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The Great Plains extends approximately from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi, from Alberta to the Texas Rio Grande. The tipi-dwelling nomadic tribes living there subsisted on hunted game, especially buffalo. The domestication of Spanish mustangs in the wake of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 greatly expanded these tribes’ roaming ability; it enabled many tribes to venture further into the Plains, beyond the safety of river systems like the Upper Missouri region.
Plains and Prairie tribes had a distinct warrior culture. Some artistically prolific Plains tribes included the Blackfeet, Crow, Cheyenne, Mandan, Arapaho, Sioux, Comanche, Plains Apache, Kiowa, Osage, Pawnee, Ponca, and Otoe. They had gender specific art roles: women were the principal artists for beadwork and quillwork; men produced pictorial paintings, stone sculpture and weapons.
Plains artists made major contributions in beadwork. Their use of glass beads imported from Venice came to replaced older decorative traditions, like porcupine and bird quill embroidery. A practice likely inherited from the Great Lakes.
Plateau peoples subsisted on roots, berries, fish and game; they followed a seasonal round of gathering. While the Columbia River Basin was a major cultural epicenter, Plateau tribes also traveled to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo and trade horses with the Plains Indians.
Plateau artwork is characterized by its highly individual styles. Emphasis on design and personal symbolism were as important as tribal identity. Some of the area’s most prolific artists are Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Wasco/Wishram.
Plateau artwork was relegated to specific genders. Women were the principal artists for beadwork, quillwork, and woven basketry. Men produced pictorial paintings, stone sculpture, weapons and participated in horn, wood and antler carving. With the onset of the Reservation Period (1855-1920AD), rodeos became popular. The Pendleton Round-Up, in particular, provided a unique venue for the continuation of age-old practices; it also spurred the creation of new artistic genres.
The Ojibwe, Cree, Ottawa, Sax and Fox, Huron, Iroquois, Micmac, Mesquakie and Eastern Sioux are some of the tribes from this area. These artists are best known for their contributions in wood and stone sculpture, quillwork, ribbonwork and beadwork.
The Fur Trade (c. 1600-1850AD) fostered immense artistic and cultural exchange. Sedentary shore-line tribes competed with inland tribes for access to European trade goods – principally guns. The Anglo-Europeans traders, seeking animal pelts, in turn created strategic trade alliances through inter-tribal marriage and religious conversion.
The influx of European metals, silk ribbons and glass beads in the late 18th century birthed artistic innovation. Christianity, too, proved influential in indigenous art. Pre-established practices, like those of the Midewiwin Society or quillwork gradually waned – in spite of several traditionalist movements, like the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.
References to ancient cosmological deities like the Underwater Panther and the Thunderbird feature prominently on pre 1850s wooden ball clubs, leather shot pouches, wooden pipes and stone pipe bowls. Later Great Lakes artwork often features floral imagery, demonstrating increased Anglo-Christian influence.
The Rio Grande River Valley system has been home to Puebloan groups – namely the Hopi, Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, Jemez and Zuni – who inhabited stone and adobe structures for millennia on defensible cliff sides and mesas nearby dependable water sources. From their sedentary lifestyles, they developed strong traditions of intricate wooden carving, textile weaving, pottery and painting.
Spanish colonists, the nomadic tribes of the Southern Plains and the semi-nomadic Athabaskan-speaking groups like the Apache and Navajo, who all arrived in successive waves between the 15th and 18th centuries, deeply influenced Puebloan art. Spanish colonists brought mustangs, Churra sheep, Roman Catholicism, the encomienda system, as well as other technologies and imports, forever changing Pueblo weaving and pottery. (The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 in turn birthed the Navajo weaving tradition.) Trading towns like Picuris, Taos and Santa Fe became major centers for intercultural commerce.
During the Reservation Period, Southwest groups commercialized their artwork to better suit Anglo tastes. This trend impacted basketry and beadwork for the Apache, textiles and silversmithing for the Navajo; and pottery for the Pueblos.
The inhabitants of the Great Basin shared commonalities with Plateau and Plains groups, including artistic traditions. These tribes moved with the seasons, living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle centered on hunting game and fishing.
Beadwork, basketry and leatherwork were known artistic practices in this region, though it is perhaps celebrated for its basket weaving traditions – a practice shared with their Apache and California neighbors. Some tribes of this region include the Shoshone, Paiute, Miwok and Ute.
A notable figure who emerged from the Basin was a Paiute medicine man, Wovoka, whose visions came to inspire the Ghost Dance religious movement in the Central and Southern Plains in the 1890s.
Southeastern woodlands tribes inhabited small settled communities of “Beehive” thatched grass houses. Having descended from Ohio-Mississippian cultures, they perpetuated many of their ancestral traditions, including tobacco cultivation and mound building. Prominent tribes in the southeast included the Shawnee, Waco, Tonkawa, Choctaw, Quapaw, Seminole and Creek.
These tribes traded extensively with colonial occupants like the British (in the Carolinas), the Spanish (in Florida) and the French (on the Mississippi). From them, they obtained glass beads, wool, silk and trade metals. The US Government’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced many of these tribes to relocate to “Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. This migration exposed Southeastern tribes to the artistic styles of the Prairie and Southern Plains Indians who also were interned there.
Though rare, pre-Removal Southeastern Art is celebrated for its vibrancy and intricacy. The floral and geometric beadwork embroidery found on bandolier bags, moccasins and other garments is particularly celebrated. Woven baskets, sashes and stone pipe-bowl carving were also practices through which these tribes achieved artistic mastery.
These maritime tribes inhabited seasonal villages on the coastlines of modern-day Washington and Alaska, from the mouth of the Columbia River, to Yakutat, Alaska. Tribes from this region include the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nootka, Kwakiutl and Bella Bella.
The extensive supply of wood in this forested area – cedar, spruce, alder – made this an epicenter for woodworking and sculpture. The carvings achieved by these artists extended to masks, frontlets, fishing instruments, rattles, bentwood boxes and Potlatch paraphernalia. At Potlatches, family clans would host gift-giving feasts where items were exchanged.
The art they produced depicts painted anthropomorphic and zoological forms, combinations of revered animals like the raven, wolf, bear, eagle, beaver and orca. The items – many associated with shamanistic mythology – are sometimes accented with abalone imported from California and copper acquired from Russian and British merchants. By the 19th century, the practice of argillite figurative carving also became popular.