Authentic Details Makes the Performance

I am a stickler for details. For example, after watching a wonderful native dance performance that was open to the public, I was able to talk to one of the performers about her costume. She allowed me to photograph this gem so I could study it for carefully on my own time. It was the most beautiful thin brown suede, actually more of a tawny color. There was fringe around the hem and a beaded belt around her waist. It had been made decades ago by a tribal member and ancestor. She always liked to wear something authentic in every performance, preferably a relic from her past. We used to call this type of outfit “buckskin,” but it was more supple and delicate. The neckline was also beaded and made to look like a lavish necklace. She wore earrings, a head band, moccasin shoes and a bracelet that was silver and turquoise in the style of her tribe. Each one has a different kind of emblem or pattern. It depends on the way the stones are grouped and whether or not there is a large one in the center. I found it all breathtakingly beautiful. I have so much to learn about Native American culture and when I get to experience something like a dance in person, I feel very privileged.

Interestingly, the dancer wore makeup, including some very natural looking false eyelashes. I found this very modern. Her sister had done the application and took the requisite time to attach the most natural looking individual lashes one by one. She used the kind of skill required in beading. The dancer said that a professional photographer was coming to document the dance event for National Geographic. Therefore, she wanted to look her best and to have some definition to her face so all attention would not be on the costume. It certainly worked. Her eyes were deep, dark, and sparking. She was beautiful anyway, but the lashes added something special to her appearance. It was so striking that I wanted to try it out myself. I mentioned this and to my surprise, the dancer’s sister volunteered to make me over. Of course, I said yes.

I loved the results and never expected to look so good yet so natural. The lashes were not just the ordinary kind you find in the drugstore or cosmetics supply shop. They were cut by hand to match the shape of my eyes. If you do not trim store-bought false eyelashes, they will stick out too far, thus drawing attention to the flaw. I wanted to see the photographs of the dancer when they were in print, but in the meantime, I had my own. I tried not to be too intrusive, but I was determined to capture this lovely woman in action. The costume was handmade and unique, like none I had seen before. I could look at it for hours. It draped so beautifully over her body as it was not as thick as suede often is.

Native Americans of the Silver Screen

Native Americans of the Silver Screen

Native American’s have been captured on film since the time that filming and photography was made possible. In the silent film era Indian-themed films were quite popular. People probably saw more Native American’s on the screen during the 20th century than they would ever see up close and personal in their entire lives. The problem here is that, over time, stereotypes were created that became the basis for what people thought they knew about indigenous people. Thankfully, we now know better!

Native American’s have not only produced their own films, but have starred in many as well. In early movie making days, when Westerns were popular, Native American’s looking to break into film had the option of either portraying a version of Native American Indians that was unflattering or giving up trying to get an acting job altogether. As we moved into the 60’s, Western films became less popular and Native American actors found less and less work.

This changed when the movie Dances with Wolves came out because it featured many prominent Native American actors, like Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman and Graham Greene, while giving us in the audience a better representation of the culture. The Last of The Mohicans was another film that helped bring a better understanding of Native American customs that Dances with Wolves seemed to lack.

Native American actors and actresses don’t just play Native American roles though. They have portrayed a wide variety of characters through the years from narrating the story of One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest to playing shape changing wolves in the Twilight Saga.

Some actors that you may not have known are Native American:

Jimi Hendrix – 1 quarter Cherokee via his grandmother’s side.

Tori Amos – of Cherokee ancestry on her mother’s side

Will Rogers – part Cherokee

Johnny Depp – Creek Indian from his grandmother’s side

Mandy Moore – Native American Descent

Billy Ray Cyrus – Cherokee heritage

Jonas Brothers- are said to have Cherokee ancestry

Elvis Presley – his great-great-great grandmother, Morning White Dove, was a full blooded Cherokee

Some Native American stars did more than just act. Russell Means, who was in the Last of the Mohicans, was also a writer, singer, and painter. More importantly, he was an activist for the rights of Native Americans. He became a very prominent figure of the American Indian Movement, which organized some high profile events that drew both national and international coverage.

Fun Fact: Jay Silverheals, who played the role of the Lone Ranger, was Native American.

Branscombe Richmond is another highly recognized Native American actor who also sings and does stunts. He is recognized for his hearty laughter and huge grin, and has played both villain and good guy with great success. You may have seen him with other well known actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal.

Jana Mashonee is a novelist, actress, musician and philanthropist who created the Jana’s Kids Foundation, which focuses on helping the youths of Native America achieve their goals and dreams through scholarships and programs. She gained the title of “Woman of the Year” for her philanthropical activities.

The list of talented Native American individuals is a long one indeed, and many who have gained recognition have used their fame to better their Native American culture in positive ways. It’s definitely worth doing some investigating if you are drawn to this culture as I have been.

Posted in Art

Native American Modern Art & Film

Native American Modern Art & Film

We’ve had a brief look at ancient Native American art, but what about modern art and film? When someone says “Native American Art” the first thing that comes to most peoples minds are beadwork and feathered headpieces. It is so much more than this however. There are many art museums dedicated solely to Native American contemporary creations, as well as film festivals that are Native American based.

One such place is the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, who began their Native American film festival. It originally started out in 1979 when one of its founders was asked to create a film series that would be used to accompany one of its exhibitions. However, this turned into a film screening that lasted most of the summer and began the first Native American Film and Video Festival. The festival focuses on Native American film and issues of the indigenous people. It has been running for 35 years.

