As the first great civilizations in the Americas, the First Peoples comprised numerous cultures stretching from the far north of the Arctic to the southern tip of South America. While there exist many commonalities tying these diverse tribes to a common cultural heritage, recent historical research has demonstrated stark differences between the traditions, art, and culture of these glorious tribes.
It would be impossible to try and exhibit the contributions of each and every one of these peoples in a single article, which is why we’ve chosen some of the most interesting cultural artifacts of the Native American tribes to feature here on our website. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the innumerable pieces of cultural art and traditional craft of the Native American tribes. For those interested in learning even more about specific tribes and cultural arts, we recommend performing your own research or reading about specific cultures featured elsewhere on the website.
Indian Culture Championed By Many
Many of these cultural artifacts wouldn’t have survived if not for the intervention of passionate historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, tribal elders, and volunteers who’ve worked to map the sometimes murky waters of Native American history. Concerted efforts by the European settlers of the Americas to devalue, erase, and re-define the history of the Native American and First Nations tribes has obscured much of the true cultural history of these disparate and unique civilizations. Only recently have archaeologists and cultural anthropologists started to reveal some of the mysteries of the past previously hidden to us.
With any hope, future generations of thinkers, historians, scientists, and volunteers will be motivated to continue to preserve and catalog the contributions of these ancient civilizations. As some of the most advanced and profound peoples to ever walk this earth, the Native American tribes have greatly influenced the world culture, science, medicine, and art.
In this article, we’ll focus specifically on the music, jewelry, and art of the Native American and First Nations tribes. The craftsmen, artisans, and performers of the ancient First Peoples worked tirelessly to preserve their crafts following the invasion of the white man of the Americas, and passed their skills directly down their line of descent. Many living descendants of the great tribes continue to preserve the artistic abilities and cultural traditions of their ancestors with tireless passion, which allows the children of the future to continue to enjoy these amazing cultural relics which inspire images of another place and time.
Native American Music
Music that stretches back into the American Indian past is still widely enjoyed today by people all over the planet. It remains one of the most popular forms of cultural music in the world, and has been credited with inspiring many spirited modern music genres, such as New Wave and Ambient music styles (PediaPress, 2015, pp. 85-104). Common instruments featured in Native American music include woodwinds, traditional percussion, vocals, and other cultural musical instruments.
The type of instruments used in the music will vary depending on the style of the song and which tribe it is influenced by, and also may feature non-traditional instruments such as synthesizers, samplers, guitars, and any other variety of different instruments. This, of course, applies mostly to modern incarnations of popular Native American music, which is distinguished from the traditional cultural Native American music featured at pow-wows and traditional cultural events.
Music and the Spiritual Realm
While not all Native American tribes had strong musical traditions, almost all of the tribes used music as a supplemental element in rituals and other cultural events. Some tribes have a rich musical history, and music may have played a key element within their tribal culture. In many of the Native American tribes, music celebrated certain aspects of life, such as the death or birth of a family member, the skill or life of a craftsman, the spiritual power of a local tribal elder or shaman, or a mythical tale of creation or interaction with the spirits and spirit world (Heth, 2001, pp. 367-368).
Music in Native American traditions was often seen as the strongest link between the living and the dead, and most tribes believed that music had the power to summon spirits, conjure powerful waking memories of revered tribal heroes and elders, and call upon the assistance of gods and greater nature spirits to steer the tribe on a difficult journey (Heth, 2001, pp. 390-399).
Generally, there were three “types” of Native American instruments: stringed instruments, percussion instruments, and woodwind instruments (Warpaths to Peace Pipes, 1996). These musical instruments and musical styles can be heard today in the soundtracks to films and television shows, such as the scores to western action movies and dramas (Harlee, 2004).
Because many of the cultural traditions of tribes were lost following the invasion of the Americas by European settlers and conquistadors, there is quite a bit we do not know about the musical heritages of a significant cross-section of the great Amerindian and First Nations tribes. What we do know is that music played a significant role in the day-to-day life of the average Native American tribesman. As peoples with a history strongly connected to oral communication and storytelling, music often acted as not only a way to entertain and entrance the audience, but to reinforce cultural lessons and idioms and educate future generations of tribesmen with memorable lessons (Heth, 2001, pp. 340-341).
