, (19.1 × 68.6 cm) Public Domain


    Great Basin and Plateau

    The people of the Great Basin (Shoshone, Paiute, Ute, etc.) lived in frequently barren areas and moved from place to place to forage. Their settlements were small, and housing was made from trees and brush, easily made and destroyed to move again. Horses from the Europeans gave them more mobility for a while; however, the federal government forced the people onto reservations with the discovery of gold and silver.

    The Plateau region was smaller and less populated, and people (Klamath, Nez Perce, Flathead, etc.) lived in villages by rivers and streams. Natural resources provided food, and they did not have to travel far to survive. When horses came to the area, they expanded their territory; however, when the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived in 1805, other white settlers followed along with their diseases. After a gold rush, the government took over six million acres of land. It moved the Nez Perce to a reservation triggering further battles to retake their land, only to be pushed and shoved into smaller areas, losing their homeland. At the end of the 1800s, the United States removed the Indigenous people from their lands onto minor reservations.

    As with other native people in the plains and plateau regions, the Nez Perce, who lived in the plateaus, fashioned their lives after the same types of natural resources as those from the Plains. The invention and use of the blanket strip occurred during this period. The changes started on the plains and moved to the plateau, demonstrating women's creativity. The giant bison was heavy and hard to manipulate when the women tried cutting the skins from the carcass on one side. They learned to cut the skin along the backbone and remove one side before rolling it over and removing the hide from the other side. When ready to tan the leather, they sewed the two pieces together to make a robe. However, this left them with a seam that showed, so they designed a Blanket Strip (5.2.13) to cover the seam. The blanket strip was decorated and became popular; other ornamented stripes were added even if they didn't cover a seam. The designs on the strips were symbolic, generally holding a sacred significance.

    A blanket strip of leather, beads and paint in a repeating patternFigure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Blanket strip (ca 1850, tanned leather, glass beads, horsehair, porcupine quills, dye, wool cloth, brass bells, 160 x ¼ cm) Public Domain


    Some of the native populations in the area were farmers (Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, and others) who lived in permanent settlements and farmed crops of corn and squash. They used the resources of the landscape and built multistory pueblos and ceremonial centers. Others, like the Apache, were nomadic, moving around the region, hunting, and invading their neighbors' crops. The Spanish were the significant European power in the area and exterminated many people in wars or enslaved them. Eventually, the Spanish resettled most of the remaining Indigenous population onto reservations.

    Native Americans in the Southwest have a long art tradition, masters of weaving and pottery. The Pueblo people grew cotton and began weaving with a backstrap loom around 700 CE. The people stayed in the area, developing their skills based on the natural resources. Historians believe Hopi and Navajo weavers learned the skills from the Pueblo people around 1650, and each of them perfected their patterns, colors, and styles. Pottery was another art form highly developed in the area created on long traditions of techniques passed through the generations. Clay was abundant, and natural materials for paint were made by grinding rocks or using a wide variety of plants.

    In the southwestern region, cotton was grown and an integral part of weaving to make clothing. When the Spanish came with their sheep, the Navajo adopted the techniques of producing wool, incorporating it as an essential source of materials. Weaving traditions and patterns were reflected in the patterned themes using vibrant colors. A significant item of clothing was the blanket. The Striped Wearing Blanket (5.2.14) is woven with undyed wool, fleece dyed with indigo, and unusual raveled bayeta. During the Navajo trade with Mexico, they obtained a red flannel material named bayeta, a fabric getting its red color from a specific insect species. Navajo women stripped each of the fibers from the bayeta and re-twisted it into new yarn to use the material. Later, Blankets (5.2.15) were made with vividly colored yarns and patterns of diamonds, zigzags, and stripes, a contrasting single strand of yarn used to highlight the design. The female weavers made artistic designs based on religious, local, ceremonial, and imaginative definitions.

    A chiefs blanket with stripes and alternating triangle designs
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Navajo wearing blanket (ca 1840, handspun undyed, indigo-dyed Churro fleece, raveled lac-dyed bayeta, 147.3 x 172.7 cm) Public Domain


    Navajo warring blanket with triangles and stripes woven in bright colors
    Figure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Navajo wearing blanket (1860-1870, wool, 175.3 x 121.9 cm) Public Domain

    Zuni women made the pottery after gathering clay, sifting it to remove impurities, and mixing the powdered clay with water. They used the coil method to shape the Pots (5.2.16) and smoothed the sides with a handmade tool. The designs were based on clan designations and events in their life, painted with natural dyes and brushes created from the yucca plant, then fired in kilns. Firing the pottery followed a ritual, using respectful, soft voices or even silence; the women carefully placed the pottery on the fire, allowing the voice of the clay to emerge.


    A water pot made of clay and painted with pigments in geometric designs

    Figure \(\PageIndex{16}\): Zuni water jar (1825-1850, ceramic, pigment 31.5 x 33.5 cm) Public Domain


    The Apaches moved throughout their region, not building permanent housing, requiring lightweight and portable methods to store food and other items. They perfected basket making, a tradition passed from mothers to their daughters. Regional natural materials in trees, grasses, and roots were commonly used for a basket. The large Jug-Shaped Storage Basket (5.2.17) could be waterproofed with resin from pine trees to hold liquids or store food or firewood. The basket was made from the willow tree's shoots, the yucca's root, and a plant called the devil's claw, forming the intricate pattern based on symbolic beliefs. Frequently, the basket was carried on a person's back with a large strap across their forehead.