Contemporary Native American art tends to reflect how native creativity has been changed over the centuries by their ever changing way of life. One place where this can be seen is at the National Museum of the American Indians as part of their Modern and Contemporary Art Collection. Many paintings, ceramics and drawings have been showcased in this collection, as well as both household goods and ceremonial objects.

The unique aspect of modern art from Native American’s is that they have a unique perspective on today’s issues that non-Native Americans would otherwise miss.

Nerman Museum in Kansas is another place that showcases the blending of traditions with modern art trends. One can find laptop covers made completely from beaded Native American designs, rugs weaved using bold and contemporary colours and patterns,tribal masks with a modern twist, and many unique paintings and drawings.

Then there is the filming industry. When I say Native American film, I am not referring to American portrayals of Native American culture. I mean films that have been created by Native Americans and places that encourage and support them in this type of media.

One such place is Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program. This program has been running for over 20 years and is committed to supporting indigenous filmmakers, allowing for tremendous growth in the media field for Native Americans and helping to get these films and creations into the mainstream. The program scouts for young artists and then helps them to get their ideas and projects made and seen. Native Americans are some of the best story tellers, considering they used stories to pass down their knowledge and ancestry. This program is helping to inspire a whole new generation of story tellers!

San Francisco has been hosting an annual Native American film festival for the past 30 years, which showcases fictional films and documentaries create by Native Americans. It also has workshops that help to learn about filmmaking and filming’s history amongst Indigenous people.

I think films are one of the best ways for self expression because they touch us on an emotional level and tell the story of the creator.

 

Posted in Art

A Quick History of Native America

Before I talk about the wonderful contributions to the arts that have been made by Native Americans, let’s take a quick look at their history.

What is a Native American?

Native Americans are the indigenous people of both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean Islands. There has been evidence indicating that these people originated from Siberia and relocated to North America over 11,000 years prior to their discovery. During the time of the Ice Age there was a land bridge that connected the old world to the new world, and it was this land bridge that allowed them to travel and settle in North America. This was long before Christopher Columbus happened upon the shores of the Americas. In fact, there has been documentation that goes as far back as 150,000BC showing the Sandia Indians had been dwelling in North America for some time.

Many waves of nomadic people migrating occurred over time and it is said to account for why there are many different Native American tribes who have different cultures. For example, in the first wave of migration those who followed the bison, also known as the cultures of Folsom and Clovis, settled. In the second migratory wave there would have been the people of the Na-Dene, where the Apache, Dene and Navajos were descended from. Recent genetic studies have indicated that there were at least 4 waves of migration from Siberia to the Americas, with the Aleut and Inuit people being the last of these waves.

Native Americans were a peaceful people and prospered until the first Europeans arrived in North America during the 15th century. The Europeans brought horses with them that was the cause for the spread of disease amongst the native people. Having no immunity to these new and strange diseases, thousands of Native Americans died from illnesses like chicken pox and the measles. While that was going on, the Europeans were taking over land to build farms and homes in order to settle.

The natives were intrigued by these newcomers at first and held the new fair skinned people in high regard, almost to point of worshipping them. However, that view changed as they witnessed the cruelty and greed of the “white man”, seeing them as the bringers of hate and disease.

Over time the Native American’s situation grew worse, as they were forced from their lands and pushed further west. Many conflicts cropped up that would eventually fuel the start of the Indian Wars. They lost their lives in both wars and massacres and in time were only left with small pieces of land called reservation for their people to live on.

At one time the Native American population numbered in the millions. Sadly, they only account for 1.4% of the population today and most still live on reservations designated for Native Americans. That said, there are still many Native Americans who take great pride in their heritage and ancestral traditions. They continue to practice their ceremonies, art and music today.

In 2004 the National Museum of the American Indian was opened as a way to pay tribute to their heritage. You can often find festivals and gatherings across the country that are dedicated to Native American culture, where some of the ritual dances can be seen and Native American art, crafts, music and food can experienced and bought.

 

Nature isn’t your Toilet

There is an unnamed reservation in the southwest of the United States where campers are often found, and most not legitimately. Hikers love trails that have spontaneously emerged. They were not placed there for their use, however. There is no barbed wire around the land, no walls to keep people out. Perhaps there should be.

Native Americans love their land and honor it with respect and appreciation. It yields crops or is used for cattle grazing. It is the foundation of homes, schools, and other utilitarian buildings. It is home and it is to be loved. Woe to those who trespass and despoil its beauty. But they come anyway.

This is what indeed happens too often enough. No one invited these visitors, but they have been spied roaming about, looking for who knows what. Did mother never tell her son that nature isn’t your toilet? Did dad never teach the lad how to put out a fire? More than one hiker has left molten ashes and more than one camper has sparked a wildfire.

Not all reservations have forests that are in peril. Many are desert areas. It doesn’t matter. There is still a lack of attention to the environs and less than a smattering of respect. The denizens recount stories out of frustration and anger. Rightfully so.

In that there are no stated campgrounds on reservations, there are no portable or stable toilets to service trespassers. They come anyway and make do. They leave banana peels and coffee grounds strewn about the earthen premises and they lay waste to fresh creeks. They somehow find themselves in every nook and cranny of Native American civilization, looking for relics, seeking insight into private lives. It would be different if designated areas were used.