Native American musical traditions have influenced many modern genres of music. There are a large number of celebrated American Indian artists in the American country music genre who have helped re-define the modern country music industry with messages of hope, personal integrity, honor, compassion, and adherence to traditional values (Barnes, 2014).
Native American music shares many common traditions with Aboriginal music from Australia, with instruments like the Bullroarer taking centerstage among a plethora of different assortments of cultural instruments (Warpaths to Peace Pipes, 1996).
Perhaps one of the most well-recognized instruments originating from Native American tradition is the Apache fiddle, which is constructed of sinew and other natural materials to create a distinctive and easily recognizable sound. Many artisans continue to construct these beautiful instruments today, using traditional methods to stay true to form (Kling, 2014).
American Indian Dance as Rooted in Music History
American Indian music was often accompanied by cultural dancing. The various war dances of the Native American tribes have become famed among historians for their power and ferocity, and have played a major role in the traditions of the majority of the First Nations tribes, especially during times of struggle and great change (Warpaths to Peace Pipes, 1996). A ceremony featuring colorful feathered outfits, thunderous war drums, jingling bells, ceremonial weaponry, and traditional chanting is often featured at pow-wows and a variety of other cultural events (Wis-Ki-Ge-Amatyuk, 2009).
Music was one of the most widely-used ways among the various tribes to teach future generations of tribespeople the traditions, beliefs, and most important customs. Many tribes believe that musical skills were taught personally to the tribes by gods and spirits, and that music was a unique gift afforded to the American Indian tribes by the most revered spirits. Musicians were thus spiritually important to many Native American tribes, and were afforded similar levels of responsibility and authority to other mystics and elders (Heth, 2001, pp. 367-368).
The uniquely beautiful and haunting sound of the Native American flute is still used widely today in many musical creations. The innovative design of the Native American flute allows it to be played with relative ease compared to similar instruments from other cultures. The flute was designed to channel the breath of the performer efficiently in order to produce a tonally pleasing sound, which made it fairly easy to learn to play for new musicians amongst the tribes (Goss, 2015).
Native American Art
Native American art is derived from rich cultural traditions demonstrated across the First Nations and American Indian tribes of the Americas. While art traditions and practices vary from tribe to tribe, there are certainly a number of common practices which link them all together. Like most Native American cultural crafts, Native American art is primarily concerned with the natural world, spirits and the afterlife, and the daily life of the American Indian tribespeople. As such, animals and spirits often take center stage in various Native American art pieces.
Native American art can include everything from pictographs and cave paintings to decorative shawls and pottery. Depending on the environment, history, and cultural values of the tribe, they may specialize in a certain form of art.
Basket weaving is a unique Native American cultural tradition practiced by a significant number of tribes across the Americas. The baskets were often either used in barter and trade to purchase other goods, or were implemented in ceremonial and religious practices as a crucial aspect of the ritual. Basket construction methods varied depending upon the availability of materials, traditions, and design preferences of any given Native American tribe. Popular methods included plaiting, twining, and coiling (Wilderness College, 2015). Plaiting, the most commonly-used method of basket construction across a wide variety of tribes, involves weaving together slats on the basket in an over-under pattern. Twining, another common method employed by tribe craftsmen, involves threading the vertical and horizontal strands of the basket to create a strong weave. Twining basket construction is excellent for the quick construction of survival baskets, and is easy to use with the stiff branches of the willow and other types of semi-rigid plant material.
The arctic tribes of Alaska and the northernmost regions of the Americas often create masks for the use in religious and cultural ceremonies. The masks may be used for sacred or secular purposes, and are donned for the enjoyment of the tribe and to draw attention to certain performers and characters in cultural plays and ceremonies (Inuit Masks, 1995).
