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.