Plains Indian Art (Photo Diary)


The Great Plains is the huge area in the central portion of the North American continent which stretches from the Canadian provinces in the north, almost to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Mississippi River in the east. This is an area which contains many different kinds of habitat: flatland, dunes, hills, tablelands, stream valleys, and mountains. It is a dry region and lacks trees except along rivers and streams. Plains Indians are those which are most often stereotyped by movies and other media as representing all Indians. The buffalo, the horse, and the tipi are all important items in Plains cultures. Shown below are some of the items from the Plains First Nations which are on display at the Portland Art Museum.



While the moccasins shown above are common on the Plains and are frequently highly decorated, it should be pointed out that now all Indian cultures in North American used moccasins.



While the Hollywood stereotype of the Plains Indians shows them riding their horses barebacked, virtually all good museums of Plains Indian cultures will include traditional saddles, such as that shown above.








The ceiling in the Plains Indian exhibit area is interesting in that it seems to invoke the circular form of the tipi or the form of the Sun Dance Lodge.  

Northwest Coast Carvings (Photo Diary)

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The Northwest Coast is a region in which an entrenched and highly valued artistic tradition flourished. Northwest Coast art-carving and painting-has a very characteristic style. Most commonly, art is used for portraying the family crest and heraldic figures. Shown below are some examples of Northwest Coast carvings which are on display at the Portland Art Museum.  

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Shown above is a potlatch serving bowl. It is about 12 feet long. The potlatch is an expression of social stratification and so the lower ranking members of the society would be fed from the bowls at the knees and the highest ranking members would be fed from the head. During the several days of the potlatch, the hosts provide the guests with two large meals per day.

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Shown above are some of the decorated wooden boxes. One of the unique items among Northwest Coast Indians are kerfed boxes in which the sides of the box are made by scoring and then bending a single board to form the sides of the box. The single side seam is then carefully fitted and sewn together with spruce root. The bottom of the box is also carefully fitted and sewn to the sides. These boxes are waterproof and some are used for cooking. The watertight boxes can be filled with water and when hot stones are dropped into the box the water can be brought to a boil.

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Shown above are some examples carved serving spoons.

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Shown above are some carved bowls.

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Shown above is a drum with an orca design.


Shown above is a cedar box drum. This drum was made by Tsimshian artist David Boxley about 1990.

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Shown above is an orca carving.

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One of the media used by Northwest Coast artists is argillite. Argillite is a soft stone which is found in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Shown above are some argillite bowls and carvings.

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Shown above are some large carved panels.


A carved hat is shown above.  

California and Great Basin Art (Photo Diary)

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California and the Great Basin is an area of great cultural diversity. With regard to art, this is an area well-known for its basketry. Among some of the tribes, such as the Hupa and Maidu, woven baskets were used for cooking. The weaving on the baskets is so tight that they can hold water. When they were filled with water, hot rocks were used to bring the water to a boil. Shown below are some of the items from the California and Great Basin First Nations which are on display at the Portland Art Museum.  






















Woven History, Part 1 (Photo Diary)


Old baskets are fascinating. They reflect traditions and skills, as well as changes to culture and lifestyle. They speak to us from the past and can tell us much about the weaver’s life and society’s values.

The display of Native American baskets at the Clark County Historical Museum in Vancouver, Washington, includes baskets from many of the tribes of the Pacific coast, Columbia Plateau, and Northern California areas.  


One of the primary First Nations who lived along the Columbia River and along the Pacific Coast in the Vancouver area are the Chinook. Shown above is a drawing of a typical Chinook village scene.  


Shown above is a stone mortar and pestle which was used in processing some foods.


The people living in the lower Columbia River area were fishing people. Shown above are some of the stone net weights that were used to hold their fishnets down.

Shown below are some of the items which the museum has on display.





















More items from the museum’s collection will be shown in Part 2.  

Woven History, Part 1 (Photo Diary)


Old baskets are fascinating. They reflect traditions and skills, as well as changes to culture and lifestyle. They speak to us from the past and can tell us much about the weaver’s life and society’s values.

The display of Native American baskets at the Clark County Historical Museum in Vancouver, Washington, includes baskets from many of the tribes of the Pacific coast, Columbia Plateau, and Northern California areas.  


One of the primary First Nations who lived along the Columbia River and along the Pacific Coast in the Vancouver area are the Chinook. Shown above is a drawing of a typical Chinook village scene.  


Shown above is a stone mortar and pestle which was used in processing some foods.


The people living in the lower Columbia River area were fishing people. Shown above are some of the stone net weights that were used to hold their fishnets down.

Shown below are some of the items which the museum has on display.





















More items from the museum’s collection will be shown in Part 2.  

Northwest Coast Masks and Headdresses (Photo Diary)

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The people of the Northwest Coast, particularly those in the Northern and Central portions of this culture area, are well known for their ceremonial masks. Masks are made from wood, primarily cedar and occasionally maple, which is then painted with three primary colors: black or blue, red, and white.

These masks are both art objects and objects with spiritual significance. Masks represent the animals and creatures of the four dimensions of the cosmos: the Sky World, the Mortal World, the Undersea World, and the Spirit World. One of the common themes in the mythology of the Northwest Coast is one in which ancestors come down from the sky and then remove their animal or bird costumes.

