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Art and Architecture

Native Americal Art

porcupine quills, oral literature, totem poles, Native American artists, indigenous people of North America

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Native American Art, the visual works crafted by indigenous people of North America, starting after their arrival on the continent thousands of years ago and continuing until the present. These works may be painted, carved, woven, sewn, or built, and can incorporate such materials as feathers, porcupine quills, tree bark, animal skins and hair, and wood. They encompass a variety of objects, including clothing and jewelry, blankets and rugs, masks, totem poles, baskets, and bowls. Today, some Native American artists produce mainstream contemporary art—paintings on canvas, photographs, and performance art—while others continue to make art based on long-standing traditions.

Many Native American artworks were intended for use in daily life as well as in ceremonies and rituals. Some items were made as garments or to store food. The ceremonies and rituals served various functions, including healing and maintaining success in hunting and farming, and they expressed beliefs about the relationship of Native Americans with the universe and the world around them. These beliefs gave shape and meaning to Native American art. Masks worn in healing ceremonies, for example, helped specialists in those rituals communicate with the spirit world. Carved wooden totem poles of the Pacific Northwest recorded family histories, and they were presented and displayed at elaborate ceremonies that helped the family preserve its history and status within the community. To serve its purpose effectively, a work of art was expected to be skillfully crafted and beautiful to its viewers.

No written records of Native American life exist before contact with Europeans during the 1500s, and so scholars consider the period before contact as prehistoric. During that time and afterward, Native Americans passed down their histories, traditions, and beliefs through their art, their ceremonies, and their oral literature. The arrival of nonnatives in North America produced some exchange of ideas that affected Native American art, although many concepts remained unchanged.


Ostrowitz, Judith, A.B., Ph.D.

Adjunkt Professor of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University. Author of "Privileging the Past: Reconstructing History in Northwest Coast Art".

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