Artist unknown
Coast Salish
Rattle, Mountain sheep horn, mountain horn, mountain goat wool, wood, abalone shell
94.0 x 47.0
no date

Art pervaded all of Northwest Coast Indian culture. Even the most utilitarian objects such as spoons, fish clubs, and paddles were decorated. The two-dimensional art is founded on a system of rules which order design organization. Sculptural art demands that anatomical features be carved in certain ways, giving rise to distinct tribal styles. Hopefully those surfers wishing to explore the art further will gain some ability to reconcile regional, tribal and personal style as a result of this presentation.

Art served two main purposes in coastal Indian life. On one hand it is a crest art- a totem pole, dancing headdress, house-frontal painting, or decorated blanket signaling the owner's mythic origins. this was most highly developed among the northwest tribes where inheritance was thorough the female line. Crest art was emphasized during potlatches and feasts and as such verified and validated the social system.

On the other hand, art made the super natural world visible. The incredible array of creatures- human, animal and mythic that inhabit the minds and landscapes of Northwest Coast people are realized through the medium of dance dramas. The skill evident in plastic and graphic arts is only part of a continuum which extended into theater. Movement in dance can be likened to the flow of line in two-dimensional art. In flickering firelight, the bold sculptural planes of carvings alternately gathered shadow and reflected light as performers circled the dance floor. And it was the artist's role to render fantastic then creatures of both the real world and the mythic cosmos.

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Native American arts

arts of the aboriginal Americans, often called American Indians. The art itself is often referred to as "Indian art." The arts of the Eskimos, or Inuit, are also included in this article.

To achieve an understanding of the art of aboriginal Americans requires at the outset a willingness to discard many long-standing preconceptions and judgments based upon an evaluation of Western art. Above all, it is important to recognize that the basic aesthetic tenets and artistic goals of Indian art are different from those of European-derived Western art; and any art critic employing the usual Western criteria in an attempt to comprehend Indian art is bound to be unsuccessful.

At best, it is difficult for non-Indian peoples to evaluate Indian art. Although it is not necessarily true that one must be a Native American to appreciate Indian art--or even, for example, a Navajo to understand the value of that people's earthenware and weaving--it is true that the finer subtleties and depths of significance that are so obvious to the Indian are often lost to the non-Indian observer.

Finally, the cultural interaction of the past five centuries between Europeans and their descendents and the aboriginal peoples of the Western Hemisphere by and large has been one of extreme hostility, fraught with a considerable degree of cultural bias. Most, if not all, of the major commentaries on Indian cultures have been recorded by those who were natural enemies; the best eyewitness accounts of the Aztec, for example, were written by Spanish conquistadores and Roman Catholic missionaries. Even modern white ethnographers and historians, however sympathetic they might be, simply cannot ignore the fact that they are, after all, evaluating the product of cultures that their forebears successfully suppressed and of peoples who in many cases whites exterminated or drove to near extinction. This inevitably introduces emotional and psychological elements into the act of judgment that result in tremendous distortions. Not until the 20th century did Indian art begin to enjoy serious, balanced consideration, and even this has been in meagre terms.

One of the major obstacles to a realistic evaluation and appreciation of Native American art by whites and other non-Indians is the belief held by many that the creators of Indian art are in some way "primitive" artists who occupy a place so close to nature that they somehow are endowed with a privileged status insofar as "natural artistic expression" is concerned. To regard an object or a ceremonial activity as a work of art simply because it was Indian-crafted defies reason. While it is reasonable to state that none of the Native American and Arctic tribes and peoples failed to develop some degree of art--and many were responsible for aesthetic masterworks--it would be misleading to declare that all of these expressions are equally impressive. The quality, beauty, and workmanship of these arts vary widely; for, just as in the Western world, there have been good and bad artists, and the fact that a native craftworker turned his or her hand to a given task in no way guaranteed success.

Another obstacle to a full appreciation of the arts of Native American peoples is a belief held by many sympathetic viewers of aboriginal art: that there are eternal aesthetic truths, expressions of which can be found in all cultures, and that to the truly sensitive eye these aesthetic verities are manifest wholly independent of the particular cultural milieu, the purpose of the artistic expression, or the relative level of cultural development. The position taken in this discussion, therefore, is that, since the literature, music, dance, and visual arts of Native American and Arctic peoples did not evolve in isolation from the sociological, religious, and political milieus of those peoples, an understanding of the latter cannot be divorced from an appreciation of the former.


This article addresses the arts of Native American and North American Arctic peoples, in relation to the culture and subcultures of each of these peoples and in relation to the predominantly European-based Western world.

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Contents of this article:

       General characteristics
       Oral literatures
          North American cultures: Eskimo, Northwest Coast, and California
             Northwest Coast
          North American cultures: Southwest, Eastern Woodlands, and Plains
             Eastern Woodlands
          Middle American cultures
          South American and Caribbean cultures
       Written literatures
       Study and evaluation
       Dominant native style
          Melody and rhythm
          The significance of song texts
       Musical instruments
          Drums: membranophones
          Rattles: idiophones
             The jingler
             Shaken rattles of animal origin
             Metal rattles
             Turtle shells
             Gourd rattles
             Other varieties of rattles
          Wind instruments: aerophones
          Stringed instruments: chordophones
       Regional customs: North America
          The Far North
             Eskimo music
             Far northern tribes
          The Eastern Woodlands area
             The Algonkian musical renaissance
             Traditional Iroquois music
          The Great Plains
          The West
             The tribes of the Northwest
             Music of desert and plateau tribes
          The Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico)
             The Navajo and Apache
             Pueblo music and ritual
       Regional customs: Mexico and Middle America
          Northern Mexico
             Yaqui music and dance
             Other northern Mexican peoples
          Middle America
       Regional customs: South America
          Amazon peoples
          Andean peoples
          Mestizo peoples of the coast
       Studies and publications
          Musical transcriptions and analysis
          Other fields of American Indian musicology
       General characteristics of American Indian dance
          Extent of dance forms
          Patterns of participation
          Socially determined roles in dance
          Religious expression in dance
          Patterns and body movement
          Foreign influences
       Regional dance styles
          Eastern Woodlands
          The Great Plains
          The Northwest Coast
          The northern desert and California
          The Southwest
          Mexico and Middle America
          South America
             Northern South America
             The Andean region
             The southern plains
       Study and evaluation
    Visual arts
       Nature and elements
          The role of the artist
             Collective versus individual art
             Origins of designs
          The function of art
       Regional styles of American Indian visual arts
       Regional style: North America
          Midwest and Great Plains
          Peripheral North America
          Eskimo and Northwest Coast
             Northwest Coast
          Mexico and Middle America
          West Indies
       Regional style: South America
          Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil
          Peru and highland Bolivia
          Chile and Argentina
       Arts of the American Indian peoples in the contemporary world
          North America: United States and Canada
          Mexico, Central America, and South America
          North America: United States and Canada
          Mexico, Central America, and South America
          North America: United States and Canada
          Mexico, Central America, and South America
       Visual and material arts
          General works
          North America: United States and Canada
          Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies
          South America


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