    Apache woven storage basket with color geometric shapes

    Figure \(\PageIndex{17}\): Apache storage basket (1890, willow shoots, devil’s claw, yucca root, 52.1 x 41.3 cm) Public Domain

    Northwest Coast

    The climate of the Northwest coastal region was mild, and natural resources were abundant, especially from the ocean. Although they were hunter-gathers, they did not have to travel from place to place to survive; water sources provided a constant supply of fish, seals, and shellfish. They built permanent structures forming large villages and broad social networks. Europeans did not inhabit this region in large numbers until the late 1800s, so the native populations (Tlingit, Penutian Chinook, etc.) maintained their traditions until then. With the influx of Europeans, new diseases, and suppression of their social structures, societies became fragmented.

    The native people from the Northwest are known for their artistic traditions, design, and artistry. Many practices are formalized, and the "formline" became the primary design element that defines outlines and colors. The colors of formline painting were based on black lines, red lines, and different blue and green tones. The other color pigments were mixed with dried salmon eggs as a fixative, and their brushes were usually made from porcupine hairs.

    Artwork frequently defined kinship, spirit powers, or territories. Potlatches were ceremonial events to display objects of art and value. The crest had significant meaning, similar to the heraldic art of England, portraying real and imaginary animals. The crests were added to totem poles, house fronts, or ceremonial clothing, a legacy from ancestors to descendants; the crest was a sacred object. Generally, men formed groups, defined the crests, and made totem poles or carved bone and wood. Later, some women slowly began to create their versions. Natural forms of whales, eagles, bears, other animals, and spiritual or legendary creatures were used as patterns for their designs.

    The grip of the Tlingit Dagger (5.2.18) appears as a shaman, staring out in a trance. The broad face has deep ridges reflecting the early formline style. The narrow nose has lines flowing around the eyes and down to the fleshy lips. The techniques to forge iron are not documented; however, historians believe native smiths developed metalworking techniques well before the Europeans arrived. This dagger was generated from a whole piece of iron using the hot chasing process. Holes along the top of the head were pierced, and the eyes and spaces were between some teeth. Many historians believe the dagger was made by the female metalsmith Saayina aat because of its proportions and signature design. Most of the daggers had long blades; however, the edge of this one is broad and short, with two ridges down the sides, reflecting her style.[6]

    Dagger made of iron, a wooden carved head, and bound together by leather

    Figure \(\PageIndex{18}\): Tlingit dagger (ca 1780, iron, tanned leather, wood carving (46.4 x 7.9 cm) Public Domain
    Woven cloak made with dyed materials in geometric shapes

    Figure \(\PageIndex{19}\): Salish blanket (woven fiber, dye) Public Domain
    A wooden rattle carved and painted with colors
    Figure \(\PageIndex{20}\): Tsimshian rattle (19th century, cedar, pebbles, polychrome, 31 x 10.3 x 10.5 cm) Public Domain

    The Saish, who lived along the coast of British Columbia, developed one of the most unique styles for weaving blankets. Women made the robes with a process called twining. In the usual weaving process, the single thread of the crossing or weaving weft stays perpendicular to the installed warp. Twining has a pair of weft threads that switch back and forth as they move along the warp threads, twisting the warp and creating the diagonal slant. The warp thread had to be sturdy to survive the twisting, and the Salish used nettles or the bark inside the cedar tree. The Salish Robe (5.2.19) is made with naturally dyed material of reds, blues, black, and browns, along with undyed yarns, all made with patterns of checkerboards, zigzags, geometric shapes, and lines.

    The Tsimshian lived in British Columbia and Alaska, a matrilineal society with a clan system based on four different totems; the eagle, a wolf, a raven/frog, or the orca. A person belonged to their mother's clan; the ceremonial chief could be male or female. The Raven Rattle (5.2.20) was a standard instrument for shamanic rituals, so the beak pointed towards the ground to guide the shaman. The figure has the face of the wolf, perhaps identifying the owner of the rattle. The rattle was carved in two pieces, filled with seeds or pebbles, joined with wooden pegs, and then painted in traditional colors. An artist might adorn the rattle with feathers, beads, or other natural decorations. The video discusses how traditional patterns are passed on to future generations.

    Interactive Element: Bill Holm Center

    The Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Native Art at the Burke Museum is one of the premier centers for studying Native arts of the Northwest. It is dedicated to helping all people better understand and connect with Northwest Native art.


    In the late sixteenth century, California had over 300,000 people with many different groups (Miwok, Pomo, Serrano, etc.), all speaking different dialects. The population was one of "the largest and most diverse in the Western hemisphere is exhibited by the no fewer than sixty-four distinct languages they spoke…Before white contact, California had more linguistic variety than all of Europe."[7] Despite the diversity of languages, most native Californians practiced similar live styles, organized around small groups as hunter-gathers who traded with each other. As the Spanish colonized California, they brought disease, forced labor, brutal religious practices, and nearly exterminated the native populations.