The subarctic tribes of the Americas held the mighty caribou in particular reverence, and their cultural goods often featured the caribou and other local animals. In particular, the hunters of the Innu covered their leggings, clothing, coats, quilts, and masks with images of the caribou, holding their prey in distinguished reverence for providing sustenance for their tribe in the extreme conditions of the coldest corners of North America (Heye, 2015).
The distinctive art style of the Northwest Coast/Pacific Northwest Amerindian tribe was commonly featured on masks, totem poles, hats, necklaces, and other cultural objects of ceremonial and everyday importance. Red, teal, black, and white pigment is featured prominently on the art of tribes from this region (MacDonald, 1996). The Northwest Coast Indian art is some of the most popular and revered art of any collection of Native American tribes, and remains immensely revered even today for its beauty. The art style is said to focus on practical and realistic renderings of local wildlife and cultural symbols, with an emphasis on simplicity and ease of communication. The Kwakwaka’wakw and other Northwest tribes used their artistic abilities to help educate future generations of their tribes using a diverse array of artistic traditions to communicate their ideas efficiently (Hawthorn, 1988).
The woodlands Native American art focused on the hunting and gathering traditions of the tribes residing east of the Mississippi River. Earthen mounds and large burial sites helped preserve the unique art of these tribes for the appreciation of people from our age. These tribes are commonly known by historians as the “Mound Builders”, for their tradition of constructing large burial mounds for their dead. As the dead of these tribes were commonly buried with their personal belongings, many cultural crafts have been discovered by archaeologists in the region, providing a good glimpse into the cultural traditions of these diverse tribes. Shells featured prominently in the art of the Mound Builders, as shellfish were a staple in the everyday life of the tribes (Canada’s First Peoples, n.d.). Woodlands tribes often used shells to create beautiful beads and decorative elements in their clothing and ceremonial or religious dress, or simply integrated visual depictions of shells and wildlife into the embroidery on their clothing.
The great plains tribes are some of the most revered and well-recognized Native American cultures today. The Sioux were among the most famous of these tribes, with a rich history of artistic tradition. Examples of beautiful Sioux art can be found online at various destinations, but we recommend checking out museums in the area to see these beautiful pieces of art in person. By purchasing museum tickets, you support the efforts of historians and other specialists, which helps keep these ancient cultures alive for future generations. Some great examples of Sioux Native American art are found in their beaded goods. Common materials used in Sioux beads include vibrant glass, deerskin, horns, animal bones, leather, and pigmented cloth (Sioux Art, n.d.).
The great basin Indian tribes have a number of their own culture products that remain fundamentally important to telling the story of the various Amerindian nations. Before the arrival of Columbus and other European settlers and invaders, these tribes created beautiful beaded collars and other worn decorations that helped greatly enhance their rituals and ceremonies (Great Basin: Beauty in Form and Function, 2015). Interestingly, the cultures of this area of the world relied upon strongly-woven baskets over pottery, which resulted in tribes that trained tremendously talented weavers. This is a great example of visually stunning Native American art.
Southwestern Native American tribes like the Pueblo also created some truly stunning Native American art. Luckily, many of their most beautiful creations have been preserved quite well for our enjoyment today. Pueblo pottery is regarded by archaeologists as one of the most highly-developed Native American artforms (Pueblo Pottery, 2015). With the culture of the Pueblo tribes peaking in the 1050-1300 AD period, the traditional methods used to make pottery and other types of similar Native American art today are still identical to the original methods employed by craftsmen who lived centuries ago. Craftsmen continue to keep the traditions alive to show us how these vibrant peoples lived.
Native American Jewelry
Native American jewelry was coveted by the European invaders for its beauty and for the often valuable minerals it used in its construction. Unfortunately, many of these cultural artifacts have been lost to time, but a few mighty examples stand as testament to the artistic beauty of the Native American tribes.
Tribes like the Pueblo continue to use traditional methods of jewelry creation, integrating local elements into stunning pieces of artwork. These pieces of art adorn the necks, wrists, and fingers of many tourists from abroad who visit the American southwest. They are widely available for purchase on different online marketplaces (Native American Indian Jewelry, 2015).
