NativeTech: Native American Technology & Art

A Discussion of Terms

Native American technicians and artists
Traditional tools and materials
Ideas expressed through art.

The Role of Native American Artists and Technicians
In the Eastern Forests of North America

The role of artists is defined by the society they are a part of. Before European contact, the basic social or political unit for Native Americans living in New England was the 'tribe', a group of allied people living in separate 'bands', sets of family clans, or communities, in which one or two bands were sometimes distinguished. The time people can spend 'just being an artist', in creative pursuits, is often limited by the way their society organizes itself - or just how much bureaucracy there is. With a livelihood of hunting and gathering or horticulture, a specialized craft is a luxury that takes energy away from the daily food/subsistence quest. Specialized craft and other types of full-time professions are not economically practical when every member of society has to devote time to daily subsistence activities. So, hundreds of years ago, without the role of craft specialization, the artist often finds their creative outlet, or expression, within the realm of everyday life, based on their daily experiences.

In the past, Native Americans New England sometimes had to make scheduled moves of their settlements in response to various abundant or depleted resources (salmon runs or perhaps a lack of firewood for example). Hence, the older art of Native Americans of southern New England often involved the ornamentation of utilitarian objects, which were carried along, left for later use, traded away, or buried with the deceased. Through the perfection and embellishment of these items, Native Americans found not only a means of individual expression, but they also discovered a visual way to communicate important cultural symbols.

In New England, some forms of traditional Native American art are produced mainly by women, while other kinds of art are generally executed by men; a few types of traditional art are produced by both men and women. Men's and women's art can be different because their daily routines are different. Before European contact, there were many tools and materials that were exclusive to either men's or women's tasks; this exclusiveness can be seen in the art produced by men and women.

Document sources recorded by Europeans in 17th century New England mention specific divisions of production or labor based on sex and age. Dutch observed in the 'New Netherlands' (New York) that older men fashioned fish nets and make wooden bowls and ladles, and that such labor was uncommon among younger men, with most of the subsistence activities performed by women. Men were responsible for the manufacture of wooden bowls, spoons, dishes, and canoes, as well as nets and stone pots and pipes. Men eventually specialized in the production of wampum, or shell currency, and other shell artifacts, (although recent research indicates women may have had a role in wampum production). The husband in New England was obligated to make his child's cradle board.

Most early 17th century European accounts note that pottery was made by women, though some references allude to men manufacturing clay pipes. Women were responsible for making most of the woven mats, baskets, and containers of birch bark pails. In addition to their domestic activities, women (and probably older men) were responsible for the manufacture and embroidery of their own and their family's clothing. William Wood noted in the 1600's "In winter time they [Native American women in New England] are their husbands Caterers,... They likewise sew their husbands shooes, and weave coates of Turkie feathers, besides all their ordinary household drudgerie which daily lies upon them" (New England's Prospect by William Wood,1865).

Today Native Americans continue to pass down unique traditions to the children, though the role of Native American artists changes dramatically. Reliance upon the convenience of 20th century ways of getting food does indeed allow more room, more time, for craft specialization. Men and women have equal access to materials and tools, but traditions of many Nations still dictate the creation of some forms of art. Specialized guilds of pottery, basketry, quill working, metalworking and other Native American artists have developed over the centuries and they exist today, coast to coast, across Turtle Island.

Native American art has become overwhelmingly popular in this decade - a situation that has had both positive and negative effects on individual artists and Native nations. An international market has formed which demands the sights and sounds of Native cultures. Though commercial operations often provide an outlet for Native American artists, the competition from poorly-made, non-Native production of Native art has injured Native artists and in some case perpetuates hurtful stereotypes of Native Americans. Many issues of cultural property have been raised about the production and abuse of Native American art and images - it is difficult to know where to draw a line in the sand. Federal legislation has failed to protect or accommodate the Native American artist, mainly because today it is so difficult to define who is - or is not - a Native American artist.

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© 1994 - Tara Prindle
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