    Native Californian baskets were made using various materials, including willow, tule (a type of bulrush), reeds, grasses, and other natural fibers. These materials were carefully harvested, processed, and often dyed with natural pigments to create a wide range of colors and designs. Each tribe or local group had its distinct basketry styles, techniques, and designs, which were passed down through generations. Basketry designs often reflected the natural world, incorporating motifs inspired by animals, plants, and geometric patterns. The symbolism and meaning behind specific designs could vary, serving purposes such as storytelling, cultural identity, or personal expression. Women played a central role in the creation of baskets, as they were primarily responsible for gathering materials, preparing them, and weaving the baskets. The techniques used in basketry varied, including coiling, twining, and plaiting, each requiring intricate knowledge and skill.

    These baskets served a multitude of purposes within Native Californian communities. They were used for storing food, carrying items, and even as cradles or baby carriers. Additionally, baskets were essential in various ceremonies, rituals, and social exchanges, often being gifted or traded as valuable items. Today, Native Californian basketry continues to be celebrated and practiced by contemporary Native artists who strive to preserve their ancestral traditions and innovate within the art form. These baskets are not only remarkable works of art but also embody the cultural heritage and resilience of Native Californian peoples. Baskets were used for "gathering food, sifting acorn meal, storing tobacco, gambling, cooking, and even transporting water. Native Californians could weave so tightly that their baskets held boiling water—heated by hot rocks—without leaking."[8] Baskets were so well made and familiar; making pottery was rare.

    Woven basket tray with two colors and woven triangles with two concentric circles
    Figure \(\PageIndex{21}\): Chumash Basket Tray, Early 1800s. CC BY 1.0
    Miwok basket woven in two colors with a few geometric shapes

    Figure \(\PageIndex{22}\): Miwok basket (natural material, dye) CC BY 1.0
    Basket bowl women with inserted glass beads and abalone shells

    Figure \(\PageIndex{23}\): Pomo basket (ca 1880, sedge root, willow shoots, glass beads, abalone shell, 11.4 x 25.4 cm) CC BY-SA 2.0


    The Chumash, who lived in southern California, made the Basket (5.2.21) of sumac shoots and Juncus stems, forming concentric circles of geometric shapes alternating with a checkerboard pattern and parallel bars. The basket, made in the shape of a jug, was tightly woven and held water. The Miwok extended from the valley to the mountains through the state's middle and had many natural materials for their baskets. They could split small sapling trees into strips or use grasses like the Carex barbarae root for the lighter colors. A Basket (5.2.22) incorporated dark brown or black using ferns or dyeing material with ashes, pulverized manzanita, or the bark of the black oak. The primary tool was an awl made from bone to pierce the material while making the tightly coiled basket. The Pomo Basket (5.2.23) from northern California followed the tradition of including multiple patterns in the basket. A substantial portion of the design is the dau or spirit door to allow good spirits into the basket, made by leaving a small opening or turning in the stitching. The Pomo also had many natural available materials, and willow shoots, river canes, and sedge roots were the most common. The materials were cleaned and dried and, if needed, split or dyed. Although men constructed baskets for fish and bird traps, the women made the majority of highly designed baskets for food storage and ceremonial rites. The video discusses a specific basket made in California.

    Interactive Element: Juana Basilia Sitmelelene

    Juana Basilia Sitmelelene, Coin (Presentation) Basket, Chumash, Mission San Buenaventura, c. 1815-22, Sumac, Juncus textiles, mud dye, 9 x 48 cm (National Museum of the American Indian)

    Conclusion and Considerations

    By the end of the 1800s, most of the tribal lands were stolen, and the Native Americans who had lived on those lands for centuries were moved to reservations, splitting up tribal groups and customs. Chief Joseph said in the famous statement attributed to him;

    …Some of my people have run away to the hills and have no blankets or food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun not stands, I will fight no more forever.[9]

    The traditions of Native American art changed, and their art became a commodity, sold to outsiders and tourists, divorced from the people and its meanings. Many works by Native people were meant for sacred ceremonies, not displayed in museums. The roles of women changed after the invasion and colonization of North America. The indigenous peoples were displaced from their lands, and women were forced into the European model of a male-dominated society and women as second-class citizens. Today, a few museums in the United States and Canada are starting to honor these beliefs and remove sacred items or grave goods from their displays. There is still a market for different groups to recreate the art of the past for sale. However, today there is a resurgence in their artistic traditions by Native Americans in North America, bringing their cultural backgrounds into their modern styles.

    [1] Retrieved from

    [2] Kopper, P. (1986). North American Indians, Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C. p.113.

    [3] Retrieved from

    [4] Vastokas, J., History of Indigenous Art in Canada (2018). In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia....-art-in-canada

    [5] National Museum of the American Indian, A Life in Beads: The Stories a Plains Dress Can Tell,

    Retrieved from

    28 January 2019

    [6] Torrence, G., (2018). Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    [7] Retrieved from

    [8] Retrieved from


    • Was this article helpful?