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Knowledge about Native Americans

Native American Painting, Sketches, and Sculptures

The Native American painters, sketchers, and sculptures have been expressing themselves in art for many centuries. These crafts have taken on many different incarnations among Native peoples, from the earliest petroglyphs and pictographs, to paintings on animal hides, to contemporary fine art paintings.

Petroglyphs and Pictographs

Among the first paintings done by Native Americans are petroglyphs and pictographs, which are images that are either carved into or painted on rocks. Such paintings usually appear on outcroppings, in caves, and on cliff faces. The paintings are generally images of people, animals, and spiritual beings. To produce a petroglyph, the maker would have to scratch the surface of the rock with small pebbles, or carve into it with a knife or other tool. The underlying rock generally is a different color than the surface, so the image stands out. The maker of a pictograph would have used naturally occurring pigments from plants, animal parts, or the earth, combined with animal fat, to create the images. Most often, Indian men who were seeking spiritual guidance and success in battle created petroglyphs and pictographs as part of their homage. To this day, Native Americans revere the sites where such images are found as holy places.

Painting on Hides

Native Americans have been painting on hides since time immemorial. Aside from the meat and fat, the hides were the most important materials Indians gleaned from the animals they hunted, and they used them to make tipi covers, robes for bedding, clothing, vessels for holding food and water, and storage containers for extra clothes and other household items. Painting these hides was a natural step toward making the home as attractive and comfortable as possible. Initially, of course, Native Americans relied on natural materials to make pigments for painting. After contact with Europeans, they could buy commercially produced paints, and consequently used them in place of pigments they had to manufacture themselves. In general, men painted depictions of their exploits as hunters and fighters, while women painted geometrical patterns. The latter often are very specific to particular tribes, and consequently experts in the field can identify the tribal affiliation of the creator of an object by the designs painted on it.

Into the Mainstream

After the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, when most American Indian tribes were forced onto reservations and the U.S. government deliberately set out to destroy their cultures and make them assimilate into mainstream society, Native Americans had more and more contact with European methods and styles of creating art. Many Native artists began to try their hands at traditional painting methods.

IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts)

Founded in 1962 in Santa Fe, N.M., the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) is devoted to giving Native artists from all tribes and backgrounds the opportunity to get a formal art education. First led by Dr. George Boyce and Lloyd Kiva New (Cherokee), the institution defined its mission as "To empower creativity and leadership in Native arts and cultures through higher education, lifelong learning and outreach." From the very beginning, IAIA employed Native artists such as Fritz Scholder (Luiseño), Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache), and Charles Loloma (Hopi) as teachers, not a common practice at the time. The instruction and cultural exchange that aspiring Native artists received at IAIA gave rise to an explosion in painting and sculpture that continues to this day. Artists such as Kevin Red Star (Crow), T.C. Cannon (Kiowa), and Kingsley "King" Kuka (Blackfeet) all are alumni of IAIA. Contemporary Native American Fine Art Painting Major museums across the country increasingly are hosting exhibitions of Native American fine art painting. (This designation distinguishes these types of works from contemporary Native American traditional arts, which include pottery-making, jewelry-making, basketry, and weaving.) In particular, the Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art, held biennially at the Eitejorg Museum of Native Americans and Western Art in Indianapolis, Ind., offers visitors a snapshot of contemporary work by Native American artists. Though they may have adapted the methods, and sometimes even the styles, of mainstream art, however, the subjects many of these artists tackle often confound expectations. Issues of contemporary Native life, both on the reservations and in cities, that they regularly address include Native identity, federal policies toward Indians, and the discrimination that they feel many Native Americans still routinely cope with.

Read more: Native American Painting History |