Now, it isn’t that hordes are seen all at one time. It is not a matter of masses covering the land. They trickle in, one or two people at a time, backpacks and gear in tow. They set up tents, light their fires, and cook their meals. They are relaxed, mellow, and in bliss. This is the great outdoors after all, and why they probably came. Thank God, they don’t hunt, as many do in more northern realms of the country. They seem like a harmless bunch, strumming their guitars and singing their lively songs. They are nice enough, just oblivious; and no one invited them.

To enter a Native American reservation is a privilege accorded to guests. They may come to visit a friend, help a neighbor, witness a ceremony, or buy hand-made wares. In these cases they are welcome. They come out of curiosity, respect for the culture, and a desire to keep the status quo. If only the hikers and campers were of this mind.

It may come, in some areas, down to written and posted rules of the land if things get any worse. Maybe Smokey the Bear needs to pay a visit and give public lectures. He has certainly seen some awful sights. A fire of any size or dimension is a threat. Have people not heard of putting dirt on embers? Have they not heard of dousing flames with water? Have they not been told about litter and trash?

Mother Nature cringes when these impingers of privacy appear. She recoils and retaliates, sometimes with a hard and heavy rain. She wants to discourage a long stay of any kind. If she gets particularly angry, there is wind and hail. This will shoo out the hardiest of souls. She knows her earth is not a toilet.

So here are some rules that she has devised and of which Smokey has approved and so should the visitors:

  • Take your litter with you and clean up the land
  • Use a camping toilet with disposable innards. Never leave a modicum of evidence.
  • Do not feed the animals and make them sick or threaten them in any way unless you are provoked
  • Do not spy on residents or attempt to peer into their homes
  • Respect nature and do not harm the plants, or flora as the biologists say
  • Do not set traps of any sort; the victim could be your friend
  • Stir embers in dirt and touch the surface to make sure it is cold
  • Leave with whatever you have brought
  • Better yet, don’t come unless sanctioned by the tribe
  • Respect the area at all times
  • Do not trespass or enter marked roads that are “private”
  • Understand what you are doing and think twice about doing it

Experiencing Native American Culture Today

There are many ways that you can immerse yourself in Native American culture today. From festivals to travelling to Native American locales, it all depends on what you are interested in. You do need to be careful though, because there are many places who claim to be part of the Native American experience who actually have no ties to this culture at all. So where does one go to experience authentic Native American culture today?

It really depends on what you are interested in. Are you drawn to a certain tribe and their practices? Or are you a lover of the Arts? Or maybe you want to experience the food and dress of Native Americans. There are many tribes and Native American alliances now who offer a taste of their culture through public gatherings or Pow wow’s.

Originally a Pow wow was meant for the gathering of Native American tribes to share news, dancing, singing and visiting each other. Today some of these Pow wows are put on for the public to experience the rich culture of Native Americans as well as to raise awareness of their culture.

One area of Native American culture that I have always been fascinated with are the songs and dances. The dances done have specific meanings to each tribe. Some are social dances, some are war dances and some are spiritual dances. It is usually the social dances that we are allowed to view in these public gatherings. Singers are the most important part of these dances though, because they tell the story of the dance. It is through song and dance that Native Americans have saved, shared and taught each generation their lessons and stories. The dances are also full of energy and the vibrant colours of the costumes worn for each dance.

It is said that, when various tribes gathered together, the words of the songs were changed to “vocables”, or sounds instead of words, so that those of each tribe could understand and join in. However, the meaning of each song is still special to those who know them. Many of the old songs have been revised in the present, as a reminder of their heritage and where they have come from.

There are also new programs out now where you can volunteer to do work on a Native American reservation, where you can learn about their past and present. One such place is the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota.

Another way to experience Native American culture is by visiting areas that were once steeped in their way of life. For example, Taos Pueblo in New Mexico is a 13th century settlement of adobe dwellings that is a “living community”, meaning a place where one can go to experience the day to day life of a Native American community. They offer guided tours, places to buy Native American crafts, and fry bread eating.

In Denver Colorado there is a Native American restaurant where you can enjoy some of the rich foods of their culture. The restaurant tries to blend old recipes with the modern age. One favourite there is the Indian Taco that uses shredded bison meat in the recipe.

Santa Fe, New Mexico is another area that is rich in Native American culture and you often need to take more than one trip to experience all that it has to offer. The Canyon Road gallery hosts a variety of Native arts. They also have one of the largest Native American venues for Native American artists to show their creations.

The Gathering of Nations, which takes place in New Mexico, is the worlds largest gathering of Native American cultures in one area. About 700 tribes come together for this massive event and there is so much that one can experience of this culture.

Phoenix, Arizona is home to nearly 45,000 indigenous people and 22 tribes. It also houses the Heard Museum, which is one of the best for enjoying Native American culture.

These are but a few of the many places one can go to get a real feel for Native American culture.

 

 

Native American Clothing

People love handicrafts, anything made lovingly with human hands instead of a machine. It is felt to be immensely superior. And it probably is! In Native American culture, there is much to covet. There are exquisitely wrought vases and bowls of all sizes and shapes decorated with emblems of the tribe, etched in the finest clay. There is jewelry to long for in the form of silver, onyx, and turquoise like the famous Navajo squash blossom necklaces. And there are woven items like area rugs and certain types of traditional garb.

