Native American Painting and Drawing
The earliest widespread art form of imagery was rock art. The oldest styles from c. 8000 BC were
probably simple circular grooves and small pits or holes. Curvilinear abstract styles developed later.
In the Woodland region few early petroglyphs include human figures, but in the eastern Subarctic rock
paintings in red and petroglyphs include abstract and representational designs in equal numbers.
Many of those found on lake shores were obviously made by early Algonquians, whose historic
descendants continued to use the same imagery on other media.
Native American Rock Art, Utah Painted Plains Indian Shield
Polychrome rock painting, developed alongside simpler variants, was exclusive to the Southwest and
California. The earliest example is the Pecos River style of southern Texas (before c. AD 600), with
its monumental anthropomorphic figures carrying spear-throwers.
The closest iconographic similarities are found more than 1000 km away and several hundred years
later in the Barrier Canyon style associated with the Fremont culture of Utah. In the Southwest, the
Jornada style (c. AD 1000) of the Mogollon culture (c. AD 200–c. 1350) included a repertory of horned
masks, rectilinear human figures and ‘kachina blankets’ in a non-representational style similar to that
used on Mimbres pottery.
Early Membres Indian Pot
After c. 1300 the rock art of the Rio Grande Pueblo area was influenced by the Jornada style but
shows more rounded forms, and some masks are identifiable with those of historic kachinas (masked
beings who bring rain and protection.
Chumash Indian Rock Art
The polychrome rock paintings of the Santa Barbara style of (18th and 19th centuries) of the
California Chumash includes elaborate curvilinear and angular elements in abstract or highly
conventionalized anthropomorphic and zoomorphic designs. Recent archaeo-astronomical studies have
postulated solar and other astronomical significance for some of the designs.
Similarly, human and animal imagery, in red or black paint or incised, on rock faces in the Great Plains
shows a close relationship with later 19th-century Plains pictographic art on leather, canvas and paper.
Northwest Coast Native American Art
The iconography of this region forms a distinct tradition. One motif is known as ‘split representation’,
in which a face is formed by two confronting beings in profile. Another image results from the
atomizing or dismembering of several figurative elements, or ‘rearrangement of anatomical parts’. A
third motif, the ‘X-ray image’, portrays the essential but unseen internal structure of an animal or
Early Northwest Indian Thunderbird Painting Totem
All of these motifs may represent manifestations of a shamanic world view. They appear equally in
sacred and secular art and have a metaphoric quality that alludes to the ritual process of exchange in
both sacred and secular spheres.
Southwestern Native American Art
In this region it is the prehistoric Mimbres painting tradition (c. AD 1000–c. 1200) that has most
influenced later Pueblo art. During its development the Mimbres style, a branch of the greater
Mogollon cultural tradition of southern New Mexico and north-west Mexico, borrowed heavily from
contemporary neighboring cultures, including Hohokam in eastern Arizona and Anasazi in northern
Arizona–New Mexico and southern Utah–Colorado.
The Classic Mimbres style on pottery comprised two distinct but interrelated types of subject-
matter: sophisticated, technically exacting geometric forms; and naive but realistic representations
of people, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, insects and other invertebrates, various
composite beings and, more rarely, plants and artifacts.
Most unidentifiable animal subjects have features of two or more species, suggesting that the
paintings were deliberately unnatural. While some scholars attribute Mimbres figurative painting to
Mesoamerican influence (especially to Aztec and Maya religious beliefs, others insist that the
meanings of the representations are directly related to indigenous Pueblo Zuni myths, suggesting
continuity between archaeological past and ethnographic present.
1900 Hopi Painted Pottery
In the late 14th century Pueblo pottery decoration gradually changed to a flamboyant polychrome
style, but still often included birds, animals and people. Many of the figures resemble Kachinas.
During the 17th century European and Mexican shapes and designs were incorporated into Pueblo
pottery, and in the 1880s and 1890s new and old shapes and designs were combined to create what
may be termed a tourist or commercial style.
Navajo dry-painting or ‘sandpainting’ (with various ground minerals) represents a second Southwest
iconographic tradition. The Navajo were relative late-comers to the region (from c. 1500 or perhaps a
century earlier) and supposedly adopted the practice from the Pueblo peoples. Nevertheless, they
elaborated it into a flamboyant style and continue to use it, accompanied by recitations and songs, as
a central part of their curing ceremonies.
