What is so Important about Native American Art?

by Lara M. Evans

Erica Lord, installation detail from Artifact Piece, Revisited, 2008

What is so important about Native American, First Nations, and Indigenous art? Why does this type of art deserve critical attention, institutional support, and a wider public audience? When there are so many real, concrete issues at stake in the world, why is art important? Asking this question “why is art important” in the context of indigenous art may potentially give us an answer that also works for society at large.

Native populations are in a state of flux, and have been since contact with Europeans over five hundred years ago. The US government is interested in tracking concrete changes in demographics, health, income, family size, geographic distribution, etc. It is clear through such analyses that Native communities are at-risk in numerous ways. Changes in demographics can be tracked through statistical analysis, but such an analysis does not provide insight into the specific needs, barriers, opportunities, and issues faced in indigenous communities. In order to strengthen support systems for culturally specific traditional and tradition-inspired artists, it is important to gain some understanding of the power of the arts within these communities. Martin Red Bear (Sioux) made explicit the connections between creation stories, oral traditions, performative arts, and visual arts with these words, spoken at an art gathering in 2009:

When we talk about Creation, migration, and change, what happens in the past is a part of our culture and then we express it now in our artwork. And when we talk about earth-based, spiritual knowledge, these images appear in the arts, painting, sculpture, songs, dance and even drama.[1]

Martin Red Bear told a story about his observations of the use of dragonfly imagery and his own exploration of the cultural meaning of the dragonfly. For those who are interested, he suggested an article by Ron McCoy as a good source of published information about dragonfly symbolism among the Cheyenne and the Lakota.[2] In regards to demographics and folk and traditional culture, change is often regarded negatively and is assumed to represent a threat to tradition as well as a threat to carefully crafted administrative policies. Martin Red Bear used the cultural associations of the dragonfly to reframe the discussion of changing demographics into an indigenous context. I will use that same metaphor here in this short essay. Dragonflies illustrate the complexities of being a warrior. The dragonfly is a hunter, a predator. But the dragonfly is also hunted by birds, frogs, spiders, and other flying insects. Bravery and the ability to attack are not the only necessary qualities for a warrior. Skilled evasion, the ability to rapidly change direction in order to escape from danger, is also a vitally important quality. Dragonflies can hover in place and yet can fly up to forty miles per hour. Additionally, the transformation from the water-dwelling naiad or nymph stage to the mature flying stage is an important signifier of change, growth, and sacred power. All of these qualities can be used as metaphors for the roles of contemporary indigenous artists and the conditions under which we work.

Some of the demographic changes affecting artistic practice include the following: an increasing population of young people and rapidly declining population of elders, geographic relocations, and intermarriage. These kinds of demographic changes are not new to Native communities. Indigenous populations have experienced multiple migrations, population losses, and recoveries. The conceptual unification of oral tradition and the production of material culture contextualize this history and provide us with models for survivance that are useful not only to our indigenous communities, but perhaps to the population at large during this current period of change marked by serious economic upheaval.

We still have the stories and songs of when we arrived in our Tlingit homeland, over 10,000 years ago, not only the stories of how we got to where we are now, but the stories of the people who had to sacrifice along the way. Part of our stories have to do with the sacrifices by clan mothers in order to get where we needed to be.[3]

– Larry McNeil

Such stories help us contextualize present issues. Our artforms give us the tools we need to cope with change, to be resilient, to make conscious choices that consider the long term. Thinking seven generations ahead requires imagination! Art is more than a reaction to events in our lives; artistic practice also leads to real-world changes.

In very practical ways, indigenous artistic practices lead to involvement in environmental issues. Many indigenous artists utilize regionally specific plant and animal sources as basic materials for our work. The California Indian Basketweaver’s Association, for example, works with public agencies to improve land management policies with the goal of protecting sensitive ecosystems and to reduce the use of pesticides on public lands. Traditional basketmakers are at risk of pesticide poisoning from handling the plant materials needed to make baskets. The very materials that we use have wider social and economic impacts. Relocation to another ecosystem often results in the loss of access to customary materials. One solution is to have raw materials transported from home so that the artist can continue with traditional practices, as Maria Concepcion, an indigenous weaver from Guatemala, has described in her remarks that were translated from Spanish to English by scholar Maribel Alvarez. Maria Concepcion explained that continuing to practice her traditional weaving was a driving force behind ongoing contact with her home community and also served as a means of creating connections between weavers back home and in her new community in eastern Washington. Artistic production is a significant means through which individuals and communities build and maintain relationships. When moving to a new environment, we also look to the already-established peoples of that region to learn about materials that we might be able to adapt to our traditional practices. Our artistic practices make it possible to continue relationships with our home communities and also provide a means by which we make connections with people in a new community. Ecological issues can drive changes in artistic practice even in the absence of demographic change. For example, an insect infestation of ash trees in the northeast is anticipated to make ash wood unavailable for use in traditional basket making for the next fifty years or so. Basketmakers from Maine have been consulting with Pacific Northwest weavers about techniques for harvesting cedar bark that might make cedar useful as a temporary substitute until ash is harvestable again. Scarcity of raw materials due to urbanization, commercial development, environmental contamination, and climate change are issues that affect all traditional Native art forms because oral traditions, dance, song, and material culture are so closely intertwined in our communities.

