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What is Native American Art?

What is Native American Art?

The term Native American is representative of all the original inhabitants of the Americas, prior to European colonisation. It includes North, Central, South America, West Indies and the Eskimo nations.  Despite the expansive cultural base that it symbolizes, Native American art has been relegated to the fringes of the American West until recent years.  In order to determine why Native American art became peripheral, and how the change from exclusion to inclusion of culture came to be, it is important to first understand its history.

Art is said to be non-existent unless it has an audience, and that statement is very much at the root of the progression of Native American art.

In Native America, there was no word for ‘art’ prior to Europe’s colonisation.  Items were created for functional means only, and those that were better skilled were considered experts, not artists.  For example, function might represent a bowl used for cooking, or a garment decorated with eagle feathers so that its wearer could take on the spirit and foresight of an eagle.

Across the different cultures and regions, many had a deep connection to the spirit world and experienced dream or waking states.  From the dream state, important and inspirational messages were communicated to the tribes, sometimes through visual means.  These visualisations, similar to the Aboriginal dreamscapes of native Australians, formed the basis for Native American art.

The carriers of the messages were tagged with wisdom and their purpose was linked to the collective survival of the tribe, and it can be said that art for Native American nations was more a collective rather than an individual means of expression.  The freedom of individualism in European art was not practiced; nevertheless, on rare occasion, some were encouraged in that direction, like EL Blumenschein or Maria Martinez, and Iris Nampeyo, whose forms were based on old Indian pottery.

After the settlement of Europeans and the extinction of many original tribes, an ethnological interest arose.  Native American art was considered more artefact than art, with emphasis placed on the historical and educational aspect of a primitive culture.  The advanced cultures of the Mayans, Aztecs, Incas for example, were given precedence over other tribes, which created a segregated and less rounded understanding of the art of all Native American nations.

Considering the definition of Native American, this encompasses what is fast becoming labelled as Latin American art. Understandably, it is not possible to define such a broad movement of art into something that is easily definable.  Therefore, it is no wonder that sub-divisions are evolving.

The Interest in Native American Art

In recent years, there has been an upsurge in interest in Native American art by young, knowledgeable buyers.  Madonna hit the news in the 90’s with her purchase of a Frida Kahlo painting, putting Frida more in the mainstream than ever before.  In 2006, the final Kahlo painting was sold for $5 million which caused a jump in Native American sales.  The trend continues to grow due, in large part, to collectors searching for under valued art.  For example, in 2009, Sotheby’s sold Diego Rivera’s ‘Nina con Rebuzo’ for twice its estimated value.

Another reason for growth in the market arises out of the history of political tensions experienced in many of the Native American regions, most of which are in the Southern Americas, where the term Latin American art comes from.  As art becomes a globalised commodity, and governments lean towards democracy, more opportunities are arising for the artists of these regions to travel and share their art.

This proves that art requires an audience before it is considered art.  The art of the American West was once considered to be exclusively Native American because there was more interest in its preservation in the United States than anywhere else.  This interest travelled to Europe where artists appropriated themes inherent of this region of Native America. For example, Leon Underwood’s ‘Manitu Bird’ or Joseph Beuys’s ‘Action’ performance piece about the transcendence to a coyote spirit.

Upcoming Native American artists to watch for, from the Innuit Nation to Mexico, are Kenojuak Ashevek, Miguel Covarrubias and Eduardo Kingman. The boundaries are being removed as the art of Native America is reclaimed fully across regions.

And hidden in many corners of all these regions, other art devoid of audience waits in silence. Like the colonialists of yesteryear, art collectors and buyers journey to unknown lands in order to discover.

Donovan Gauvreau


Art Historian, Donovan Gauvreau lectures about art therapy with a focus on creativity development. He believes we can learn from the great masters in art to communicate ideas and feelings through painting. He provides content for www.AaronArtPrints.org to educate and inspire people to take a glimpse into an artist's life to better understand the meaning behind their work.


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