The composition of dry-paintings is normally centrifugal and radial, intended to create and maintain
harmony with the cosmos. The painting is usually enclosed in a frame, with carefully controlled lines
isolating the color fields. Subject-matter is highly stylized and may include plants, animals, astral
bodies and supernatural beings.
Early Plains Indian Painted Hide
Plains Native American Art
The earliest imagery came from rock. Human and animal figures were of central importance. Vision-
inspired figurative painting is one of the oldest Plains art forms. Painted tepees were reported by
Spanish explorers in the mid-16th century, and the tepee-painting tradition lasted until the second
half of the 19th century among the Kiowa, Cheyenne and Lakota; and the Blackfeet continue to use
painted tepees on ceremonial occasions. Usually, the central section of the tepee was decorated with
the visionary scenes (figures of animals and/or spiritual beings), while paintings on the top and bottom
referred to the Upperworld and the Lowerworld. Abstract forms (circles, crescents, Maltese
crosses) were also used with symbolic meanings, mainly to represent astronomical entities.
Early Plains Painted Hide Plains Indian Ghost Shirt
Painted designs on rawhide shields were also dictated by individual visions and have specific
characteristics that can be deciphered in terms of tribal cosmologies. For example, the horned beings
(black and red) on a Cheyenne shield are certainly personifications of Thunder and Hail, respectively,
while the four lizards represent the cardinal directions. Pale-green horned and winged forms on
another shield depict green darner dragonflies.
Geometric motifs were prominent in quill- and bead-embroidery, including stepped triangles, crosses,
hour-glass motifs, parallel lines and circles. On bison robes and on garments associated with war
deeds or social status such designs could have highly symbolic meanings. The polychrome painting
tradition of geometric motifs (rectangles, triangles, circles and dots) and of floral designs is known
as a female style, and it seems to indicate tribal and band affiliation. The male style is pictographic:
the Lakota and Kiowa Native Americans had a tradition of calender painting or ‘winter counts’, in
which each year was designated with an important event and was executed in a highly stylized manner;
and the warriors of most Plains groups depicted war honors on the outsides of leather and canvas
tepees, on interior dew cloths (leather or canvas lining inside a lodge to block draughts and dew) and
on leather robes.
These traditions were transferred to other media introduced by Euro-Americans during the second
half of the 19th century. During the 1880s and 1890s the Peyote cult introduced new iconographic
elements, including the water turkey, scissor-tailed flycatcher, macaw and some Christian motifs.
The Ghost Dance movement of the same time period revitalized former symbols and designs,
combining them in new iconographic contexts.
Woodlands Native American Art
The prehistoric Southern Cult, from c. AD 1000 to c. 1700, was focused on the three principal
centers of Spiro mounds, Moundville and Etowah and their subsidiary sites. A visual unity in their art
suggests a shared iconography among the divergent regional styles.
Eastern Woodlands Painted Quill Box Eastern Woodlands Painted Bark
The earlier Adena–Hopewell cultural complex (c. 500 BC–c. AD 700) may have provided the gestation
of the cult in several, generalized common images (birds, snakes and felines and composite forms of
these; and human–animal relationships, reflecting such shamanistic phenomena as transformation and
personification), which seem to have been crucial in shell-engraving.
Projecting backwards from historical ethnographic examples, some of the most frequent figures of
Southern Cult shellwork, such as the Bird-man, or mythic feline, may be early examples of the
Thunderbird, or Underwater Panther, suggesting mythic continuity between the archaeological past
and the ethnographic present.
Both beings were represented as anthropomorphic forms that stress animal attributes and as humans
dressed in costumes to represent a thunderbird or panther.
To the north, in Great Lakes Native American cosmology, the Thunderbird and Underwater Panther
represent the dominant spirits of the Upperworld and the Lowerworld respectively. Their images
were used to decorate the two sides of twined bags to establish symbolic identity with the two
worlds. Between the surfaces power objects or medicines were believed to affect the earth itself.
In contrast to the uninterrupted connection of Southeast imagery, however, after contact with
Europeans in the 17th century, continuity was broken by the introduction of such new materials as
painted cotton thread and glass beads, which began to be used to decorate bags with geometric
motifs and hour-glass forms were used beside Thunderbirds and zigzag, or castellated lines beside
In the 19th century geometric, non-representational forms gradually replaced the Thunderbird and
Underwater Panther images altogether. Copyright 2010.