So who let the sewing machine on the reservation? Who knows, but it has been there for a very long time along with all the normal modern conveniences. We are not talking about ready-made, store bought stuff that everyone has no matter where they are from, baring differences in climate. Native Americans wear what everyone else does in most parts of the country. We are talking about items for sale that recreate a lost culture or a contemporary one that is back on track.

When you think of traditional clothing, you may think of buckskin dresses complete with beads and fringe. There may be a fur-lined jacket thrown in for good measure for northern tribes. The animals are said to be trapped on the reservation land. That is a bit of a stereotype, although some of these items do appear now and then for ceremonial purposes or creature comfort. More likely is the traditional smock shirt, for example, that looks wonderful with local jewelry.

Beading is one of the glorious Indian arts, not only the embroidered kind, but the strung ones found in the wonderful necklaces made of shell heishi or small stone animals. If you have ever made a trip to Sedona, Arizona and have visited the tourist center there, you will find a wonderful specialty shop that stocks beads from the reservation, among other places. They will help you devise your own design or copy some of their own. You can enjoy unique hand-carved beads, metal beads, painted ceramic beads, and glass beads of all types.

Meanwhile, back to clothing. This is something that has become sensitive since the store, Urban Outfitters, did the taboo thing and offered a retail line of Native American styles. The problem was, the clothing was cheap, trashy, and culturally offensive. Need we say more?

Back to the sewing machine. The artisans who produce Native American products have all the latest gadgets to produce quality products for their own use or even the ubiquitous tourists. You can’t blame them for appreciating the Indian style. They are tasteful and true to the region unlike garb at Urban Outfitters. This is not the first time that an indigenous culture has been exploited. It happens around the world in many places. In the US, you expect better than faux uncouth Navajo products. Ralph Lauren comes out stronger with fashion that tips its hat to the old west, although he has been criticized for using colorful Native Americans as marketing props. Along these lines, Victoria Secret made a major booboo when model Karlie Kloss wore an Indian headdress with little else but a concho belt.

Pop culture will appropriate just about anything and perpetuate stereotypes of teepees, headdresses and feathers. How do you strip away this false front to get to the real items? It is unlikely that a precious garment used for ceremonies or rites will be on sale unless it is an historical item to go to a museum like the Heard in Phoenix, where it can be respected and admired. The sewing output on the reservation is practical, utilitarian, but also stylistically unique. It is not found everywhere, so when it is uncovered, it may be a treasure indeed.

So don’t be surprised that Native Americans have modern sewing machines with all the bells and whistles, not to mention computerization of stitches for perfect regulation of spacing and size. Anyone who fabricates a garment needs such a marvel. Take Yellowtail, a designer of note who lives on the Crow Reservation. She brings great authenticity to the world in a tasteful way by adapting the styles of her ancestors to the 21st century—most particularly the beadwork of her great grandmother. Everything has a special meaning and spirit. She is a real standout in a crass culture and a paragon to emulate.

There are others following in her footsteps like Patricia Michaels who lives in New Mexico and created a marvelous elk antler cape. This could be a new era for Native American fashion. Get those sewing machines oiled and ready for the next generation who wants to celebrate the past.

Posted in Art

Outdoor Film Screenings

Some people wrongly think Native American reservations are modest places with lean-tos or hogans strewn about a barren land. They imagine idlers leaning against a broken fence, empty bottle in hand. They have seen something on the news perhaps and have taken one erroneous example to be the norm. These false media reservations have a reputation for poverty and a lack of services. Electricity, however, is not one of them. It is well supplied in all territories. It is just like any other place called home.

There are times when you are away from “civilization” or a concentration of humankind. You might be visiting people, on the hunt for resources like gemstones, or in search of scenic beauty to enjoy. In this case, you have to take your electricity with you. It is in the form of one of the best portable generators that can power up most any small appliance such as a coffeemaker, electric toothbrush, TV, or radio. They are often thought of as emergency gear, but they can be just plain utilitarian in a pinch.

Take for example a film showing in the Arizona desert I read about. It is nothing like Burning Man, mind you. Hundreds did not appear. But it got a nice turnout and people really enjoyed the atmosphere of being away from city noise and the hustle and bustle of life.

You can set up equipment on a small flat plain and organize seating in front of a large-scale screen. City parks do this all the time in the summer. They show old movies, kids’ favorites, or anything of public interest. Usually, there is power nearby and a bit of cable is all that is needed to run the system.

Out in the hinterlands, however, it is a different story. You need your trusty generator to operate any kind of projection device, unless you plan on cranking it by hand. Ha ha! Seriously, a generator is a godsend for most camping experiences, so why not for a film showing. While the festival I heard about in Arizona was a big success, others have barely escaped peril. Bears have been known to be enamored with moving pictures and bonfires have gotten out of control. People need facilities for personal use and they can get pretty awful.

The worst thing that can happen, however, is to forget the generator. I know this has happened to some organizers. They plan an event down to the letter, get the space clean and ready, bring in food and entertainment, but forget a key item. No film. Unhappy people. That is what can happen.

It pays to pack the big stuff first to make sure it is in the van. There are few alternatives in the wilds. You have no electricity unless you are close to a residence or two, and that is not likely. The attraction of these film showings is the scenic beauty of the open space. The organizers want ample parking and room for people to congregate and wander. Maybe it is a bit like a mini Burning Man after all. I am sure that film showings using generators have appeared more than once in the Nevada desert.

