Art of the Americas to World War I
The vast geographic and environmental diversity of the North American continent has allowed one of the most culturally diverse regions on the planet to emerge. Societies across the continent have developed beautiful and complex material worlds that reflect the character and personality of their territories. Native North American peoples have responded to the universal problems of life in individual and ingenious ways, making best use of their natural resources to build strong and expressive communities. Here objects from the British Museum’s collection illustrate the ways in which separate Native American cultures have lived through a colonial period of immense social and environmental upheaval over the last three hundred years.
The earliest objects in the collection are stone tools made about 8000 years ago by big-game hunters who were part of the Paleoindian Tradition. These ancient people were followed by Archaic hunters from 8000-1000 B.C.E. who exploited the new animal and plant resources of a warming climate, following the end of the ice-age, using specialized tools.
After the Archaic period came the Woodland peoples, from about 800 B.C.E., who lived in settled communities, hunting, fishing and gathering and cultivating plants. Large earthworks, such as those of the Ohio Hopewell culture (from about 100 B.C.E. to C.E. 600), were created for religious, economic and defensive purposes.
At the time of European contact in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there would have probably been between two and ten million Native inhabitants. They were incredibly
diverse, living as distinct nations with distinct traditions and speaking different languages. European colonization and the expansion of the United States brought diseases and warfare that killed most of the native population. Bison, on which many depended for food, clothing, housing and tools, were hunted almost to extinction by commercial hunters. Further hardship came as many were forced to live in reservations. Continuing conflict culminated in the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 when United States troops massacred hundreds of Lakota after they had surrendered.
Today, between two and three million people of native descent live in Canada and the United States of America. They are grouped into more than 1000 bands, tribes or nations all possessing their own oral literatures and histories; their survival and continued vibrancy a testament to the enduring strength of their traditions
The Eastern Woodlands
The peoples of the expansive woodlands of Eastern America live in a large number of tribes, with related religious and linguistic traditions.
The people subsisted through hunting, fishing and limited agriculture, trading with and periodically making war on their neighbors. They were the first Native North American societies to experience the arrival of Europeans and despite regular outbreaks of disease and warfare, a significant cultural exchange took place as Europeans learned to live and travel in their New World. Native Americans quickly accessed new technologies and markets, fueling an explosion in trade that had a profound effect on all involved.
The people of the North American Plains were predominantly nomadic, living in large territories roamed by great herds of buffalo.
Early adopters of the horse, they lived in societies governed by profound military and religious traditions which produced richly decorated clothing and weaponry. The Plains peoples fought ferociously to maintain their independence as the European nations of North America spread westwards in the nineteenth century. Eventually, after decades of resistance, most Plains people were forced to live on reservations, where despite documented official efforts to eliminate them, traditional practices and languages have survived.
The peoples of the Southwestern United States have a long tradition of settled life that is reliant on agriculture. Diverse peoples with varied cultural and linguistic traditions, the people of the Southwest have long produced highly decorated pottery, jewelery and textiles. These objects form part of a cultural and technological exchange with Mexican societies to the south which remain central to a thriving market in contemporary art.
The Northwest coast
The societies of the Northwest coast of North America developed in relative isolation between the Coastal Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Living in small communities on islands and in fjords, they utilized the huge cedar forests to construct the elaborate heraldic structures now known collectively as totem poles.
The enthusiasm for carving stretched far beyond the poles, to encompass all areas of life on the coast and their ornate canoes could travel across hundreds of miles of ocean in search of fish, whales, trade or war. Control of the sea allowed chieftains to amass considerable wealth which they distributed to followers at elaborate feasts known as potlatches.
Masking, a performance art practiced widely on the coast, was an integral part of potlatches, where ancestral tales were performed in long houses before the tribe and their guests. Some, such as the cedar mask illustrated at the top of the page, were designed to transform mid-dance from one form to another, an essential part of Northwest Coast storytelling.
The shores of the North American continent around and to the north of the Arctic circle are inhabited by people speaking related, though distinct, Eskimo-Aleut languages: these are Aleut, Alutiiq, Yup'ik and Inupiaq in Alaska; Siberian Yup’ik, spoken by the Yuit in Alaska and Siberia; Inuktitut spoken by the Canadian Inuit; and Greenlandic spoken by the Greenland Inuit.
In the past these peoples have been collectively known as Eskimos. This word, meaning "snowshoe netters," is often mistakenly translated as "raw meat eaters." It is today largely rejected, especially by Canadian groups, who prefer using the term "Inuit," which means "people" in their language.
A world of scarcity
Traditionally, all these people were dependent on the hunting of whales, walrus, seals and caribou, as well as fishing. They shared certain cultural elements, such as the kayak and umiaq (both types of boat), dog sleds, toggling harpoon heads, the ulu (woman's knife), seal oil lamps, and double-layer skin clothing, as well as certain hunting and fishing techniques, and some religious beliefs and practices.
However, there were considerable differences as well. Not all of them lived in snow houses, even seasonally, for example. This common stereotype was mainly informed by the accounts of explorers, who, in their search for a Northwest Passage, came into contact with Canadian Inuit.
The people of the farthest northern reaches of the Americas live in a world of scarcity: finite resources and a hostile environment have created a resourceful and resilient people who retain much of their ancestral tradition and lifestyle. They depend heavily on the animals that live around them, making clothing, complex tools and even structures from the creatures they hunt and fish. With hunting so vital to Arctic livelihood, a variety of specially adapted tools and techniques were developed specifically to catch and utilize prey both on land and by sea.
Today, there are about 130,000 Native people living in the North American Arctic. In Canada (Nunavut) and Greenland, they have attained some degree of self-government. In Alaska, much economic and political power is held by Native corporations.
© Trustees of the British Museum
Want to join the conversation?
- "At the time of European contact in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there would have probably been between two and ten million Native inhabitants. "
Hmm, how do population estimates work? I ask because there is quite a difference between 2 and 10 million people! Why can't archaeologists/historians better narrow it down?(3 votes)
- Do you need to see the dead bodies to believe? In any event we were a lot more then what we are now.(3 votes)
- Why did it talk about European colinization? I thout this was about indians.(2 votes)
- European colonization played a big role in the art the NATIVE people created. By the way, there were no Indians in America.(2 votes)
- With the "oral" tradition and significant differences in the various peoples this article represents, would it not be better to have an article written from each of the geographic areas and not a European interpretation?(2 votes)
- Did yall see the picture of the Native american hat that has feathers on the bottom it shows early 20th century.?(2 votes)
- were can you buy a Ulu with a musk ox horn handle at(1 vote)
- What is the distinction between tribes, bands, and nations?(1 vote)
- I think it;s more of a distinction of size. i think nations are groups of tribes or bands that identify as a single sovereignty.(2 votes)
- They were actually called native Americans .(0 votes)
- "American" is derived from a Westphalian nation-state, and indirectly an Italian map-maker. Most of the nations' names for themselves are the word for "The People" in their own language. The different indigenous peoples of North America collectively identify as "native American" while still primarily identify as Ojibwe, Inuit, Navaho, etc. (A friend/former student grew up speaking Ojibwe at home and educated me at length.)
Interestingly enough, Latin Americans get very tetchy about people identifying only citizens of the United States as 'Americans'. They feel that they are also 'Americans'.
I distrust the "European American" or "African American" or "Asian American" etc. The 'hyphenated-American' is a devisive construct used to play different demographics off against each other, encourage hate and factionalism, and to indicate that one group's interests should dominate other groups interests.(5 votes)