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


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Native American Blanket

Selection of Native American Art


Some people consider ethnographic art to be primitive. With a few authentic exceptions, I feel this is a misnomer that borders on a slur.



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 Native American & Other Ethnographic Art: A Brief Overview


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...

Eskimo (Inuit)
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.

Northwest Tribes
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.

Southwest Tribes
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 Comanche.

Southeast Tribes
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 Seminole.

Northern Woodlands (North East & Great Lakes)
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.



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