A look on Native American’s in regards to ceremonies and art

A cultures ceremonial activity and artistic expression are both influenced by other facets of the culture. Native Americans of the Great Basin, Hopi, Netsilik, North West Coast, Navajo, Plains, and Kootenai Indians all based their ceremonial activity and art off of influence of different aspects of their lives. Ceremonies and artwork were influenced, either directly or indirectly by mobility, location and resources, group size, and their mode of sustenance. By discussing these inputs, we can see what outputs they influence and by comparing them to each other, demonstrate how these cultures adapt to these many different facets.

The mobility of a Native American group will affect the functionality of their artwork. The more mobile a group is, the more functionality a artwork has because of the need to consolidate possessions. The more sedentary a group is, the more leniency they will have in creating art that is more decorative because they are not required to move all of things all of the time. Inuits for example, located in the Arctic circle are constantly moving due to food resources like seals, fish and whales (Miller 2/9). Specifically Nesilik are constantly moving to follow the caribou and seal migration pattern (Oswalt 2009: 76). This causes them to not have much artwork. What their artwork did consist of, however, was tattooing. Females were tattooed around the time of puberty and these tattoos could be quite painful and elaborate (Oswalt 2009: 73). Another simple, easy to transport, form of art that they did was they made bone jewelry (500 Nations Video). This is possible because it does not require that they carry anything because it is on their skin and could be carried very easily. The Great Basin Indians, located around Nevada and Utah, are a highly mobile people because they also had to follow the migration patterns of their major food sources like deer and antelopes (Miller 1/31). This meant that their artwork had to be portable, useful, and they had to use materials that were always found where ever they traveled (Miller 2/2). While they don’t have much artwork, because they do have more available resources, they are able to produce a to put a variety of materials into their art. Shoshone Native Americans for example, create a multitude of different types of baskets and these baskets were woven with geometric patterns that expressed individuality. There might even be duck feathers or bells woven into the design (Oswalt 2009: 174-5, Miller 2/2). What this showed was that Great Basin Indians had to be artistic with every day tasks because they didn’t have as much time for art, though this does not mean that they did not have any art. Hopi Native Americans around Northeastern Arizona are sedentary. There is no need for them to travel to find their food because they are farmers with crops like corn, squash and beans (Miller 3/27). One of their main forms of artwork are Katchina dolls. These dolls, made out of the roots of a cottonwood are a visual representation of what Katchina, the gods Hopi worship, look like and although they serve no physical purpose they are used to teach the Hopi children what Katchina’s look like and what their names are ( Oswalt 2009: 318). Another form of artwork that the Hopi were able to create due to their sedentism is pottery. While in a more mobile Native American group pottery would be too heavy to carry, Hopi were able to take advantage of this. They expressed their artistic quality in them with a variety of different designs, for example Nampeyo, a yellow tinted style decorated with hash-marks and wings (Miller 4/10).

Location and the resources within a location affect the raw materials used in artwork. Meaning, a Native American group’s location and what they use as their resources, is naturally going to be used in their artwork. For example, if there are an abundance of shells, they might make jewelry. The North West Coast Indians are located on the coastal side of the Cascade Mountains where they get 100 inches of rain a year. This causes them to have an abundance of old growth forests with not much undergrowth which means a very large resource of trees. With this large amount of trees the North West Coast Indians created totem poles (Miller 2/14). Tlingit, a group of North West Coast Indians, started creating totem poles in the late 1800’s and have six different types. With such an abundance of trees it would be only natural for them to use them as a resource in their most famous type of artwork. These totem poles are carved with symbols “associated with one or the other of the moieties, with clans or with house groups”, and while these totem poles are massive in their time, they deteriorated rapidly and the Tlingit did not feel the need to restore them (Oswalt 2009: 277-9). Another form of Tlingit artwork are shaman masks made of painted wood. While wood was an obvious material to use, they also had an abundance of berries that they were able to make into dye and use in their artwork (Oswalt 2009: 281). The Navajo are a herding people located around Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico with corn and livestock resources and one of their most valued livestock is sheep. This gave them the valuable resource of wool and made one of their main forms of artwork weaving. They were also able to use various types of resources to make different dyes to color the yarn like flowers for yellow and walnut leaves for brown, so that the rugs were vibrantly colored (Navajo Video). The weaving was done by women and patterns woven into them were derived from Pueblo Indian, Spanish, and Navajo designs. These patterns also held spiritual meaning and were used in many of their important ceremonies like births and marriages (Oswalt 2009: 435-6, Miller 3/6). The Plains Indians located around the mountainous areas of North central America were hunters, gatherers, and also fighters. This was because their land was rich in berries and game that they followed like buffalo. Another main resource they had was horses that they rode into battle and used to carry their things which were introduced to them by the Spanish. Again because they were also a mobile people, their artwork had to be practical. They made their warriors clothes into artwork to scare their enemies. Game like buffalo provided leather for women to sew into clothes, a man painted on the leather with dyes made from berries scenes of war and horses, and a mans buckskin shirt would be decorated with horses hair. The Crow in particular were known for scalping enemies and decorating their shields and clothes with various natural resources like bird skins, feathers, and animal tails and being painted with a berry dye as well (Oswalt 2009: 210, Miller 2/28). While one cannot consider “humans” to be a natural resource, because of their location and their ferocity, the Crow were constantly going to battle and they incorporated this into their artwork.

