Native American Pottery, Beadwork and Sculpture Carving
In Native American cultures the visual arts were essential expressions of social and sacred systems,
and concepts of beauty were an important and integral element of people’s lives. Given this
importance and the need for accurate communication, Native Americans developed commonly held
ideals concerning the standards of beauty they valued in works of art.
These standards determined regional and Native American tribal styles of clothing, ceramics,
sculpture, painting and all other utilitarian and specialized modes of decoration and visual
representation. Since there were no schools or academies of art, technical expertise and aesthetic
values were passed down from one generation to another. The art of Native American societies were
determined by the physical characteristics of a work of art as well as by its meaning and the manner
in which it was created.
Pueblo Jar Northwest Totem Acoma Pottery
Native Americans were sensitive to such factors as color, shape, proportion, symmetry, construction
and finish as basic aesthetic elements that constituted the beauty of a work of art. Recognizable
styles of Native American art developed, based on commonly held conventions or rules about the use
of color, form and balance; all artists in a given group had to use a common group of visual elements in
In this type of system success depends on an individual’s ability to create inventive artistic solutions
to the problems of integrating a two-dimensional design system to three-dimensional forms. In their
study of Northwest Coast carving. Holm and Reid (1976) demonstrated how the success of an
individual work of art closely depends on the artist’s ability to manipulate the guiding aesthetic
conventions while also expressing the beauty of their spiritual associations.
Northwest Coast Native American Mask Carving
Native American artists throughout North America used color to create visual effects and as a
powerful reference to the vital natural forces that provided the basic structure of their lives.
Among the Plains groups, for example, colors had some generally held references, such as yellow for
the sun, blue for sky or water and red for the earth.
As these essential elements of nature were imbued with great spiritual power, their associated
colors also carried a high charge of religious importance that became part of their overall artistic
effect of Native American art. Through the prehistoric and early historic periods the sources of
color were natural pigments made from clays, crushed minerals and a great variety of plants.
Plains Native American Beaded Hide Shirt
The Plains Native American groups applied them to finely finished hide garments, creating fields of
rich, soft color; the pleasing visual effect this produced implied by extension a meaningful reference
to powerful sacred forces. Tones of rich terracotta red were also used throughout North America
for the decoration of objects and adornment of the body, both for aesthetic and for sacred reasons.
With the introduction of industrially produced pigments and materials from Europe, the soft natural
colors were gradually superseded by brighter colors available from the traders. However, tribal
stylistic preferences and natural associative symbolism remained important factors in Native
American art. Color was also used by Plains Indian groups as a visual reference for the cardinal
directions, which were considered potent sacred forces. Unlike the references to the sun or the
earth, color associations with directions often varied from tribe to tribe.
The proportions, balance and symmetry of designs also had many variations in different parts of the
continent. The vital energy expressed by powerful asymmetrical Native American tribal designs and
arrangements of color were favored as a positive aesthetic in the beadwork of the Delaware Indians
in the eastern Woodlands region and of the Kiowa Indians in the southern Plains region.
Woodland Indian Beaded Shoes
Asymmetry still characterizes the designs of Hopi Native American potters of Arizona, who have
used it since at least the Sikyatki style of the 17th century. Other peoples, such as the Menominee
of the Great Lakes region or the Lakota of the Plains region, favored symmetrical elements that give
a sense of solid balance to their designs in quills, beads, weaving and painting.
Early Hopi Indian Pottery
The construction and finish of a work of art were also integral elements of its artistic success. All
Native American peoples valued fine workmanship, as reflected in the equivalent terms for artist in
their various languages, which generally mean one who has skill, talent and understanding in work. Ruth
Bunzel reported that among Hopi Indian potters, for example, concerns for the technical skill in
creating an object ranked even higher in their evaluation of a work of art than the aesthetics of its
decoration. For the Hopi, the ceramic’s visual attraction was negated if it were made by a poor
Status of art and role of the artist
In Native American cultures of all periods the creative arts were an integral and admired part of life
because they were associated with primary social and sacred systems. Works of art, however, were
not separated from their basic cultural functions or considered as statements of individual self-
expression. The arts were a basic form of social communication, used to indicate status or rank,
membership in group associations and personal achievements.
In the south-east Woodland Native Americans during the Mississippian period (c. AD 700–c. 1700)
individuals of high status associated with large communities were identified by special clothing and
ornaments and by the high-quality ceramics, sculptures, elaborately engraved shells and embossed
copper objects placed in their burials.
In the fertile regions of the Northwest Coast the highly stratified social structure of the Native
Americans was symbolically expressed by a large and diverse range of artistic creations. These
included carved, painted and woven representations of heraldic animals associated with clans and
families, as well as richly adorned objects that conveyed the rank and position of the bearer.
