Indigenous art over the 500-year period of 992 CE to 1492 CE has differed greatly. Within this specific period, the art pieces greatly varied, due to each regional difference as well as having no European influence from colonisers, such as the Spanish. Specifically pinpointing distinctive characteristics during this period can be difficult, due to the differing styles between each region and group of indigenous people. For example, people in wooded areas tended to craft with wood, stone and clay while Inuit people tended to use ivory, a material which was in plentiful supply for them. This in turn helped put a distinct value to each piece and allowed trade to happen between groups and allowed them to establish an early version of currency. Despite this, indigenous arts is a broad term and somewhat inadequate term, as indigenous arts cannot be simply described as an aesthetic piece, like many art pieces, but instead was intended to serve a purpose, such as a container or an effigy of worship, or was predominantly used in “political or military societies” so they could create “weaponry, regalia and panoply.”
One area that had a distinct art style was that of the southwest of North America. Throughout this area, art was more of a practicality than a past time or used for idol worship. Houses of the native people here were an eloquent statement to their crafting expertise, their walls were usually made of stone and packed with sand or clay, insulating them against harsh winter conditions while also keeping them cool in the summer heat. Villages tended to have these homes as three or four stories tall and were able to house several families. The communities of south-western America created various art pieces, as they were distinct masters of weaving, painting and pottery. They tended to use mineral and vegetable pigments which provided colourful decorations when applied with fibre brush to wood, clay or white walls in a fresco style. Abundant kaolin (white clay) deposits helped to create pottery and although small religious stone effigies have been found, sculpture was not one of their highly developed art forms. Art on pottery and other items was essentially linear and geometric in design and has revealed this region’s preference for decorative art (see Figure 1). The craft of basketry and pottery within this region was also used as trade between groups but were also popular for practical uses in the south-western communities. This helped show some of the distinctive features of North American native art due to their traditional media such as weaving and painting while also sticking to a distinct and unique trademark pattern of the south-western groups, which included geometric and triangular patterns.
Another area that had a distinct style was that of the Midwest and the Northern Plains of America. In this area, stone was worked skilfully and in a variety of ways. Pottery was also common but was not worked as well as copper and mica ornaments, which were more widely used materials. Shell and bone were also intricately carved, which helped show their artistic range. Ritualistic structures also existed, usually made as effigy mounds, which were large earthen structures created to look like animals. The Serpent Mound in Ohio is a great example of this (See Figure 2). The Great Plains region was also home to buckskin art and beadwork costumes, feathered war bonnets, and painted shields. A great deal of this region’s art served a decorative and spiritual purpose. Colour was usually achieved through vegetable or mineral pigments, much the same as the Southwest. The artworks of this area vary from realistic to extremely abstract and symbolic. Often, they are usually narrative in context, especially with the Winter Counts, painted records that recounted tribal history or personal records were usually on buffalo hide (See Figure 3). This helps us recognise the distinctive characteristics of Native North American Art because these are distinctively different from the Southwest due to their symbolism but also manage to share similarities, such as materials marking them up to be similar.
Another area where art meant a great deal was with the Artic regions of Native North America and the Inuit people. It may have seemed unlikely that art would occupy much of this region’s people’s minds, as there was little raw material to work with and there was also the constant need to supply food, which in perspective, should leave little time for craftwork. However, despite this harsh environment, came some of the most intriguing and humorous art works from Native North America. During long winter nights, the Inuit people had ample time to work the ivory they gained from walrus and whales. Since the base material was usually a tooth or a tusk, the shape of these often dictated the shape of the artwork and was usually carved upon. Black pigment, which was from charcoal fires, was rubbed into the carved lines for emphasis. These ancient ivory sculptures which have been excavated have revealed a highly sophisticated style from the Inuit people which was not seen among other regions (See Figure Four). Another predominant feature of Inuit art is their warm sense of humour, which is seen throughout their art pieces. Occasionally in the style of caricature, or occasionally in an early version of a ‘comic-strip’. This was probably prevalent due to the hard-going life in the Artic regions, they believed that humour was important to their psychological health. Another significant feature of the Inuit people was their colourful wooden masks, which were used in social gatherings and ritualistic dances. While many tribes created these wooden masks and coloured them with a clear ingenuity, no North American indigenous people could develop the art of imaginative characterisation that the Inuit people had. Their masks helped combine a variety of factors including realism, imagination and supernatural qualities that is uniquely Inuit (See Figure Five). This helps show the distinct characteristics of Native North American Art because they had their own extremely significant style, which was different from those of the other plains, but still stuck to using them for the same purpose, such as ritualistic purposes.
Another area where art was significant was the Northwest coast of America. It was in this region, the land was richly endowed with cedar and spruce trees, allowing sculptors to reach their finest expression. Tall cedar trunks were used to create totem poles, small wooden figures, masks and other small carved objects that were dear to the North West Coast natives. The role of Totem Poles within this tribe was not typically understood but has been discovered that they were not religious artefacts, but instead memorial documents which recorded one’s social position within their group (See Figure Six) The Northwest Coast Americans were among the first to master metalwork. Majority of their copper came from the local sources, usually mountains which they had to travel quite a distance to gain. The metal was worked by Tlingit and Haida artists into fighting knives, masks and the shield shaped tinneh, which were highly sought. Along the Northwest coast, the Tlingit people of Alaska seem to have produced the more sophisticated sculpture in the Northwest coast. The Kwakiutl people on the other hand, tended to express their feeling for linework through powerful painted carvings; the designs are usually outlined in strong lines, there is less subtlety in their form and the overall feel is of a powerful force. Between the two tribes, are the Haida carvers, whose work is marked by their mathematical precision and lines. This tribe is responsible for the black ‘slate carvings’ which are made of argillite, a stone only found on Haida Gwaii, which is found in British Columbia (See Figure Seven). This helps show the distinct characteristics of Native North American Art because it has some of the most iconic art pieces and some of the most distinctive and well-known art outside of Native American culture.
So, in conclusion, in Native North America, no one region had distinct characteristics, as there was similarities and differences between each region. Each region had their own uses, materials, art media and iconography for their art pieces, while also overlapping with each region. Some were more practical, while some where more decorative and some where more ritualistic and symbolic. We can conclude however, that American art has left an interesting and diverse influence on the art world and can be easily distinguished from other art pieces.