Although there were many Indian societies existing in what is now the U.S. Southwest, the most notable in terms of their influence and impact on current aspects of North American Indian art are the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and the Pueblo communities of Arizona and New Mexico.
Before the European contact, these were primarily agricultural societies whose native craftsmen depicted those images of the natural world that had the greatest influence on their everyday lives, on who they were and what they believed. In desert and semi-desert areas, agriculture was (and to a certain extent still is), a very tenuous proposition.
The uncertainty of rainfall in the region made the growing of crops a very uncertain business. Thus the Indians of the southwest felt the necessity of communing with their gods with regularity to ensure that their prayers for a bountiful harvest were heard and answered. Much of the symbolism evident in the art of these peoples devolves from the representation of their interaction with those deities. Symbols like the sun, water, corn, prominent animals and Kokopelli, the god of fertility and the harvest, are all prominently represented in the work of southwest artisans, in their silver jewellery, kachinas, sand paintings and their world renowned pottery.
Modern artisans have taken the old forms and symbols from this tradition and melded them with the Hispanic influences of the past four centuries, to produce highly crafted and collectable work of a varied and unique nature.
The Inuits’ world-view was dominated by their interaction with nature and the animals that were crucial to their existence. It was this stark duality between man and a nature that threatened to overwhelm him, that they depicted in their artwork, artwork which is denoted both by its simplicity of design and grace of spirit.
With the encouragement of the Government of Canada, Inuit artists have developed from original ancestral designs, soapstone forms and carvings unique to individual settlements and artists and they continue to produce items in this medium to worldwide recognition and acclaim.
North American Plains
Plains society reached its zenith after the arrival of the horse and before the onset of mass European migration into the region. Plains societies were highly mobile and followed the herds of buffalo across the Great Plains west of the Missouri River and were dependent upon hunting for their survival.
The Plains people traded their finished hide goods with the agricultural communities along the Missouri. On these pieces they expressed their symbolism with colorful and intricate beading, ostentatious feather work on headdresses and painted and quillwork designs on various items.
Plains tribes represented in the North West of Canada are mainly from the Blackfoot Confederacy, but also include the Stoney and Sarcee (Tsuu T’ina) Nations.
Prominent among these tribes are the Haida, Kwagiutl, Tsimshian, Coast Salish and Tlingit. From their advent into the region, estimated at over 6,000 years ago, the peoples made use of the resources of both the land and the sea to ensure their survival. They were fishermen especially of salmon and hunters of bear and deer.
As this society became wealthier and more stable, the artisans of the region reached very high standards of craftsmanship in their carving of wood, bone and ivory. They became especially known for their masks, sculptures and totem poles.
Northwest coast artists incorporated tribal designs into their work. These were reflections of social identity or representations of family or clan importance achieved through ancestral mythology. Their work had reached an apogee when contact with Europeans occurred. Tragically, disease and cultural repression caused a decline in all aspects of these vibrant Native societies, including that of their art and religion.
Fortunately, modern artisans have been able to regain much of their heritage. In recent years, there has been an increased appreciation of the unique nature of the art of this cultural group. Consequently, there has been an expansion in the number of artists and artwork available to the many that have come to appreciate the many varieties of this unique expression of a people’s cultural heritage.
Northern and Eastern North America were covered by an extensive, dense primeval forest system. The impenetrability of these forests contributed to the development of aboriginal societies along the various waterways and rivers of the region. Many tribes, while agricultural in nature, depended upon the produce of the riverine systems to augment and enhance their livelihoods.
The Woodland people used birch bark, hides, shells, porcupine quills and elaborate beading to produce everyday objects and embellish them with designs representational of their cultural world-view. These were fairly complex societies with elaborate belief systems. Many objects served a dual function of both everyday use and ceremonial ornamentation.
The Huron, Iroquois and Ojibway artisans, amongst others, still produce traditional articles reflective of this duality.