When used in ceremonies, the masks take on the life and spirit of the spirits which they represent. Traditionally, masks were guarded and hidden away, and not shown until they appeared in the ceremonial dance. Kwakwaka’wakw chief Robert Joseph notes:

“It is never known which masks will be shown or which dances will take place until the event happens.”

Shown below are some of the ceremonial masks and headdresses of the Northwest Coast which are currently on display at the Portland Art Museum.

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Shown about are some of the ceremonial masks.

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Shown above are some ceremonial dance headdresses.

Arctic Art (Photo Diary)

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The Arctic Culture Area spreads across northern North America and is an area which can be described as cold desert. It is a region which lies above the northernmost limit of tree growth. The area has long, cold winters and short summers. During the summer, the tundra becomes boggy and difficult to cross. Shown below is some of the art work produced by the Native people of the Arctic which is currently on display at the Portland Art Museum.

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Navajo Rugs

In the American Southwest today one of the most popular art forms sought by museums, collectors, and tourists is the Navajo rug. While the Navajo had been weaving for centuries and their works were traded over a wide area, the development of the Navajo rug really started in 1881 with the arrival of the railroad. The railroad connected the Navajo with the globalized market for native crafts. This market, however, was controlled by non-Indian traders who held federal licenses. The idea of allowing Indians to participate in a free market ran counter to the “civilization” programs run by the federal government in which it was assumed that Indian people were somehow a “dependent” people who must be guided, managed, and controlled by the more “civilized” non-Indians.


The incorporation of the Navajo into a global market meant that the weavers were increasingly incorporated into the cash economy of this market. The period from 1875 to 1890 is generally considered a transition period for the Navajo weavers. During this time they began to use commercial American-made yarns known collectively as Germantown. These yarns were dyed with aniline (a dye derived from coal tar) and provided primarily in 4-ply.

It was also during this transition period that a new element was added to Navajo weaving: the pictorial weaving. Items such as cows, trains, American flags, and other items began to appear in the weavings.

By 1887 the Indian superintendent for the Navajo estimated that two-thirds of their weavings-primarily blankets-were now being sold. Two years later, the Indian superintendent reports that while there were just nine federally licensed traders on the reservation, there were about 30 trading posts located just off the reservation. He noted that the

“proximity of trading posts has radically changed their native costumes and modified many of the earlier barbaric traits, and also affords them good markets for their wool, peltry, woven fabrics, and other products.”

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The Hubbell Trading Post is shown above.

By 1890, the Navajo were producing about $25,000 worth of trade goods each year. Their involvement with this larger market had an impact on native crafts. Since pottery and basketry did not have the same commercial appeal as other crafts, the people were producing less.

The Rug Period of Navajo Weaving is usually dated from 1890 to 1920. At this time, the weavers began making thicker weavings which could be used as rugs for sales outside of the reservation. Regional styles began to develop which were associated with traders or trading posts. The traders, sensitive to the tastes of non-Indians in distant markets, actively collaborated with the weavers to produce designs which would sell. One of the design features which was introduced in 1890 was the use of borders.

One of the major supporters of the Navajo rugs was the Harvey Company which featured them in their eating houses and newsstands along the route of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. In 1900, the Harvey Company established the Indian Building in Albuquerque which featured Navajo weavers plying their craft so that the tourists could watch. Fred Harvey also contracted with the trader Lorenzo Hubbell to take his entire output of good quality Navajo weavings. Harvey insisted that the business needed standardization with regard to size, quality, and price.

Since the traders, particularly the Harvey Company, frowned on the use of Germantown yarn, the rugs tended to be woven with coarse handspun wool which was either dyed with aniline or left in its natural color. In 1897, J.B. Moore, who had the trading post at Crystal, New Mexico, began sending wool east to be washed and carded. This thoroughly cleaned wool could be more easily spun and consequently the technical quality of the rugs woven by the weavers in his area improved.

In addition to providing his weavers with cleaned wool, Moore also had a friend who designed some new styles using some traditional Navajo figures combined with non-Navajo motifs such as swastikas and frets which were common in the oriental rugs of this period. The patterns were enclosed by borders and favored natural wool colors: black, gray, brown, tan, and white.

Trader Juan Lorenzo Hubbell in the Ganado area encouraged weavers to use traditional Navajo designs from earlier time periods. In his trading post he hung watercolor design samples to help inspire the weavers.

Hubbell Blankets

The inside of the Hubbell Trading Post is shown above. Note the designs on the walls.

Razzle Dazzle

Shown above is a small rug in the razzle-dazzle style woven by a young girl and sold at the Hubbell Trading Post.

Ganado Red

Shown above is an example of the Ganado Red style from my personal collection.

The Crystal tradition led to the distinctive style known as Two Gray Hills, named for the trading post on the east side of the Chuska Mountains south of Shiprock. At Two Gray Hills, the old Crystal style became elaborated and the technical excellence of spinning and weaving improved.

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Shown above is a small Two Gray Hills rug from my personal collection.

The borders introduced by the Crystal tradition spread throughout the reservation and by 1910 could be found on most rugs.

In 1898, Navajo weavers responded to the patriotic fever of the Spanish-American War by making American flag blankets.

In 1903, John Lorenzo Hubbell began to provide Navajo weavers with commercially processed wool at his trading post in Ganado, Arizona. Other traders soon followed suit.

