Arts and Crafts of Indigenous Peoples in North America

Melissa, Helen, Lydia, and Becca decided to research the arts and crafts of various Indigenous tribes in North America. We wanted to focus on arts and crafts because of its connection to religious ceremony and because of the impact Jamie’s beading had on our class. As a class, we realized that beading was tedious work, took time, and was a valued source of living for the Lakota community. Thus, we wanted to investigate further into arts and crafts because of its universal use throughout tribes for religious ceremony and economy.

In order to truly understand art in Native culture, Helen decided to further explore engaging in textile craft through embroidery. In indigenous cultures across North America, tribes who lived near habitats of the porcupine developed quillwork embroidery in which they shaped and dyed porcupine quills and use them to decorate both their clothing and accessories including their clothing, bags, shoes, robes, baskets and other items. The porcupine quills easily absorb dye that the native people made from a variety of plants found locally in their tribe’s area. Quillwork was one of the many ways that Native art connected the people to nature and their land, relying on the plants and animals for their craft. In Helen’s embroidery work, she made a medicine wheel and used the colors of the land at Pine Ridge to influence her creative interpretation.

For one portion of the project, Melissa decided to explore the use of Wampum beads in Iroquois religion and politics. Dating back to the 1600’s, Wampum beads played a large role in the governmental structure of Northeastern indigenous peoples. These beads, made of a white and purple shell found in the Atlantic Ocean, were used as a form of currency, or a treaty offering. Individuals crafted belts with more than 9,000 Wampum beads woven together. Upon accepting a belt, the receivers made an unbreakable commitment to the giver. In addition to it’s diplomatic ties, Wampum beads were heavily involved in religious ceremonies including sacrifices. Additionally, the beads were used as offerings to the rivers and waterfalls to thank the spirits for the continuous supply of fish. Today, tobacco has replaced the beads in this ritual.

Lydia decided to research beadwork because making the medicine pouches had a strong impact on her. She gained a new respect and awe for the Native artists who make all the intricate jewelry and regalia with such detailed beadwork. Beadwork is one of the few aspects of Native culture that has remained relevant since before the arrival of European settlers and is still growing and changing today. Beading has been around since long before indigenous artists had access to glass beads, metal needles, or thread. Natives used porcupine quills, shell, metal, semi-precious stones, bone, and teeth to create jewelry and regalia. Native Americans had complex trade routes stretching across the continents and even as far as the Caribbean islands, so they had access to a wide variety of materials to bead with. The art of beading is not generally given too much attention when discussing Native culture, history, and ceremony, but it has played a role in nearly every area of Native life. It has been used as currency, both between tribes and by the Europeans. Beads were given as payment for land before the indigenous people understood what selling land meant to Europeans, and beads were used to seal some of the early treaties. Beading is used to mark the significant changes in a person’s lifetime, such as a girl’s transition to womanhood, a marriage, or a death.

Becca decided to research about Navajo sandpainting and its connection to religious healing and ceremony. The Navajos believed that these sandpaintings were able to fight off sickness and create harmony within a person. These sandpaintings were the Navajo tribes’ connection to their gods, especially if the image was Mother Earth and Father Sky. The sandpainting ceremonies would be performed by a medicine man in Hogans, or traditional Navajo homes, and was usually the person who was ill would sponsor the ceremony. Before the ceremony would start the Hogan would be cleaned and a new base of sand would be added to the floor. The medicine man would draw the design carefully from bowls full of colored sand. Once finished, the person who was in need of a healing would enter the Hogan and sit on the sandpainting. It didn’t matter if the painting was destroyed in the process; the only thing that mattered was the connection between the person and the sacred image. As the medicine man chanted, the power of the universe and the gods would flow into the sandpainting and thus fix the ill person of their disharmony. To end the ceremony the sand painting would be destroyed.

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