Generators are pretty handy devices so you want to have plenty of fuel as well. People who don’t write things down forget them. It’s a fact of life. You usually think of everything, you say, so why did this happen? Someone has to take the fall.

Film showings are a unique idea that has permeated the city parks for denizens to enjoy. The selection of just the right movie is key. You have to know the taste and expectations of your audience. You can’t show R-rated films to families, now can you? On the reservation, there should be no insulting westerns. Actually, it is too bad that they have fallen out of favor. Many were quite fun. But we try to avoid being condescending in this PC era, and rightly so. It can be carried a bit too far.

This is just a word of caution for organizers to check the generator—that it still works—and put it where you can see it clearly before departing on your journey. Food and amusement will not fill the bill alone. People want the movie, whatever it may be. It can be a cultural expose of a particular tribe or a general commentary on indigenous peoples. It can cover arts and crafts and highlight artists of renown. It can be social, political, educational, or all rolled into one.

Native American Dance

RT CloudsContemporary dance is eclectic and all-encompassing. You see African jazz to Nave American Hopi rhythms. Choreographers love mixing it up for an exciting display of prowess, with all kinds of cultural undertones. Dancing is an art, indeed, apart from its role in promoting fitness and general good health.

In past centuries, tribal dances were not for mere amusement as they are today in some parts. They were vital parts of certain rites and rituals. As such, they are to be called ceremonial dances. They are recreated at present for historical purposes. Covering various aspects of life, dancing celebrated hunting, harvesting, the need to give thanks, and more.

Most often ritual dances were held in the open air, perhaps around a central fire. They might be accompanied by prayers of victory or thanks. Drums, rattles, bells, and voices gave the steps an impetus and defined the mythological associations. Dancers would perform alone or in groups, and would spend hours rehearsing these dances – there was certainly no need for a home gym system in that time. Healing dances might be private while ceremonial dances would be for public view.

Dancing was a kind of storytelling, and it continues to be to this day. Movement becomes a kind of mime that recreates a time and a place. Stories can be religious or pertain to folklore. They can encompass personified animals. This is a great way to hand down information from generation to generation.

Among the more well-known dances are the Grass Dance of the Pawnee, Arapaho, Sioux, and Omaha, among many other tribes, and the Gourd dance of the Cree. In the former, large feather bustles called crow belts were worn along with a hair headdress. In the later, particular songs were intoned. There is a type of ritual called “fancy dance” created by the Ponca in the 1920’s to preserve their religion and culture at a time when it was threatened by the government. There was a time when ritual dances went “underground” to avoid persecution.

The fancy dance is actually a type of war dance and was popularly performed for visitors to reservations or in Wild West shows. Other tribes like the Kiowa and Comanche followed suit and a public art form was born. There already was the pow wow circuit, but it grew in proportion, giving Indians much-needed revenue during the Great Depression.

Men and women both performed various dances, sometimes in circles. If there were no costumes involved, a sash at least would be worn. Why the government banned these dances is unknown in the 1930’s; but they have survived to this day due to the industriousness of tribal historians. We hope there will be longevity.

If you want to go farther back, you can read about the Hoop dance which used up to 40 hoops to tell a story. Centuries ago, this ceremony was conducted for the purposes of healing, and to achieve balance and harmony in the universe. As a point of fact, the hoop represented the never-ending circle of life. While dancing, the participants used them to create symbols such as butterflies, snakes, turtles, flowers, or eagles. It is wildly popular with tourists who understand its depiction of the seasons, the elements like wind and water, and bodily forms.

Also legendary is the snake dance of the Hopi, which is still held once a year in August. It is derived from an old water ceremony since snakes are the guardians of springs. It has evolved into a rain dance that beseeches ancestors to intervene. One is likely to witness not only snakes, but feathers and rattles used amid constant chanting.

The rain dance is a sister event performed by agricultural peoples, usually in the southwest such as the Hopi and Apache. The spirits are implored to send rain for crops. In the spring, dancers celebrate the planting season at a time when rain is sorely needed. Tribes seem to have their own unique versions and costumes made of animal skins, embroidered aprons, and jewelry of leather and silver. Dance steps entailed zigzag patterns unlike the traditional circular movements.

Elders of every tribe can recount these dances and often show the variety of movements involved. Such a veteran will talk about waiting until dark to begin a ritual that lasted until dawn. Sometimes there was fasting and sometimes a medicine made of plant roots was taken. If you are talking to someone from the upper plains and Rockies, you will hear about the Sun Dance that unites body and spirit. There could be pipe passing, fasting, or ceremonial piercing of the skin. These dances were cultural expressions that entailed personal sacrifice and prayer to benefit the family and the community.

Thus dance is a multi-purpose enterprise with deep roots in the past. They are supernatural, spiritual, but also very real. Lucky are those who witness tribal movements that reveal the inner side of Native American life.

Native American Architecture

A slow-walking, fast talking stranger enters the premises, a little leery at first. It is his first time on the reservation, and he has heard tell… He looks around at the simple structure built from local wood planks. A little crude, a little plain. The walls are bare overall, with just a touch of stain. A ceiling fan whirrs softly, projecting aimlessly from the ceiling. Overall it is pretty quiet and peaceful.