In 1910, the United States government in its infinite wisdom introduced Rambouillet sheep to the reservation. These sheep had oily, short-staple, crimpy wool rather than the long-staple wavy wool of the Navajo sheep. It is difficult, some say impossible, for a Navajo weaver to clean this wool with the traditional hand washing. Rugs woven from this wool were coarse and the whites tended to have a dirty gray cast. This helped bring Navajo weaving to a new low and by 1920 the demand for Navajo rugs and the prices paid for them had declined significantly.

In 1931, a group of traders, concerned about the protection of the Navajo rug, met in Gallup, New Mexico and formed the United Indian Traders Association. They advocated that the following standards to be used for Navajo blankets and rugs:

“Material used shall be virgin wool or virgin angora wool, the same shall be hand-washed, hand-carded and hand-dyed, the warp shall be all wool and hand-spun, the wool shall be all wool and hand-spun and the blanket shall be hand-woven by an Indian.”

In 1932, a number of Navajo sheep ranchers attended the Denver stock show and as a result they acquired a prize-winning Dorset ram in an attempt to improve the quality of wool available for blankets.

Today, Navajo rugs continue to be popular and continue to battle against cheap, imported imitations which use Navajo designs or designs which pretend to be Navajo. There are well over a thousand weavers on the Navajo reservation who do museum quality work and tourists can obtain high quality rugs at most of the trading posts on the reservation. The Hubbell Trading Post, which played an important role in the development of twentieth century Navajo rugs, is currently operated by the National Park Service. Tourists visiting Hubbell can not only purchase high quality rugs, but can also watch the weavers in action. While it is not uncommon for tourists to grumble at what they perceive as the high prices for these rugs, keep in mind that most weavers make well under minimum wage for the hours they spend at the loom.

Pueblo Weaving

For more than a thousand years, American Indian agriculturalists have been living in villages in what is now Arizona and New Mexico. When the Spanish first encountered these villages, many of which had multi-story apartment complexes built from stone, they referred to them as “pueblos,” the Spanish word for village.  

Europeans have grouped these diverse people together under the designation Pueblo Indians based on a few common traits: they are agriculturalists who grow corn, beans, and squash; they built permanent villages with a central plaza; and most have kivas (underground ceremonial centers). They are not, however, a single people, tribe, nation, or group: the peoples grouped together as Pueblos speak six mutually unintelligible languages and occupy more than 30 villages in a rough crescent more than 400 miles in length.

NM Pueblo Map

The map above shows the current Pueblos in New Mexico. Not shown are the Hopi Pueblos which are in Arizona.

The Pueblos are generally divided into two major groups: (1) eastern (Tanoan and Keresan speakers) with a permanent water source which enables them to practice irrigated agriculture, and (2) western (Hopi, Hopi-Tewa, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna) who rely on dry-land agricul¬ture.


Acoma Pueblo is shown above.

Zuni Pueblo 1850

An 1850 sketch of Zuni is shown above.

The Pueblos have a long tradition of weaving. For many centuries prior to the European invasion of North America, Pueblo weavers were making cloth which was traded over long distances. Fabrics were woven from a variety of different plant materials-both domestic and wild-and it was not uncommon for human hair, dog hair, and wild animal hair to be incorporated into fabrics. The important plant materials used for weaving textiles included milkweed, hemp, mesquite, cliff rose, willow, yucca, agave, stool, and bear grass. In addition, both feathers and fur were also used in weaving. Bird feathers were used in making warm blankets.

One of the plant fibers used for weaving was, and sometimes still is, yucca which can be processed to produce a linen-like fabric. Among the Zuni, the central leaves of the yucca plant were gathered and each leaf was folded into a piece that was about 10 centimeters (3.5 inches) long. These pieces were then placed in a pot of boiling water together with some wood ash. The skin would then be removed from the leaves and chewed (generally by the children). After this, the fibers could be separated and straightened. After the fibers had dried-usually by hanging them in a storage room-they would be soaked in cold water and then rubbed between the hands to soften them. The softened fibers would then be pulled into a fluffy mass which would allow them to be spun and woven like cotton.  

Pueblo weavers used two basic types of looms. The back strap loom was used to make sashes and belts. The vertical loom was used for producing larger fabrics, including blanks, ponchos, and cloth for making dresses and shirts. The vertical loom can be anchored on a ceiling beam on the top and then on four floor anchors on the bottom.

The backstrap loom is attached to an interior wall and then tension is maintained by a backstrap which allows the weaver to change the tension in the loom by changing the position of the body. The cloth produced using the backstrap loom is narrower than that produced with the vertical loom.  

Pueblo Sash

Shown above is a sash.

The development of loom weaving in the Southwest coincided with the introduction of domesticated cotton. By 425 BCE, the Hohokam in Arizona were raising cotton and trading it widely. By 700 CE, the Ancestral Puebloan people (sometimes called Anasazi by archaeologists) were growing cotton in New Mexico. Upright looms appear shortly after this.

By 1260 CE, the Hopi village of Homol’ovi was the center of cotton trade between the Hopi and other tribes in the Southwest. Homol’ovi had 200 rooms and had an estimated population of about 200 people.

At Zuni Pueblo, men traditionally spun and wove cotton. The cotton they used, however, they did not grow themselves, but obtained from the Hopi.