The ability of dragonflies to suddenly change direction can signify the flexibility of the arts both in response to change and as a means of creating intentional positive change. Artists working wholly within contemporary media are pressured to make their work visibly “Indian” according to very limited definitions of what constitutes Indian art and what constitutes tradition. Artistic practices must be able to respond to changing conditions and be able to contextualize new social, economic, political, and spiritual dimensions of experience in order to maintain the traditional functions of these complex art forms. Ultimately, indigenous artistic practices teach us how to live healthful lives, help us develop protocols for establishing and maintaining relationships with diverse peoples, and help us deal with changes beyond our control.

The economic challenges for traditional and tradition-inspired indigenous artists are debilitating. Finding equitable markets for our work has been a consistent problem for centuries and we are particularly vulnerable during economic downturns. Efforts to educate potential buyers about the diversity of indigenous artistic production and the richness of meanings present in the works are undercut by inaccurate popular media representations of Native peoples and by mass-manufactured imitations of traditional art forms.

Many of the best practices and program models for the support of contemporary indigenous artists use what might be termed interdisciplinary approaches. For example, the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, uses language programs, museum exhibits, retail services, and artists-in-residencies that cover the breadth of artistic practice – all working together under one organization.[4] The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance has taken an approach that combines education and training of new basketmakers with economic opportunities via their own store and combined advertising resources.[5] The storefront recently closed due to the current economic crisis, but reopening is a priority for the organization.

Improvements in health, economics, and social justice are unlikely to be successful without attention to the ways in which artistic practices can drive change and simultaneously provide continuity. Strengthening support systems for indigenous artists involves recognizing the breadth of the arts and their complex functions in our communities. Environmental, economic, health, crime, intellectual property rights, and sovereignty issues all overlap with artistic practice.

The dragonfly can change direction in the blink of an eye, but it still remains a dragonfly. Stories, songs, and visual symbols that are part of the meaningful objects we create provide us with the means to direct our responses to demographic shifts, environmental change, political change, economic and technological change in ways that keep our people growing and keep us from being victims of change. A lot of economic prioritization is given to the sciences and to health care, while starving and devaluing all forms of artistic practice because it is assumed that our arts serve the same function as art in the European sense. Our arts are the embodiment of our philosophy, our theory, our science, our histories, and our economic and political systems, and yes, our health as well.


[1] Creation—Migration—Change, a Native Arts Gathering, convened in February 2009 at the Squaxin Island Tribes’ Little Creek Resort in Kamilche, near Shelton, Washington. The gathering was organized by the Seventh Generation Fund, The Longhouse Education and Cultural Center of The Evergreen State College, First Peoples Fund, and the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. It was supported through the Changing Demographics Initiative, a project of the Fund for Folk Culture, underwritten by the Ford Foundation.

[2] McCoy, R. “When the Spirits Came,” from American Indian Art Magazine v. 32 no. 4 (Autumn 2007) p. 54-65.

[3] Larry McNeil, comments from the panel “Migration, Relocation and the Diaspora,” during the Creation – Migration – Change convening, February 2009.

[4]For more information about the Ziibiwing Center see http://www.sagchip.org/ziibiwing/index.htm

[5] For more information about the Maine Indian Basketmaker’s Alliance see http://www.maineindianbaskets.org/index.asp

3 thoughts on “What is so Important about Native American Art?

  1. Pingback: EMERGENCE by John Feodorov at Santa Fe’s MoCNA « Not Artomatic

  2. Thanks for this essay and mentioning successful grassroots, interdisciplinary Native arts organizations. Are you familiar with the Cherokee Arts and Humanities Council? They a grassroots nonprofit group based in Kenwood, Stilwell, and Tahlequah, working in dance, electronic arts, music, visual arts, theater, and literature with an emphasis on serving rural Cherokee communities.

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