Among the Indian tribal groups of the Plains region, association with important male warrior societies
was indicated by the structure and ornamentation of special garments and objects used by members.
These same individuals expressed their personal achievements as courageous warriors with
beautifully drawn representations of their acts of bravery and daring applied to such articles of
clothing as robes or shirts as well as to tepee covers and liners.
Works of art were sometimes accumulated and distributed as status objects integral to the bonding
of Native American social groups. The most extreme example of this tradition was the potlatch gift
exchange of the Northwest Coast, in which great quantities of works of art, other valuable objects
and food were given away, or sometimes deliberately destroyed, as part of an intricate system of
social support and interrelationship.
The tradition of exchanging works of art as gifts is still an important element of Native American
life, and at times of communal interaction the display of fine objects and clothing remains a valued
way for both men and women to demonstrate their skills and achievements. This characteristic was
noted by 18th- and 19th-century European observers of the peoples of the Woodlands and Plains
regions and was developed into a major element of cultural identity during the reservation period, a
tradition that continues to the present day.
In an allied sense, art objects in Native American society have also been valued and venerated for
their age and the collective force of ancestral traditions that are associated with them. For example,
Pueblo Native Americans in the Southwest show deep respect towards older ceramics and other
objects used in ritual ceremonies.
Works of art were also highly valued in the extensive system of intertribal and inter-regional trade
that existed from ancient times. Archaeological evidence in the Southwest indicates that fine
ceramics were an important part of a trade system extending south into Mexico and west to the
Fine-quality ceramics and woven textiles are still one of the mainstays of the Pueblo Native American
commercial system, whose market since the late 19th century has been mainly established in the non-
Native American world. This commercial development of works of art for the non-Native American
art market has been common to many tribal peoples living in all areas of America.
Early Painted Southwestern Native American Pot
In traditional Native American cultures every aspect of the peoples’ lives was animated by spiritual
power. Human activity was also deemed important to the natural order, and proper social and ritual
behavior was necessary to maintain the course and harmony of the world.
Works of art were important carriers of spiritual power, prime examples being masks, notably the
masks created for rituals of healing and myth of the False Face Medicine societies found among the
Iroquois Native Americans of the north-east Woodlands or those of the Kachina dancers of the Hopi
Indians in the Southwest, whose elaborate yearly performances mark the cycle of nature.
Iroquois Native American Carved False Face Mask
Forces of spiritual power in all indigenous North American cultures have also been represented by
sculpture, painting, engraved petroglyphs and other media.
Eastern Native American Sculpture
In the Great Lakes the Midewiwin Grand Medicine Society utilized a variety of works of art as
elements of their ritual ceremonies. Spiritual forces called manitos were represented by animals and
anthropomorphic figures made in a variety of media by male and female artists. Art as an expression
of sacred power was also a vital element of Plains life.
The great communal ceremonies of natural renewal called the Sundance used effigies and symbolically
decorated objects to mark the essential elements of the ritual. This tradition is also found in the
paraphernalia of the Crow Tobacco Society and in the elaborately painted clothing of the Ghost Dance
societies. The Plains warrior also used art to represent the sacred powers that he hoped to attract
in personal spirit quests. Revealed in dreams and visions, these images were painted on leather
shields, which were carried into battle more as elements of magical than physical protection.
Most members of traditional Native American societies were able to produce the essential goods and
materials of everyday life; art was based on these utilitarian models but distinguished from them by
quality and symbolic decoration. People with special skills at making things were admired for their
creative talent, often being asked to produce objects for ritual and sacred purposes.
Early Ojibwa Beadwork
On the Plains, women who combined great skill in quill and bead decoration with exemplary personal
conduct were asked to join a special group, whose honor it was to produce decorated clothing and
containers for priests and ritual objects.
Some Native American groups developed a class of professional artists whose special talents and
skills were necessary to fulfill commercial demands as well as the needs of elaborate social and
religious rituals. In the Southwest Pueblos, professionally produced ceramics have been traded since
c. AD 1000. Perhaps the outstanding example of the professional artist was found among North-west
Coast peoples, whose elaborate social and ritual lives depended on the visual arts.
Another important role of the artist in Native American cultures was established by their association
with shamanic healing ceremonies. Shamans from the cultures of the Great Lakes to the Northwest
Coast regions and from the Arctic Eskimo culture created powerful works of art depicting their
spirit allies. By objectifying the supernatural, these healer–artists made a great variety of masks,
sculptures and paintings that still have the power to move the beholder both aesthetically and
Another extraordinary example of the artistic genius of the healer–artist can still be found in
traditional Navajo culture, where the sacred singers who lead the curing ceremonies create sand
paintings of great beauty and complexity that bring people back into natural harmony with themselves
and the world.