Among the Hopi, weaving was a traditional male activity. Hopi cotton cloth was a highly valued trade item among Indian people in the region. Hopi textiles, including the coarse white cotton lengths used for kilts, sashes, and shawls, was traded throughout the Southwest and south into Mexico.  

According to the Hopi oral tradition, it was Spider Woman who taught the Hopi how to weave cotton in the ancient time. The efforts of the weaver are therefore viewed as a manifestation of the creative power of spirituality. Weaving is not seen as an act in which one creates something by oneself; it is seen as an act in which one uncovers a pattern that was already there.

After sheep were introduced to the area by the Spanish, wool began to replace cotton in Pueblo textiles.  

The Fort Marion Prisoners

Following the so-called Red River wars in Oklahoma and Texas in 1875, the army had intended to try Indian leaders and warriors before a military commission, but the attorney general ruled that a military trial would be illegal as a state of war cannot exist between a nation and its wards. Thus the Indians were simply imprisoned without a trial. In order to facilitate these prisoners, the army reconditioned Fort Marion, Florida as a prison and placed Lieutenant Richard Pratt in command.  

The army transported 72 Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, and Caddo Indian prisoners from the Red River War to Fort Marion in Florida. In addition to arresting known leaders, army officers had arbitrarily singled out young men from the line of surrendering Indians, labeled them ring leaders, and arrested them. In one instance on the Cheyenne Reservation, a drunken army officer simply lined up the Indians and counted out eighteen from the right of the line. All of these eighteen Cheyenne men were sent to prison with no review of their cases, nor any concern for any possible crime they might have committed. For many of the young men their primary crime was that they were Indians who had led a traditional Plains Indian life. From an Indian perspective, no crimes had been committed.

From an Indian viewpoint, imprisonment was a form of humiliation. The families of the prisoners assumed that their loved ones had been taken away to be executed. In fact, most of the prisoners believed that the army intended to hang them.

While most of the prisoners were men, the group included one Cheyenne woman prisoner-Buffalo Calf Woman, the wife of Medicine Water-who had killed a non-Indian farmer. Also included in the group were a number of wives and children who had refused to be separated from their families.

Eleven of the Comanche and Kiowa prisoners were actually Mexican captives who had been raised as tribal members.

When the Indian captives arrived at Fort Marion, Lieutenant (later Captain) Richard Pratt had the prisoners’ hair cut and issued them European-style clothing. The Indian response to the clothing was to cut off the legs of the pants, discard the upper portion, and wear the legs as leggings in the Indian fashion. For many Plains Indian men, the crotches of pants were binding, confining, and uncomfortable.

Prat and Prisoners

Captain Pratt and some of the prisoners at Fort Marion are shown above.


A group of prisoners in 1877 is shown above. They have been issued military-style uniforms.

Howling Wolf

Cheyenne prisoner Howling Wolf is shown above.

Fort Marion Courtyard

The courtyard at Fort Marion is shown above.

By using rigorous military discipline, Pratt intended to force the Indians to assimilate totally into American culture. He also provided them with English lessons. From time to time, Indian dances were staged for important visitors.

Pratt also encouraged the prisoners to produce works of art for sale and allowed them to visit the nearby beaches. The Indian artists used ledger books and their drawings sold for approximately $2 per book. The art in the books was often given concise, simple captions. The artists were also encouraged to sign their works as this made them more valuable to a public which was accustomed to European art.

Ledger Art

An example of Kiowa ledger art is shown above.

Making Medicine

Ledger art by Cheyenne leader Making Medicine is shown above.

In general, the art books produced by the prisoners at Fort Marion were a continuation of traditional Plains Indian art in which the artists drew images of their battle exploits. Traditionally, this art was done on skins and tipi covers. The artists had to have earned the right to make these images through their individual bravery in battle. The ledger art from Fort Marion is viewed by art historians today as a continuation of the rich pictorial Plains Indian traditions.

Not all of the images created by the Indian artists at Fort Marion were traditional Plains Indian images: the artists also drew scenes of their journey to Florida and the new surroundings in which they found themselves.

In 1877, Captain Richard Pratt sent a lengthy letter to the War Department reminding the government that the Indian prisoners at Fort Marion had now been held for two years. He included petitions from Making Medicine and from Minimic. Pratt recommended that the Indians be set free.

In 1878, Indian prisoners of war held at Fort Marion were released to the custody of the Indian Office (now called the Bureau of Indian Affairs). While most “returned to the blanket” in spite of the intense efforts to assimilate them to non-Indian ways, seventeen went to Virginia to attend the Hampton School for Negroes.

Instead of returning home, Cheyenne leader Making Medicine decided to remain in the east and to take training in the Christian ministry. He changed his name to David Pendleton Oakerhater. Similarly, Cheyenne leader Zotom remained in the east and changed his name to Paul Caryl Zotom. In 1881 both men were ordained as Episcopal deacons in a joint ceremony. They returned to the Cheyenne reservation in Oklahoma to spread the faith among their people.


Shown above is Oakerhater in 1881. In 1985, the Episcopal Church declared Oakerhater a saint.


Zotom is shown above. By 1889, Zotom had returned to his native spiritual traditions and had abandoned Christianity.  

