Contemporary Expression of
Traditional Native American Art

Today's Native American artists follow traditions of their elders,
but their art is also innovative and much more affordable than historic pieces.

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Flag Shirt by Gregg Bourland

Gregg Bourland
"Flag Shirt"
Minneconjou Lakota,
Cheyenne River Reservation,
South Dakota.
Quillwork on smoked
brain-tanned deer hide,
commercial paints and dyes,
human hair.

Contemporary Native American crafts are growing in popularity. Soaring prices at Native American antique auctions put old pieces out of the reach of the majority of buyers. But more importantly, a growing number of collectors see the value of contemporary crafts such as weaving, bead work, silver work and pottery. These crafts simultaneously carry on centuries of tradition, reveal the evolution of the culture they represent, and express the individual touch of the artist.

To some observers, contemporary Indian crafts are seen as inferior imitations of the "great" Native American art of ages long past. But, as the ever-increasing number of tribal arts and crafts galleries across the country demonstrates, the native arts are alive and growing. There is a regeneration and revitalization of traditional art forms.

The same criteria should be applied to the art of the past and the art of today. The works of the Old Masters are not valued above work of modern artists merely for their age. The keys to the value of these art works are mastery of technique and the representation of a particular time period, ethos and individuality, the same qualities that exist in the work of the highest level of contemporary artists.

These identical criteria are what put the finest contemporary Native American arts on a par with the great antique Indian pieces in museum and private collections. If contemporary Native American crafts are judged on their own merits, without comparing them to the artifacts of the past, one finds vital and energetic art forms that can be appreciated for their own individual beauty as well as for their representation of time-honored traditions. New works make their own statements about centuries-old cultures. Contemporary Native crafts are not quaint examples of fading lifeways. They are art works that represent the very soul of the original American experience, an experience that has not died.

What elevates craft to art is the inclusion of part of the inner being of the maker. If an individual reproduces in exacting detail an existing museum piece, such as a Blackfoot war shirt, she is practicing a finely honed craft. If she adds a bit of herself and her modern experience to that shirt, it becomes her own expression and rises to the level of art. The highest echelons of contemporary Native American crafts are more than mere repetition of the old ways produced as souvenirs. They represent the spiritual values of a people, and provide a glimpse into the soul of a culture.

What separates much of Indian life from the majority of mass American culture is that Native Americans have managed to preserve more spirituality in day-to-day life even as they evolve with the modern world. For example, Pueblo dances are more than reenactments of ages-old rituals; they are modern ceremonies and celebrations that appeal to the same spiritual beings that have guided the native people of northern New Mexico for centuries. Through these ceremonies, the old ways are passed to the young, and the spiritual values that have kept their cultures viable are celebrated. In the same way, modern Native American pottery, bead work, basketry, carving and weaving are not just reproductions of ancient techniques. They have a place within contemporary culture as an expression of the soul and spirituality of Native American people.

In Native American arts, as in the fine arts arena, the marketplace dictates to some extent what an artist produces. The bulk of Navajo silver work and Pueblo pottery produced in the early twentieth century was made in response to a demand from tourists. But most Native American crafts people won't produce a piece that runs completely contrary to the tradition of their particular tribe. These artist do not separate art from other phases of life. Art is part of the whole, an integral element of the grand scheme of life; tradition and spirituality naturally guide the production of their crafts.

Today's Native American artists learn the traditional arts by watching their elders . . . and they add elements that work in the modern world without abandoning the soul of the past. In cultures where most information has been passed orally, traditions fluctuate as part of the great circle of life. There is room in Native American culture for flexibility while preserving the essence of tradition.

Some of that flexibility is evidenced in the materials used in arts and crafts. For centuries, Native Americans have traded with other tribes and adopted the use of materials not native to their culture. This practice continues today. Just as people have abandoned the use of ice houses and horses in favor of refrigerators and automobiles, a contemporary Indian artist might use commercial paints on commercially-tanned hides in place of earth paints on brain-tan. Availability of materials always plays a role. For some artists, new materials simply work better; for others, such as Pueblo potters, there is no replacement for the same materials that have been used for centuries.

What to look for

As in all art work, there are levels of skill that generally determine the value of a piece. A tighter weave in a blanket or more symmetrical shape in a pot will partially dictate price. The buyer should look for mastery of technique and the extent to which the piece reflects the tradition of the tribe of the artists, as well as how it represents the modern Native American experience. The wise collector looks for the young and up-and-coming along with those who have established themselves at the forefront of their fields. Younger artists are those who, for the most part, show innovation and incorporate new ideas in traditional art forms to reveal the vitality of contemporary Indian life.

By Susan Dawn

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 8

Related Pages

Art at the Crossroads: Art without Reservations article
Collecting & Change in Native American Baskets
articleCollecting Contemporary Navajo Weavings article
IPOLA: Language is the Soul of a Nation article

Ledger Drawings — Then and Now article
New Perspectives on Collecting Indian Artifacts article
A Personal Look at Navajo Weavings article

Collector’s Resources

Santa Fe

Pablo Milan Gallery | 505-820-1285
Pena Studio Gallery 235 Don Gaspar Ave | 505-820-2286


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