A few Native Americans are huddled in the corner playing some kind of game. They are laughing and smiling. The stranger ambles over to the makeshift bar and asks for a cold drink. He looks around some more. There are fur pelts along one wall, some rather majestic specimens. Local hunter contributions no doubt. Then there are cases on the other end loaded with examples of fine native wares: silver bracelets, small ceramic objects, some fetishes carved from stone. His eye focuses on a few coveted items.

Mmmm. He wonders if this is a trading post or a café—maybe just a one-of-a-kind bar. There is a sign, on a kind of chalkboard, that indicates the daily special. He is starting to get hungry and eyes the words “buffalo steak.” Sounds good enough to eat. But he sits for a while contemplating the scene and waiting for something to happen. It’s 1950. Who knows?

Flash forward to 2015. Students are seated in even rows in a brightly-lit classroom. They are staring at the teacher who is offering pearls of wisdom to the young. One or two glance out the windows at the scene beyond, then their attention returns. It is a beautiful day. The room is modern and includes all the latest facilities like plasma TV and PowerPoint. Everyone is online at some point during class. It is early fall and the sky is clear, but it is still hot. Yes, we use the term Indian summer as it will always apply. There is air conditioning, of course, but also a ceiling fan to help with air circulation. It is the only remnant of the past.

The school was built about five years ago, designed for educational needs of all age groups. The architect is Native American. You can tell by the wonderful geometric detailing on the outside of the main building, painted boldly across the walls. It harkens back to Indian woven rugs, using traditional cultural designs. Its simplicity and elegance echoes that of the modern structure.

The school rambles a bit as there is plenty of land, and two stories are certainly not required. There is a cafeteria, an auditorium, a gym, and an assortment of private offices. The halls are filled with jubilant voices. The facility caters to residents who live in the local vicinity. You see a few trucks and a school bus parked in an adjacent lot. Many students walk to school.

Reservations have come a long way since the weary traveler entered the trading post way back when. (He left with a few hand-made bead necklaces for his wife). There are hospitals and clinics, new homes in a contemporary style, civic buildings, and shops. Architects have been having a field day as the economy rebounds and reaches the reservation; but there is much development yet to take place in many tribal areas.

Government restrictions have to be overcome for outsiders, but no one wants to see this progress more than the local municipality. Native American lands are protected and self-governing to some extent. As people move away from reservations, they do carry their talents and expertise with them to offer their skills to the world at large. It also goes the other way as non-residents make their mark.

Architecture planned and executed by members of a tribe is seen outside of these reservations. I have seen replicas of sand painting, for example, on building floors. I have seen totem-like images, carved wooden beams, and assorted flora and fauna reminiscent of the past. The Native American culture is rife with elements that bear repeating, especially in the southwest where it suits the region.

Architecture can be eclectic and it is seldom pure and unadulturated. Influences enrich basic, known styles no matter what they are from retro mid-century modern to country squire. You can combine elements that are usually quite disparate to arrive at something unique and distinctive. Native American architects are no exception. They enjoy traditional concepts from their heritage while they embrace what’s new about contemporary life. It is all about progress and change.

The Native American Diet

Native Americans eat what other Americans do; and as such, they are subject to being overweight like the rest. The scales tell the tale for most everyone these days who eats fast food, processed goods, and too many carbs. Bread, potatoes, sweets—these are the bane of modern man’s existence whatever his race or gender. It seems to plague this group as it does Latinos, and we sadly wonder why. Does it have to do with genetics, one’s pocketbook, or other factors unknown? It wasn’t always this way.

It is hard to have the time in our busy lives to prepare healthy food from raw ingredients, so we do the easy thing and rush out to the nearest McDonald’s. It is quick, easy, and pretty tasty—but, oh, the calories. A burger with all the trimmings can be 1,000 or more. A normal diet is 2,000 a day, so what can we do? We want protein but we need to find it in a better form. Let’s not knock American culture and its indigenous cuisine. But we do have to find alternatives.

Our modern bathroom scales remind us daily of a task that is at hand if we want to abort diabetes and other forms of ill health that will shorten our lives. Native Americans can stick with the best aspects of their diet like corn and grains, but eschew eating carbs too often. They can grill meat and enjoy a marinade, but avoid sauces. It’s the same the world over. We are not in the 19th century any more.

In the days of the old West, fat burning was not an issue. Everyone was running around doing something that took care of excess calories. Native Americans were taking care of their land, growing and irrigating crops, bartering them for other goods, and so on. Agriculture was a way of life. You could control your intake just by consuming what was available, because it was basic and pure. Additives today wreak havoc with our metabolism not to mention all the extras like catchup and mustard. These condiments are full of sugar and calories.

Native Americans in Alaska eat different foods than those residing in the southwest. Of course fish is their staple. Elsewhere, the food is diverse. In the olden days, Indians were sometimes nomadic in order to hunt in new places, but many remained in one place if the crop yields were good. They also had domestic animals, as they do today. If resources were plentiful, the tribe would thrive. There would be enough for all as a rule.

Cooking was simple. Fresh meat was usually unseasoned but tasty enough. It was roasted over a fire or gilled on hot stones. As for fish, you had the option of baking or smoking. There was plenty of corn-on-the-cob and the vegetable was also used as meal. A treat was corn bread made in a clay oven. It appears that most tribes had corn or maize. Others had beans, squash, wild rice, potatoes, peppers, peanuts, pumpkins, sunflowers, and tomatoes.