Indian Art in the Late 19th Century

While the mainstream art world did not begin to recognize American Indian art as a distinctive art form until the twentieth century, during the late nineteenth century the market for American Indian arts-or more accurately, arts and crafts-began to develop. This market included pottery, weavings, drawings, paintings, and other items. The new market was driven by tourism, trading posts, museums, and wealthy collectors. During this time, American Indian art began to shift from tribal art in which artifacts were produced primarily for tribal members to ethnic art in which artifacts were purchased by non-Indians.  


Tourists began to arrive in the Indian Southwest with the railroad in 1881. On the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico the arrival of the railroad opened up new markets for native crafts, including blankets and silver jewelry. This market, however, was to be largely controlled by non-Indian traders who held federally issued licenses. From the viewpoint of the American government, allowing a free market in Indian arts and crafts would have run counter to the official “civilization” program which was based on the assumption that American Indians were a “dependent” people who were not competent to manage their own affairs.

In 1895, the Santa Fe Railway began a marketing plan to bring tourists into the southwest. One of the primary attractions promoted by the railway was the area’s Indians, particularly the Pueblos.

On the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico in 1899, the Fred Harvey Company asked traders to have local Navajo silversmiths make souvenirs for railroad tourists. This marked the beginning of commercial Navajo silver jewelry production.

Trading Posts:

In 1881, William Caton, a trader operating at the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota offered Sans Arc Lakota chief Black Hawk fifty cents in credit at his store for each drawing that he made. Caton promised that he would provide Black Hawk with pencils, ink, and foolscap paper for the drawings. Black Hawk agreed and ultimately provided Caton with 76 drawings.

In 1889, Indian agent C. E. Vandever reported that there were only nine licensed traders on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. He also reported that there were thirty trading posts located just off the reservation. He noted that the

“proximity of trading posts has radically changed their native costumes and modified many of the earlier barbaric traits, and also affords them good markets for their wool, peltry, woven fabrics, and other products.”

At this time, Navajo silversmiths were converting surplus cash (silver coins) into silver jewelry for personal adornment. According to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:

“When he becomes hard up between harvests, which is by no means uncommon, these ornament are pawned with the traders, but are invariably redeemed.”

By 1890, Navajo weavers were selling about two thirds of the blankets and rugs which they made. They were producing about $25,000 worth of trade goods each year.


The Hubbell Trading Post is shown above.

While blankets and rugs had become economically important to the Navajo, the Indian agent for the Navajo reported that the older women were still making pottery cooking vessels, but the younger women were not. Since pottery and basketry did not have the commercial potential of other Navajo crafts, their manufacture declined and they were replaced by manufactured items.  

In 1895, the Rug Period of Navajo Weaving began with the weavers making thicker weavings for sales outside of the reservation. The shift from weaving blankets to weaving rugs comes from the encouragement of the traders who realize that there is a growing market for rugs. Noting the popularity of oriental rugs, the traders display examples of border designs which they encourage the weavers to utilize. At this time, regional styles began to develop. These regional styles were sometimes associated with traders or trading posts in collaboration with the weavers.

Hubell Inside

The inside of the Hubbell Trading Post is shown above. Notice the designs for rug borders on the wall.

Two Grey Hills

A Two Grey Hills rug is shown above.

In 1895, Washo basketmaker Dat-so-la-lee brought four willow-covered flasks to Abe Cohen’s Emporium Store in Carson City, Nevada. This began a marketing arrangement that leads to Dat-so-la-lee’s fame as an internationally known basketmaker. Dat-so-la-lee was about 60 years old at this time, and was known for her non-traditional baskets with a spherical shape and a small mouth.  She arranged to weave consistently and solely for Abe Cohen in exchange for goods, fuel, clothing, medical care, and a small home. This arrangement was honored by both parties until her death in 1924.

In 1898, Navajo weavers responded to the patriotic fever of the Spanish-American War by making American flag blankets. It is not known if this idea originated with the weavers or the traders.

As the market for Southwestern silver grew, silversmithing diffused to a number of tribes. In 1898, Hopi artist Sikyatala learned silver work from the Zuni artist Lanyade. Sikyatala then taught this to other Hopi. There were regular trading relations between the Hopi and Zuni and so the sharing of silversmithing techniques would not have been strange.


The Bureau of Ethnology, a part of the Smithsonian Institution, sent an expedition to the Hopi pueblos in 1882 to survey the villages and to make a collection of material goods. They were instructed to “clean out” the Hopi pueblo of Oraibi, but were threatened by the elders when the purpose of the trip became known. Still, they managed to obtain more than 200 specimens at Oraibi and 1,200 from the three villages of Second Mesa.

When the materials from Hopi arrived at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., they were often left outside until space could be found to store them. As a result, many items were damaged and these were simply discarded because the museum staff was overwhelmed by the rapid pace of the collecting carried out by the Bureau of Ethnography.

The following year, Dutch anthropologist Herman Ten Kate visited Indian tribes in the Southwest. He accumulated about 500 artifacts which were sent to The Netherlands. King William I had established the Royal Cabinet of Rarities in 1816 and by the end of the nineteenth century, the Dutch, like the Americans, saw their collecting as a salvage operation undertaken to document disappearing cultures.

