Native American art is as varied in medium and style as the tribes that produce it. There are more than 330 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States and each has its own unique artistic culture. Many tribes are known for basketry while others are exceptional weavers, beaders, potters, jewelry makers or carvers. A tribe’s traditional colors, patterns and symbols help distinguish its work from that of other Native American nations.
Basketry is a Native American art that also has a practical purpose. One of the oldest Native American arts, basketry is practiced by a majority of tribes that weave with whatever material is native to the land. The Cherokee and other southeastern tribes weave with split river cane, tribes from the Great Lakes region use sweet grass or black ash, and Native Americans from California perfected the coil basket made with willow, sumac or basket rush. Patterns and symbols unique to each tribe can be woven into the baskets as decoration and materials are commonly dyed for a colorful effect.
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Carvings of animals, masks and important tribal symbols are a common Native American art. The Inuit of Alaska can carve detailed works in soapstone such as a polar bear or seal. A hand carved Formica could be associated with the Hopewell tradition. The recognizable totem poles are large sculptures normally carved from cedar trees by tribes of the Pacific Northwest and serve to narrate important events or represent a tribe’s powers. Additionally, mask carving is a tradition of many tribes including the Cherokee, which make booger and effigy masks from gourds or copper. Masks are important elements in dances and other ceremonies.
Some tribes have a storied tradition of textile or fabric art. Navajo women weave rugs from wool with designs that can be abstract and that may reflect Persian and Spanish influences. Some Navajo weavers such as Clara Sherman have received national acclaim. Some prairie tribes practice a sophisticated applique technique with ribbon used to decorate ceremonial clothing. Ribbon, some with shapes cut out, is layered and secured with thread to create a multicolored design. Colorful shawls are also made using ribbon work.
The Native American pottery tradition dates back to well before the arrival of Europeans. Pottery is traditionally made by hand and fired in a shallow pit covered with brush. Pottery can be simple and practical or decorative and elaborate. Human and animal effigy pots are common works in Native American art. Ollas, large unglazed and round pots with wide openings, are still produced for sale to collectors by Southwest tribes.
Basically, there are numerous forms of Native America art just as diverse as the many different cultures the art represents.