When the Europeans arrived, their influence was pervasive and soon appeared many new plants and animals such as wheat, sheep, and cows. Lucy tribes had meat-heavy diets and still do. Over the course of centuries there was buffalo, deer, caribou, elk and rabbit. You will also find fish, duck, geese, and turkey. Nothing was to be wasted if it came from the land. Fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and wild plums were often rampant.

Farming tribes like the Navajos were enriched by European additions to the traditional crops. The new food by now is old hat. Lifestyles indeed changed. The buffalo was disappearing, killed off in droves. The Native Americans in these areas had to adapt. Ranches that raise buffalo still exist even if many natural areas have been cleared. Hunting and trapping will never go completely out of style, however rare it may be at present.

The biggest change was moving to reservations from original homelands. The residents had to be resourceful to provide fodder for life. New forms of agriculture had to be devised that suited the land and its climate. Most were able to conquer the elements.

Now if you think of Native American traditional food, and you are not geographically specific, you might come up with wild rice and cranberries (from Northeast woodland tribes), corn cakes, blueberry wojapa pudding (from the Sioux), fry bread, and more. If you were a spy in a reservation home, you might see succotash, bean or fruit salad.

On Native American Smoke Signals

smokesignalWho hasn’t seen an old “western” movie where the Native Americans, then called Indians, used smoke signals to warn the tribe of impending danger or the arrival of enemies. It added a colorful element to the film, but is this tradition true? Let’s find out. Apparently they were common as a form of communication at one time, although not anymore unless for ceremonial purposes as an act of recreating the past. They originally emerged from a type of crafted fire pit, which was the tribe’s version of a wood stove so to speak. Their message was not always dire, but often served to gather tribal members far and wide and to pass on any communal news.

It is a unique activity in the history of America, one that most people take for granted—the stuff of movies and old tales. We have no clue as to where and why for the most part. Lewis and Clark were the first to be confused, writing about how the Indians were setting the plains on fire. Oddly enough, these Native Americans were not the only culture to avail themselves of this fiery practice. In ancient China, soldiers stationed along the famed Great Wall would speak to one another over great distances, especially in regard to enemy attack. It seems like this is the ubiquitous message.

Bad news was not always part of the smoke signal experience for Native American tribes. They would light damp grass to begin the communication process. It could be about a whale washing on shore ready to harvest or a feast about to take place. It might signal a death. In any case, they build the fire in an elevated area to be sure that the smoke arising from the pyre would be clearly seen.

Anthropologists and cultural historians study smoke signals and have deemed it a form of human code, akin to any system where certain meanings are assigned and communicated. Generally, puffs of smoke are created using a moving blanket that manipulates the vapor in certain ways. They must be visible for a least a mile or more during transmission of a message.

Thus, smoke signals are a very early form of communication, although certainly the purpose varies culture to culture. You can make different shapes to denote numbers or words for example. While this could be a one on one form of transmittal, it is usually more widely known to a specific group of senders and receivers. Only the inner circle privy to the system would be able to interpret the specific meaning assigned. In any case, it calls attention to some matter of concern or interest for communal purposes. For example, three puffs of smoke could mean something bad has happened. One might denote all is fine like an “all clear.” Interestingly enough, the Boy Scouts of America have adopted this practice when camping. It is clearly a shout out to a venerable tradition.

The hallmark of a smoke signal is to travel a great distance in open space. It looms on the horizon, meant for special eyes. It is primitive technology to be sure, but it worked for some time going back to the ancient Greeks and Chinese. Surely Native Americans came to its use on their own, but somehow it was part of an innate experience. The key to smoke signals is to keep the message simple. It must be universal or known to everyone in the tribe. It, of course, would not be apparent to enemies or foes. As such, a great deal of cleverness imbues the process as a communication methodology. It also shows the important role of fire in a given culture.

One can create puffs with a blanket as mentioned, or even spirals. It is a sight to behold. Zigzags, parallel lines, and circles are also possible with more adept practitioners. It would certainly take some doing to learn this art today. It is said that different types of wood will create different kinds of fires, thus affecting the smoke signals needed. There is nothing quite like this form of tribal communication, apart from the written or spoken word.

Historians say that tribes would set up stations where fires were built, usually on hilltops. Fire bowls were used for convenience for the easy containment of leaves and branches. They were lined no doubt with rocks and small stones. It seems practical enough but fell out of use long ago with modernization and the arrival of Europeans. It is now part of Native American lore.

Native American Craft

il_570xN.291684925Native American crafts are highly prized around the world. They are unique in conception and rich in lore, going back traditionally for more than a few generations. Each tribe, Hopi to Navajo, has its particular gifts and objects of adornment. Some weave rugs, others make jewelry. More than one makes packs and bags. It is part of a long-standing culture that is utilitarian as well as decorative. It has its long-standing place in the American experience.

People seek out these Native American arts and crafts when visiting places like northern Arizona or New Mexico. They learn about the tribes and visit their private reservations, hoping that available wares will be on display. They are seldom disappointed. While you can buy these crafts in Phoenix or Flagstaff in specialty stores, there is nothing like meeting the artisans in person. Kudos are extended all around as wonderful items are offered. It is a special experience known to a few that merits some elucidation.

Some artists are known and others belong strictly to the privacy of the tribe. When they are coveted by collectors, prices can soar. It pays to discover someone on their way up the ladder of fame. However, many people like signed works of art by prominent artisans whether it be a bracelet or a refined earthen bowl. Skill is high in many cases, thus accounting for respect and awe.