In 1884, among the Hopi artifacts sent from Thomas V. Keam’s trading post in Arizona to Washington, D.C. were a mummy, a number of sacred masks (described as having been obtained secretly), and a large box of pottery. Keam hoped that the government would purchase the items for the Smithsonian’s National Museum. However, the government declines to purchase the collection and it is eventually obtained by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

The archaeological excavations at the site of Sikyatki on the Hopi reservation help to inspire a revitalization of Hopi pottery. Nampeyo, a Tewa woman from the village of Hano, is inspired by the graceful geometry of the ancient designs unearthed at the site and by the dusty mustard and earth terra-cotta colors of the designs. While anthropologist Jesse W. Fewkes claimed to have introduced these ancient designs to Nampeyo, there are many who feel that the revival of Hopi pottery was already underway at this time.


Nampeyo is shown above.

Wealthy Collectors:

In New York City, George G. Heye began collecting Indian art and artifacts in 1897. Like other wealthy collectors at this time, Heye viewed collecting as a way of salvaging or saving what he could from American Indian peoples before their cultures disappeared. He believed that acquiring objects from Indians or from private collections was necessary to reconstruct indigenous cultures and educate future generations. Heye’s collection began with a few articles of Navajo men’s clothing which he acquired while supervising the building of railroad beds along the Arizona-California border. He would later say:

“Naturally when I had the shirt, I wanted a rattle and moccasins.”

Heye’s collection eventually grew to about a million items. In 1989 the collection was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution.

George Heye

George Gustav Heye is shown above.

Art Museums Discover Indian Art

During the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth century, American Indian objects that would today be considered works of art were relegated to display in cabinets of curiosity with dinosaur fossils, stuffed penguins, and unusual geological specimens. By the 1930s, however, some museums were beginning to recognize American Indian art as a distinct art style.  

In 1930, the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff held the first Annual Hopi Craftsman Exhibition. Items displayed were required to pass a jury and participants were encouraged to put their individual marks on pieces so that they could build a personal reputation. Initially the Exhibition concentrated on pottery, basketry, and weaving.

In 1931, the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts was presented at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City. The exposition was sponsored by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the Secretary of the Interior, and the College Art Association. The organizers of the exposition wanted to show Indian art as a traditional art form. The show included more than 600 pieces of pottery, jewelry, textiles, sculpture, paintings, beadwork, and basketry. According to the show’s catalog, the purpose of the exposition was to give the

“Indian a chance to prove himself to be not a maker of cheap curios and souvenirs, but a serious artist worthy of our appreciation and capable of making a cultural contribution that will enrich our modern life.”

With regard to the Indian artists who participated in the exposition, the news media tended to dwell on the quirks of the “quaint” Indians visiting the big city: according to some reports the Indians were said to be bothered by elevators. On the other hand, there were a number of news reports which respected the artists and their works. From the larger perspective of art history, Indian cultures were in the process of being discovered by American modernists. European surrealists were exhibiting their works next to the works of Native peoples and seeing in this indigenous art an expression of a primordial order that was often lost in traditional Western art.

In 1932, the Whitney Museum in New York bought Pueblo (San Ildefonso) artist Tonita Peña’s painting Basket Dance for $225. This was the highest price paid up to this time for a Pueblo painting. Most Native American paintings at this time were selling for $2 to $25. Her works had been exhibited the year before in the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts.

Tonita Pena

Tonita Peña (1893-1949) is shown above. She was later know as the Grand Old Lady of Pueblo Art and was one of the most influential Native American women artists of this period. Many of her early works were done in pen-and-ink as professional materials were not readily available to her.

In 1932, the Brooklyn Museum hosted four Navajo and three Pueblo artisans who demonstrated their skills in the museum’s sculpture court. According to the museum, the Pueblos represented “innovators” and the Navajos represented “borrowers.” According to the museum literature:

“With the cultivation of crops as their most important occupation, the Pueblos had built up a rich mythology and symbolic art and a complicated ceremonial life for the purpose of securing rain for their crops. The invading Navajos took over the external features of Pueblo rain ceremonies but attached a quite different significance to them-the curing of the sick.”

With regard to popularizing Native American art, the The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1932 featured Native American arts and crafts for home interiors. Readers were told how Indian arts and crafts were finding a growing appreciation among home decorators and furniture designers.

The 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) featured several Native American artists. San Ildefonso potters Maria and Julian Martinez received the Best in Show award and three noted Navajo artists gave demonstrations: Hosteen Klah, a medicine man who did sandpaintings; Fred Peshlaikai, one of the foremost Navajo silversmiths; and Ah-Kena-Bah, a weaver.

Hosteen Klah

Hosteen Klah (1867-1937) is shown above.

The 1930s are well-known as the era of the First Great Depression and both the federal government and the museums recognized the potential for Indian art as a form of economic development. In 1934, the Seneca Arts and Crafts Project was organized by Arthur Caswell Parker (who was himself Seneca) and the Rochester Museum. According to its original proposal:

“The Rochester Municipal Museum proposes a project by which the almost extinct arts and crafts of New York Indians may be preserved and put on a production basis in order that such activity and products may contribute to the relief and self-support of the said Indian population.”

The Project was set up in an abandoned school and the artists set about reproducing traditional items. Illustrations and photographs from museum collections and archaeological sites were used as guidelines. Parker was intent on maintaining consistency with the ethnographic record. Overall, the artists produced more than 5,000 separate works of art. For the museum, the Project raised the museum’s profile during a time of economic cutbacks and uncertain visitor numbers.