Mobility determines how often and how elaborate ceremonies are going to be in a Native American group. The more mobile a group is, the more simple and the more rare it is going to be for them to have one. The more sedentary a group gets, the more elaborate ceremonies become and they have the choice of becoming more frequent. This is because if a group is mobile, they do not have the time or the possessions to hold elaborate ceremonies very often. As a group becomes more sedentary, they can accumulate more things and can put time and effort into performing ceremonies. The Hopi are a sedentary group because they are farmers and have no need to be chasing around their food.
This meant that they had time to perform as many ceremonies as they wanted, and they did. Ceremonies were a huge part of Hopi life and it was almost an every day business (Miller 3/27). “The Hopi religious system required a series of annual and biannual ceremonies hosted by a particular religious associations,” (Oswalt 2009: 315) and this was compiled into a dance calendar. Most of these ceremonies were very elaborate like the Soyal ceremony where there were Katchina’s dancing, massive amounts of food made by women and preparation starting days in advance or the Powamu ceremony starting with the new moon of February and was a dance that taught Hopi the best time to plant beans (February), where crow mother comes out and gives everyone bean seedlings (Oswalt 2009: 316-7, Miller 4/3-4/5). Again, Native Americans of the North West Coast are a sedentary people and because of this accumulated a multitude of possessions and were able to perform elaborate ceremonies. One of the major ceremonies that these Indians performed was a potlatch and this was a ceremony that celebrated wealth. It was a ceremony of showing off and competition that could last over four days and bring in up to 1000 people. The height of each day was when gifts were given to every one and gifts were given out according to rank and clans would prepare for potlatches for years in accumulating enough things to give every one each day. They provided everything for everyone and these were performed whenever. There was no set date or time of year that determined this, it was a way for the clan to tell everyone about everything that had happened to them since their last potlatch and as long as they had the resources, they could throw one (Oswalt 2009: 287-9, Miller 2/14). The Plains Indians are a very mobile people because they need to follow their food source and this causes them to only have one major dance ceremony a year. This dance however, was very elaborate contrary to the general pattern and this was the Sun Dance. This dance was different because they were only able to perform one ceremony a year and this one in particular was important to their religious beliefs so they put a lot of time and effort into it. This was a dance of rejuvenation that focused on the sun and took place during the spring time. It required a lot of preparation and the actual dance itself was very elaborate. Men would dance around a pole and a priest would pierce their chest with buffalo bone and tie leather thongs around it, the man would then fling himself away from the pole until it rips the bone out. Every one gathered together to do this dance once a year and this was their way of sacrificing themselves for the good of the clan (Oswalt 2009: 217-8, Miller 2/28).
A Native American’s mode of subsidence affects what they are going to worship in ceremonies. Food is a very precious thing. It determines life or death, and for a Native American these food sources become symbols of life and life and anything related to, should be worshiped and with varying modes of subsistences there will be different types of ceremonies. One of the Great Basin’s main food resources are antelope. It affects how mobile they are, it determines how much work each person is going to do, and it plays a major role in if these Indians are going to survive. These animals are very important to them. Part of the Great Basin Indians, the Shoshone, had a shaman, a spiritual person who cured people, aided in childbirth, controlled the weather, and performed a ceremony that helped harvest the antelope. This is called the Calling of the Antelope. To perform this ceremony a shaman would purify himself in a sweat house, he would then dance around and use his energy to call the antelope spirits to him. While this ceremony was not elaborate, the people felt it was necessary for them to survive (Oswalt 2009: 181-2, Miller 2/2). Kootenai are a hunting/gathering group of Native American’s that made their home in the plateau area of the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the United States (Oswalt 2009: 139). While it wasn’t a staple in their diet, grizzly bear was an important resource and was considered sacred. The Grizzly Bear ceremony was held to give offerings and pray to the grizzly bears that women would not get raped and that they would not be angry if one of its children were killed. Medicine bundles were offered at the bear altar and supernatural songs were sung about the grizzly bear. The ceremony then ended with a feast of berries, “a favored food of bears.” (Oswalt 2009: 150-1). Not only do the Navajo herd livestock, they also farm, and one of their favored crops is corn, and corn is used constantly in ceremonies. For example, in a simple birth ceremony, corn pollen is sprinkled over a baby’s head. When a man/woman wakes up at dawn, they will take the sacred corn pollen and sprinkle it and sing the daily blessings. Corn and corn pollen is used in almost every ceremony of Navajo life (Oswalt 2009: 353-4, Miller 3/6).

The many different facets of a Native American’s groups life will affect their artwork and their ceremonies. Mobility will affect the functionality of artwork and how often ceremonies are performed, for example Hopi Indians are able to have artwork that doesn’t serve a physical purpose and they are able to have many ceremonies all because they are sedentary. Studying this is important because we are able to see why Native American’s created the artwork that they did and why they performed the ceremonies that they did. It shows that not all Native American’s created the same things or celebrated the same things.

This entry was published on May 5, 2012 at 10:23 am. It’s filed under Analysis, Blog and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “A look on Native American’s in regards to ceremonies and art

  1. Interesting, but those are awfully broad strokes.

    I am curious as to how the relative permanence/temporality of an art piece factors into your contrast. Navajo sandpaintings are wonderfully intricate pieces of art (all the more so when treated as part of a larger performance, but of course they are gone by sunrise.

    • This was more of a broader essay over how different facets of their life affected art and ceremony, and not so much on the art/ceremonies themselves. However, if you’d like I could do a specific post on Navajo sand paintings. 🙂

  2. brianna on said:

    this website is very helpful for last min. homework

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