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

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

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