Not all Indian art was appreciated during the 1930s by non-Indian authorities. In 1936, a government restoration project at the Mission San Fernando uncovered at least two murals painted by Tongva Indians which depicted a hunting scene and other non-Christian themes. Church officials ordered the murals obliterated.

In 1937, Mary Cabot Wheelwright founded the Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art in New Mexico. She had been permitted to record many of the songs of Navajo singer Hosteen Klah and erected the museum to preserve his medicine knowledge and his sacred objects. The museum is now known as the Wheelwright Museum.

In 1938, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, one of the founders of the Museum of Northern Arizona, stressed the importance of making Hopi silver different from that of other tribes. She wrote:

“In order to help the Hopi silversmiths to visualize our idea of Hopi design and to show them how to make use of and adopt pottery, basketry, and textile design to various silver techniques already practiced, we have created a number of plates done in opaque water color on gray paper.”

The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco included an exhibition of Indian art in the United States and Alaska which brought national and international exposure to contemporary Native American art. The exhibit’s aim was–

“to present to the public a representative picture of the various areas of Indian culture in the United States and Alaska, and at the same time to give the living Indian a chance to find a new market for his products.”

Once again the emphasis was on Indian art as a form of economic development. Sales rooms at the Exposition exhibited Native American fine arts in contemporary settings, thus demonstrating their suitability for modern home decorations. Sixty-two Native Americans participated in the exhibition and the material exhibited ranged from sandpaintings to totem poles. Hopi artist Charles Loloma painted one of the wall murals which showed Pueblo dancers.

Pueblo wall murals also proved popular in other locations and venues. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a series of mural panels were painted on Maisel’s Indian Gift Shop by Tewa artist Pablita Velarde.

The potential boom in Native American art promoted by the museums and the media during the 1930s was, however, interrupted by World War II. While the stage was set for increasing popularity, and profitability, for Native American art at this time, it would be another two decades before it would come to fruition.

Indian Art Education in the 1930s

During the 1930s, with the United States in the midst of the First Great Depression, American Indian art began to emerge as a form of economic development as well as cultural expression. During this time there were a number of programs to educate Indian artists in both art techniques and in art marketing.  

The Bureau of Indian Affairs lifted the ban on teaching traditional arts and music at its boarding schools in 1930. Lifting the ban was not based on any feeling that Indian cultures were to be encouraged, but upon the recognition that traditional Indian arts and crafts were a way for Indian people to make money.

In 1932, Mable Morrow established a program devoted strictly to Indian arts and crafts at the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Indian School. She brought in nine young Indian women from the Haskell Indian School to form the core of a two-year program that admitted only female high-school graduates. The new program intended to prepare Indian women for careers both as independent professional artists and as art teachers in federal Indian schools. A new building was constructed to house the arts and crafts program. Morrow developed a program which included silversmithing, pottery, weaving, beadwork, embroidery, basketry, carding, tanning, wool dying, and woodworking.

Dorothy Dunn, an art teacher who had recently graduated from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, opened an art studio at the Santa Fe Indian School in 1932. Dunn was not a stranger to either Indian students or Indian art. She had been the second grade teacher at the Santo Domingo Pueblo day school and she had taught at the San Juan Boarding School on the Navajo Reservation.

Dorothy Dunn

Dorothy Dunn is shown above.

Under her tutelage, Indian students were encouraged to depict traditional ceremonial and tribal scenes, and plants and animals, using a flat, decorative, linear style. Her goals were to foster an appreciation of Indian painting and to produce new paintings with high standards. She felt that it was important to maintain tribal and individual distinctions in the paintings.

In class, the students sketched pictographic figures and had free-line brush practice. She discouraged borrowing motifs or styles from other tribal groups or from non-Indians. In order to provide her students with a broad art education, she borrowed books and historic objects from museums, took students on trips to the Laboratory of Anthropology and the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Dunn also brought in non-Indian lecturers to teach her students about their own heritage. She encouraged her students to exploit what she defined as Native tradition. In style and content the works produced by her students affirmed romanticized conceptions of the Indian. As a result, the Studio-style paintings found an eager market among non-Native patrons.

While Dorothy Dunn exposed her students to many different examples of art, her curriculum did not include any discussion of art theory or history, or of modern art movements. This experimental art program, later referred as The Studio, was instrumental in the education of many Indian artists, including Tewa artist Pablita Velarde and Chiricauha Apache artist Allan Houser.

Pablita Velarde


Pablita Velarde and her work are shown above.


A sculpture by Alan Houser is shown above.

In 1933, Dorothy Dunn began to teach her students to make earth color paintings to reproduce the colors traditionally used in painting pottery and ceremonial objects. This technique used pulverized dry organic pigments glued to a backing or wall in a fresco technique.

In 1932, Bacone College, a college for Indian students in Muskogee, Oklahoma opened its Art Lodge where students are exposed to Native American artistic traditions. Two years later, the college opened an art department under the direction of Creek artist Acee Blue Eagle.


Ataloa Lodge, the art museum at Bacone College is shown above.

