Native American & Other Ethnographic Art: A Brief Overview
MARKET OVERVIEW: NORTH AMERICAN NATIVE TRIBES
Most Native American art still in circulation
hails from west of the Mississippi. This makes sense, considering that
western tribes were able to maintain their culture and way of life well
into the 1800s. Many eastern tribes, on the other hand, had succumbed
to European conquest and disease by the late 1600s and early 1700s.
As a result, authentic, well-preserved works of
eastern origin are exceptionally rare and valuable — especially
wampum and certain other artifacts. (You'll find wampum and other works
defined below in a selected glossary.) Western
works of art, on the other hand, can be plentiful. This explains why
you can easily find Southwest pottery that's 1,000 years old — and cost as little as $ 50!
Here's an overview of the some of the most prominent Native American tribes and their associated regions...
The Eskimo of Alaska and Inuit of Canada inhabit a land of extremely
limited resources. Most live well above the tree line, and
consequently, their traditional artwork is primarily fabricated from
animal bone and ivory (from walrus tusks or sperm whale teeth), along
with stone, hide and some driftwood. The most coveted items are masks,
which can be spectacular in execution and value. Contemporary art
includes soapstone carvings, along with drawings
and prints, mostly from the Inuit.
Better-known Eskimo and Inuit tribes include the
Yupik, Aleut, Yuit, Inupiak, and Netsilik.
The lush coastal region of southern Alaska, British Columbia, and
Washington provided well for its indigenous people. Unlike the natives
of the Great Plains, for instance, who had to lead a nomadic existence
to follow their food, the Northwest tribes could stay in their villages
and craft wooden items, such as totem poles, masks, and canoes.
Some Northwest tribes include the Bella Bella,
Bella Coola, Haida, Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Tsimsian, and the Makah.
West Coast Tribes
With access to a wide range of grasses, roots, and bark, the West Coast
tribes — who ranged from Washington to the Mexican border, and inland
to the Sierra Mountains — were master basket
weavers. While many tribes specialized in intricate designs
(especially the Pomo Indians), their baskets were also marvels of
practicality; some were even used for cooking, by dropping heated
stones into the basket and stirring rapidly to heat the contents.
Among the many tribes of the West Coast are the
Pomo, Salish, Hupa, Klamath, Modoc, Paiute, Washo, Yokut, Mono,
Mission, Ohlone, Chumash, and the Panamint.
These people of the American Southwest were among the most prolific and
diverse artisans — working in a variety of media and forms. They were
also among the last tribes in the "Lower 48" to be conquered,
and many managed to maintain at least a semblance of their tribal
lifestyle. Noted art forms include basketry, weaving,
pottery, and more recently, painting.
Prominent Southwest tribes include the Hopi,
Navaho, Apache, Pima, Papago, and Puebloans. (The Pueblo people are
also known by their village names, which are generally clustered around
the Rio Grande. The villages include Zuni, Acoma, Zia, Santo Domingo,
San Ildefonso, Taos, and Santa Clara.)
Great Plains Tribes
The people of the Great Plains inhabited a broad swath of mostly
flatland, and ranged from central Canada to Texas. Most were nomadic
and followed the buffalo herds, which supplied almost all their food
and material needs. Consequently, they made only those possessions that
they could carry with them — including beadwork, quillwork, teepee
liners, along with unique creations such as parfleche
containers and umbilical fetishes.
(defined below in the glossary.)
Tribes of the Great Plains include, among others,
the Cree, Blackfoot, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and the
Very little artwork remains from these people, since early European
conquests had so dramatically changed their lives. Chitimacha-style
basketry, and occasional artifacts of pottery and clothing do show up
on the market occasionally.
Some of the remaining Southeast tribes include
the Natchez, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Catawba, and
Northern Woodlands (North East & Great
This expansive region stretches from Maine to Minnesota, and as far
south as the Ohio River Valley. As with the Southeast tribes, most
early artwork is long lost. However, very good pieces from the 19th and
20th Centuries do come to market, including weavings,
basketry, beadwork, and quillwork.
Some of the tribes of this region include the
Ojibwa, Menominee, Winnebago, Illinois, Shawnee, Huron, Mohawk,
Iroquois, Micmac, Penobscot, Wampanoag, Mohegan (Mohekan), Delaware,
and the Powhatten.