North American Native art

The Effects of European Contact

It is important to note that prior to European contact, Native American groups did not generally produce art for its own sake. Objects, often utilitarian in function, were adorned with symbolic elements drawn from their daily lives or cosmologies. In other instances minute differences in design motifs on clothing or residential structures served as differentiating mechanisms, rendering the identity of the group immediately apparent to knowledgeable outsiders. Standards of beauty, to the extent that they were considered at all, were based on traditional notions, not on innovation or experimentation away from the cultural norm.

With the coming of European populations and the devastation of Native American cultures, artifacts were avidly sought for museum and private collections. That early collectors attributed great value to often mundane objects almost certainly struck historic Native Americans as odd, so that when the articles were not stolen outright they were usually acquired by buyers at "bargain" rates. This has provoked numerous conflicts in recent years as Native Americans become increasingly vocal in calling for the return of museum items symbolizing their cultural heritage. In recent years the abject poverty of surviving Native American populations, combined with the growing demand for artisans' commodities in industrialized countries, has stimulated the emergence of increasing numbers of North American native artisans. Art has thus become a cottage industry serving tourist markets as well as demand by more discriminating collectors. Among the most sought-after articles are works of jewelry, Eskimo sculpture, as well as the textiles and ceramics of the Southwestern groups.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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