At the urging of Indian Commissioner John Collier, Congress passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act  of 1935 which established a special board to promote the development of Indian arts and crafts. The purpose of the board was: (1) to enlarge the market for Indian art, (2) improve production, and (3) establish certification of Indian artists. With regard to the certification of Indian artists, Indian identity was seen as essential and following the racist conventions of the time, “Indian” was defined as someone who was of at least one-quarter Indian blood.

The act was intended to generate more income on reservations. The five member board worked to promote the development of Indian arts and crafts by teaching artists how to market their work and by educating the public about Indian-made products. The concept of Indian art, however, was not defined by the Indian artists, but by the collectors and tourists who wanted to possess objects that conformed to their own preconceptions about what constituted Native subject matter, style, or technique.

In 1937, anthropologist Alice Marriot started a program in Oklahoma to train Choctaw women in spinning. The project was an experiment by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board to increase Indian incomes through traditional native craft. Spinning was a deceptively simple craft. While learning the technical aspects of spinning required a short amount of time, its mastery takes years of practice. The Choctaw spinners were soon depressed to find that their work generated very little money.

In 1939, in an effort to promote Hopi silver as a unique art form, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton from the Museum of Northern Arizona sent a letter to 18 Hopi silversmiths in which she wrote:

“The tourist does not know the difference between the genuine hand made and the machine made and so they are often misled, but they would like to have some guarantee, that the silver which they buy is really hand made.”

She included paperwork from the Indians Arts and Crafts Board with instructions on how to get their mark. She also wrote:

“Hopi silver should be entirely different from all other Indian silver, it should be Hopi silver, using only Hopi designs.”

In 1939, the Papago Tribal Council in Arizona encouraged basketmaking by establishing a revolving fund to buy baskets and then to sell them through the Papago Arts and Crafts Board.


( – promoted by navajo)

Throughout the Southwest, a figure known as Kokopelli appeared on rock art: pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (carved). Later, the Kokopelli figure was incorporated into pottery and other art forms. Kokopelli today is often seen as one of the symbols of Southwestern ancestors.

Kokopelli 1

Kokopelli 2

Kokopelli is usually depicted as a humpbacked flute player. According to some traditions, his fluteplaying chases away the Winter and brings about the spring.

Kokopelli 3

In the hump of his back he carried the seeds of plants and flowers. In some traditions, such as those of the Hopi, Kokopelli carries unborn children in his backpack and distributes them to women. For this reason unmarried young girls are often afraid of him. Kokopelli is often associated with marriage rituals.

Kokopelli 4

Kokopelli is often depicted with a long penis. He is  sometimes accompanied by Kokopelli Mana, his female companion.

Kokopelli 5

In some traditions, Kokopelli is associated with the reproduction of game animals. He is often depicted with animal companions such as the deer and the ram. He is sometimes associated with snakes, lizards, and insects.

Some scholars feel that Kokopelli’s flute is actually the depiction of a blowgun, while others feel it is a pipe for smoking tobacco.

There are some who feel that Kokopelli was actually a trader from northern Mesoamerica. He carried trade goods on his back and would announce his arrival to trade by playing the flute.

The Southwestern oral traditions, particularly those of the Hopi, talk about the exploits of Kokopelli. In Hopi ceremonials he takes on a ribald role of a comic seducer of girls and a bringer of babies. In his many guises, Kokopelli can be seen as a Southwestern manifestation of the American Indian trickster.

Sexuality was important to the Native people of the Southwest: it was not something hidden. In addition, sexuality was incorporated into the spiritual in stories, in art, and in ceremonies. The Europeans and Americans were, and sometimes still are, offended by the graphic depictions of Kokopelli’s sexuality. Often, these people defaced the ancient rock art to obscure the offending penis. As a result of pressure from the contemporary American society, many of the modern images of Kokopelli have been sanitized and desexualized.

Kokopelli 6

NativeVue Film & Media

( – promoted by navajo)

NativeVue was created to

cultivate an interest in Native performing arts by featuring North America’s most innovative Indigenous filmmakers, musicians, actors and media entrepreneurs.…

A sampling:

“Creative Spirit” Films Premiere at Paramount Studios

The purpose of the Creative Spirit program is to foster employment and training opportunities for American Indians in the film industry.  The program creates meaningful relationships between Native filmmakers and industry veterans by providing an environment for professional collaboration.

Such was the case with 2007’s productions: Ancestor Eyes, written and directed by Kalani Queypo (Blackfeet/Hawaiian), and Two Spirits, One Journey, written and produced by Shawn Imitates Dog (Oglala Lakota).

Ancestor Eyes

Ancestor Eyes  tells the story of a mother (Tantoo Cardinal) coming to terms with the declining health of her daughter (Rulan Tangen).  “I really wanted to do an homage to matriarchal power, to the love between a mother and a daughter,” said Queypo.  “An homage to the life-givers and the caregivers.”

Two Spirits, One Journey

Two Spirits, One Journey  deals with a gay relationship on the Pine Ridge reservation. Luke (Alex Meraz) wants to come out and be himself, even if it means leaving the rez. Chris (Patrick David) would rather pretend to be straight than face ostracism.

The title comes from the “two spirits” term for gay Indians. Traditionally, most tribes recognized homosexuality not as a sin or curse but simply as another identity. They didn’t reject gays, they respected them.

Good to find a spot highlighting Independent Native American film making. Be sure and click the link above so they know we found them.

Links from their links page:

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