It is hard to point at something and says it is Native American art. Mainly because art and culture to Native people is much the same thing. But, while American culture is not necessarily Native culture, Native American culture IS American culture.
Without the Native people, the United States would look very different today. The United States, its government, early treaties, purchases and legislation was shaped, first by its need to trade with, then separate, subjugate, annihilate and finally assimilate the Native population. American tribal culture influenced everything from the checks and balances system of government established by the “founding fathers” (thank you Iroquois confederacy) to barbeque.
The concept of “art” for many traditional Native American cultures is foreign. For many tribes, there isn’t really an idea of art of art’s sake. All things deserved to be beautiful and this included bowls and baby cradles and shoes and even our bodies. Creative expression was an extension of life and didn’t warrant a special title, time or circumstance. This is evidenced in every meticulous swirl etched into a piece of pottery, pattern woven into a river cane basket and undulating curve carved into a wooden toy. There was and is meaning in the designs that went beyond beautiful, though beautiful is the end result. I can’t say that Native American “art” has had much influence with the American culture, but I think the Native American idea of beauty, that all things deserve to be beautiful, has.
Most Americans have a limited, nearly non-existent knowledge of America’s Native people. They want to think of us as in the past and may find comfort in the nostalgic mental image of a Native American 150 years ago, frozen forever in an Edward Curtis photograph. But we have moved beyond that, sometimes to better and sometimes not.
People often focus on the art of various tribal groups to define one group from another. I think it is important to look deeper than that to find the soul of that group. Artistic expression is defined by the environment in which its creator lives. That is why the carvings of the Cherokee are made from stone and wood, why the baskets are made from river cane, oak and buckbrush and why the designs are undulating and flowing. They mimic what is around them and manipulate the material around them to reinvent it.Art is subjective by its very nature. Some look at a Jackson Pollack painting and see magic. Others look at it and see dribbles. That is what makes art wonderful. It can teach and challenge. For example, if you allow yourself, (if you’re in the dribble crowd), to entertain the idea there could be more to Mr. Pollack’s work than what is seen on the surface, you might discover the genius…or confirm that it’s all hype.
This holds true for Native American art and history. It can look quite simple, “cut and dry”, but if you allow yourself to entertain more, to see more of the story, you might see the exquisite complexity.Like all people, the shared narrative, environment and experience of the Cherokees created a belief system, a language and a lifestyle that caused the Cherokee people to identify as one. It is a shared narrative that distinguishes the Cherokees from the Navajo or the Cheyenne from the Modoc.
Cherokee art and artforms are experiencing a revival. After the dissolution of the Cherokee Nation in the early 1900’s, many Cherokee arts and crafts began to seep into history. In the 1930’s there was an effort to document what used to be by interviews with Cherokee elders. These became known as the WPA papers. It looked as if all that would remain of many Cherokee cultural staples would be the words written on these papers. But, the Cherokee spirit was more resilient.
The arts and crafts, just like the foods and language, remained alive in the small Cherokee communities that were tucked into the Ozark foothills. Places with names that only the Cherokees knew like Oakhill, Piney, Cherry Tree, Kenwood, Greasy, Eucha, Nicut and Marble City, kept them alive. When W.W. Keeler became chief, first by appointment and then by election, he worked to bring these cultural icons back to the forefront, to make them important. That tradition has continued to the present with tribally sponsored workshops, avenues for showing and demonstrating and the creation of the National Living Treasure honors.
Any discussion of Cherokee artistic revival would not be complete without mentioning Anna Sixkiller Mitchell. She single-handedly brought back traditional Cherokee pottery to the Cherokees in Oklahoma. Self taught, from digging the clay, to forming and firing, she learned by research, experimentation and trial and error. Even more importantly however, she taught others what she knew. Today, Cherokee pottery is as identifiable as Cherokee baskets. Wado Anna Belle.