Native American jewelry makers were often afforded special reverence and titles for their skill in their trade. Without the development of written language and a strong oral tradition, the Native American tribes relied heavily upon jewelry and other adornments to communicate identities, ideas, and information (Dubin, 2003). Common elements contained within many Native American jewelry pieces included nickel silver and minerals found from local rivers and streams (Caesar, 1984).
Silver and other elements were hammered into shape to depict animals, geological elements, revered mythical and spiritual figures, and other important symbols to Native American tribes (Dubin, 2003, pp. 284-291). Skillful craftsmen fashioned beads, animal bone, turquoise, pieces of pottery craft, teeth, hair and fur, and a variety of other different natural and manmade elements into brilliant pieces of jewelry commonly worn by important people within the tribes.
Contemporary Navajo jewelry, which differs very little from the original cultural crafts of the Navajo tribe, is an example of truly beautiful Native American jewelry. Early Navajo jewelry includes a variety of different vibrant belt fasteners and cords, bracelets, silver adornments, and anklets (Navajo Jewelry, 2015).
Because the Native American tribes did not strip mine the earth of minerals in the European fashion, there was not an abundance of gold or other elements commonly found in the jewelry of Europe, the Near-east, and of Arabia. Most elements used in Native American jewelry were gathered from nearby sites, and included softer alloys found in rivers, caves, and natural reservoirs. Because of the beauty and rarity of gold (and the lack of gold on surface-level natural sites), it was rare among Native American creations and was especially valued. Tribal chiefs, elders, and spiritual leaders most commonly possessed gold jewelry if anyone in the tribe did at all.
Modern Native American Art
Thankfully, many institutions are working tirelessly to preserve the artistic traditions of the various Native American tribes. The United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central and South American governments have granted significant amount of funds to the preservation of cultural traditions and arts. The incentive for governments to protect these ancient and sacred cultures is that they drive up tourism and international interest, since so many people feel a deep connection to these ancient cultures. It’s more important than ever that governments continue to protect these cultures in tumultuous times when unexpected international incidents and political change occur at an alarming rate.
With the help of volunteers from a variety of different institutions, there is hope that Native American art, Native American jewelry, and Native American music will be enjoyed by many future generations to come.
This article is an attempt to give a small overview of the beautiful cultural craftwork fashioned by these ancient cultures, but it is by no means comprehensive. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the multitudes of different Native American cultures. We recommend looking further into your favorite Native American tribes to find out more about their cultural history.
Thankfully, the Internet has opened up our minds to a world of knowledge and primary sources. It is easier than ever to track down historical records and testimony, with so much information archived on various online websites. Check out our Native American resources to discover more about the Native American tribes, and benefit from the hard work and perseverance of passionate researches who’ve helped map the ancient world and gift us with the resources to know more about these beautiful and diverse cultures.
Barnes, T. (2014, December 10). Native Americans Are Writing the Most Powerful Country Music Today. Mic Magazine.
Caesar, B. (1984). Pawnee-Sac and Fox. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, United States of America.
Canada’s First Peoples. (n.d.). Eastern Woodland Hunters. Retrieved from Canada’s First Peoples: http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com/fp_groups/fp_wh5.html
Dubin, L. S. (2003). North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to Present, Concise Edition. Harry N. Abrams.
Goss, C. (2015, December 6). Anatomy of the Native American Flute. Retrieved from Flutopedia: http://flutopedia.com/anatomy.htm
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Sioux Art. (n.d.). Retrieved from Indians: http://www.indians.org/articles/sioux-art.html
Warpaths to Peace Pipes. (1996). American Indian Music. Retrieved from Warpaths to Peace Pipes.
Wilderness College. (2015). Native American Basket Weaving. Retrieved from Wilderness College.
Wis-Ki-Ge-Amatyuk, G. (2009, December 20). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA0bTp677gk. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA0bTp677gk