Native American Art: Traditions & Their Origins

Native American Art by John Nieto
“Welcome to the Neighborhood” ©2015 John Nieto

Native American Artists Weren’t Always Recognized as “Artists” 

The emergence of contemporary American Indian art has garnered recognition from nationally and globally acclaimed art institutions. Yet, the word “art” reveals one of the basic differences between European and Native American ideologies. Traditionally, Native Americans did not adopt art as a major way of life as European cultures in the West did. Apart from a few small groups, the word “art” and “artist” was not even present in traditional American Indian languages.

Native American artists were not recognized as “artists”, but were simply identified as someone who could perform a job better than another individual. When someone would refer to a woven basket or a skilled carved sculpture, words like “powerful,” “well-done” and “effective” were used instead of phrases like “masterpiece” or “work of art.” Artists, or people skilled in their craft, were afforded special treatment primarily in areas where wealth was a major factor in the culture. Wealthy Native Americans would sometimes support groups of artists who produced memorial or religious art.

The Native American’s purpose of art was to arouse or evoke an emotional response from its viewers. The ability of the artists to communicate a concept successfully was largely tied to tradition. Various tribes upheld strong rules about tradition, somewhat stifling the surge of experimentation. But even with rigid rules around art creation, some artists managed to experience freedom of expression in their art. Some of the most notable artists include Nampeyó, Hopi Potter and María Martínez. These pioneers managed to develop new styles that future artists would mimic, and some techniques were even adapted as the new “tradition” in their tribe.

Native American art objects were often created to perform an intended service. That may include a basket for containing items or a ceremonial object to aid in acts of worship. The social organization of the culture often determined and influenced the kinds of art that was produced. Political and military societies had many art forms that centered on regalia, weaponry and panoply. Cultures governed by religion produced more ceremonial art for rituals. Sometimes these objects were also intended to please or appease a deity. Through this act, American Indians intended to control or influence the environment that surrounded them by connecting with the spiritual world.

Native American Art Traditions Change but the Message Remains the Same

Most contemporary Native American art has departed from its traditional concept as objects of utility, and are recognized as artistic masterpieces. Native American artists like John Nieto embrace the dignity behind these cultures, and seek to preserve the honor through every piece of artwork they create. To learn more about contemporary Native American art, or to see more examples, browse the Nieto Fine Art website now.