Scholars of cultural anthropology tell us that only a well-established, prosperous society creates art. Others are too occupied fighting for survival to spend time creating something that enhances life but does not directly contribute to the fundamentals (food, safety, and shelter). With this concept in mind, it seems the first societies in the United States must have been well established and prosperous indeed.
American Indian art comes to us in an abundance of forms – baskets, beadwork, woven cloth, jewelry, pottery, stone and wood carvings, and so much more. Materials used for art varied from tribe to tribe because the artisans of these tribes used what was locally available and this varied widely.
In the Pacific Northwest, Indian art takes the form of totem poles – giant tree trunks shorn of their branches are carved and painted to illustrate tribal history. American Indians of the Southwest had a scarcity of trees but an abundance of silver and turquoise that they used to make exquisite jewelry. In the Great Lakes Region, the Iroquois used strings to make belts that were knotted and beaded. These multifunctional belts, called wampum, were used to recount tribal legends, as units of measure, and as a medium of exchange for trading.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating of Indian art forms is the sandpainting done by the Navajo tribe of the Southwestern deserts. Sand from these deserts comes in bold, vivid colors that the Navajo artists collected. During ceremonial activities, the artist would use the different colors of sand, along with charcoal, pollens, and cornmeal, to “paint” remarkably beautiful scenes of spiritual deities on the ground. Impossible to preserve, these paintings were ceremoniously destroyed at the end of each ritual.
Music, too, was a part of American Indian art culture. Flutes and whistles carved from wood, bone, and cane were widely enjoyed. Rattles made from various materials were played and drums were an integral part of many public gatherings, called pow-wows.
Many tribesmen and women today continue the traditional arts of their forefathers. Most of them remain near their tribal lands, creating traditional artworks and enjoying a local fan base or catering to the tourist trade. Others have found fame and fortune by tailoring their art to satisfy a broader, more mainstream, audience.