Native American & Other Ethnographic Art: A
WORKS OF PURPOSE & POWER
Some people consider ethnographic art to be
primitive. With a few authentic exceptions, I feel this is a misnomer
that borders on a slur. True, at first glance, the techniques and
subject matter may not always seem refined judged by Western criteria.
But "primitive" suggests something that's crude,
unsophisticated, or naοve adjectives that overlook the dignity or
significance that imbue many pieces.
Consider the following story. Each time I recount
it, I get chills, since it illustrates how ordinary artifacts can have
great spiritual significance and reflects the excitement and wonder
of discovering a unique work of art.
Recently, while preparing for an
auction of ethnographic art, I received an email from a gentleman in
Florida. He had attached an electronic image of a circular Native
American shield, and he wondered if it might be worth anything.
I was intrigued: The shield was painted with
animal figures and geometric motifs, and likely from a Southern Plains
tribe. Judging from the designs, which included a pair of Federal-style
eagles, it appeared to be from the late 1800s, perhaps made for trade
or ceremonial purposes. It was a good piece nothing extraordinary,
but appealing enough to be worth $4,000 to $6,000 at auction. I emailed
the gentleman back with my preliminary appraisal, and invited him to
send the shield my way if he was still interested.
A package arrived a few days later, and its
contents held a surprise. The images in the photo of eagles and
other motifs were not an integral part of the shield. Rather, they
were painted on a thin buckskin cover, which in turn was laced over the
shield. I eagerly picked up the phone and called the owner.
You see, when a warrior painted an object
especially one that could literally save his life the images chosen
were neither whim nor decoration. Rather, they would often represent
the spirit world, and be full of power and significance. A warrior
might adorn his shield with images of his guardian spirit animal
something he would have seen first in an initiation rite known as a
vision quest bringing him strength and insight. A shield cover was
often attached to protect the shield's "real" image; at
propitious moments such as in preparation for a battle the
warrior could remove the cover and expose its power when he needed it
most. And now, as the phone rang, I wondered what power might lay
beneath this shield's cover.
The gentleman in Florida answered the phone. I
thanked him for sending the piece and asked his permission to remove
He had owned the shield for years, and had always
assumed that the lashed-on cover was the actual face of the shield. He
was flummoxed when I explained there might be something underneath of
great importance, and readily agreed to my request.
I carefully undid the lashing and removed the
cover revealing a fully painted shield, in pristine condition. The
imagery showed an indigo crescent moon on a yellow background, and,
auspiciously, a pair of bear paws, likely the original owner's spirit
animal. It was magnificent.
I concluded that the shield was from around 1870
and made of buffalo hide; the shield cover was likely made some 20
years later, perhaps when the shield was traded or handed down as an
heirloom. When the pair came up for auction, they commanded $57,500
roughly ten times my preliminary estimate.
Of course, not every item can tell such an
extraordinary tale. But as you learn more about Native American art and
the people who made it, you'll soon realize that many authentic pieces
were crafted with a sense of purpose and power enhancing not only
their dollar value, but also their metaphysical value.