Each tribe has a distinctive look to their products. Certain patterns are discernable in the rugs and specific gems are used in jewelry, such as onyx or turquoise. There are commonalities so it can take a practiced eye. Rugs are particularly priceless, especially if they are quite old. The same goes for old pawn jewelry or beaded garb.

Backpacks are not a typical item, but you can request something custom to be made if you like – perhaps with a bit of fringe. These make good gifts or you can use them yourself. Variations on a theme will give you something that can be filled with your precious treasures. Bags are made of skins and adorned with beautiful and distinctive beadwork in rich, vibrant colors. It is akin to the hand-made necklaces composed of tiny heishi beads. They are unique to reservations and can be alternated with animal emblems.

In addition to fine beadwork, you will also find embroidery of various kinds. You have many options to match your taste and style. Each pattern reveals the hand of its maker and expresses a spiritual nature. Native American wares seem to be imbued with an aura that defines them in a distinctive way. We are beyond crafts as we enter the realm of art.

A work of art can be practical and utilitarian like a bag. It becomes classified as art when it partakes of the personal spirit of its maker. The gift is in the ability to make something unique that still expresses the ethos of the tribe. Art can be made for profit: there is nothing wrong with that; but it is also made for personal enjoyment as the output of a hand and mind. We sense this difference when we view such objects.

Native American crafts will add interest and appeal to any décor in your home, or elsewhere in your life. Your handcrafted bag is sure to be seen as a cool backpack by your friends and family. Being able to say you bought it from a Native American, rather than just saying that you bought it on Etsy, adds a lot of value and authenticity to the item. Vases and bowls can stand side by side with the works of other cultures. It is known as an eclectic style. Or they can dominate a room with their indigenous flair. You can add to your collection over time, making a return visit to your resource a pleasure to look forward to. You can wear the jewelry and bags and walk on the rugs: aging does this work a service. If you are lucky enough to meet the artist, you can hear their story and learn their tale.

Many craft items are becoming rare and it pays to avail yourself if you can. The use of varied beads, feathers, silver, gold, gemstones, and hides may not always be around. We hope that fabrication of objects of beauty will not become a lost art. It hopefully will be passed on from one generation to the next. As tribe members leave the reservation, they will also take their skills out into the world.

So take care of that bowl, necklace, statue, bag or pouch, and treasure it. It is your entrée into a Native American experience that will last you a lifetime. Those beads and shells will sing their song and warm your heart with a remembrance of your original time of purchase and the joy that it brought.

Posted in Art

Ancient Native American Art

Ancient Native American Art

Art was more than a way to express ones creativity in Native American culture. Art had meaning and was sacred. We can see this in the artifacts that have been found from ancient Native American settlement areas. Many of these traditions are still alive today, passed down from generation to generation. Art was used as a means for worshipping the Gods, the land, and their ancestors. They created patterns and intricate geometric designs that we can still see today.

Native American art came in the form of pottery, basket weaving, sand painting, leather work, wood carvings, ceremonial garb and crafts to name but a few. Each creation was unique and varied depending on the environment that the tribe was living in at the time. Bear in mind that tribes would move along with the wildlife they hunted, so they did not carry art supplies with them. They made use of what nature had to offer to decorate their ceremonial containers as well as day to day necessities, like moccasins.

Community, ceremony and spiritual beliefs were all intertwined with art. Every piece had a meaning and purpose. A zig zag pattern on a pair of moccasins for a child was a sign for protection against being bitten by a snake. Beadwork and colours in a headdress had specific meanings and uses to draw a particular energy from a deity.

As tribes became less nomadic and more settled they began to create totems, stone pipes, costumes made of animal hides, ceramic pots, and shells with engraving on them. This was part of what is called the “Woodland” period of Native American art. Jewelery was created for both trade and ceremonial use with each piece having a meaning to it. Over time copper was used to make plates and small figures were carved from wood. Of these were the Kachina dolls that represented a deity or ancestral spirit.

One example of Native American cultural art that has survived and thrived is that from the ancestors of the Pueblo/Anasazi tribes. Their culture was formed in the southwest of America after they learned to grow corn, allowing them to settle in one area rather than keep moving as wildlife migrated. The Hope, Navajos and Pueblo tribes have been the strongest ones to adapt and survive into the present. They wove baskets, blankets and created pots. Their jewelery creations are most known for the use of turquoise, oyster shells and jet. They also created sand paintings, cottonwood carvings and learned silversmithing.

Of the many artistic creations done by Native Americans, sand painting is he most interesting. These paintings were done by the medicine men of the tribe and are part of a ceremony for healing. They formed their designs by sprinkling powders of different colours on the floor of their medicine lodge. These powders were made from flower pollen, herbs, charcoal, rocks and earth. Designs are all done from memory and each design has a specific meaning. The patient is then asked to sit on the painting while the medicine man chants and calls for certain deities to come into the painting in order to heal the individual. Once the ritual has been done the painting is destroyed.

Sand paintings are a rare thing to see because they are part of a sacred ceremony and outsiders are not allowed to view or take pictures of them. However, there are medicine men who will create sand paintings for public display. Because the sand paintings are sacred it would be considered a sacrilege to create them for viewing purposes. Because of this, medicine men will leave parts out, use reverse colours, or make deliberate errors in the designs.

Posted in Art