Native North America: The Northwest Coast, the Southwest, and California



Chief Mungo Martin (Kwakwaka’wakw), Wawadit’la, also known as Mungo Martin House,Thunderbird Park in Victoria, British Columbia, 1953 (photo I, HighInBC [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons)


Map Northwest Coast Culture Area

On the Northwest Coast, the principles of balance and repetition were used as a unity of vision in all media by full-time artists. The artistic traditions in this area are antique. Conspicuous displays of goods affirmed the social standing of the individual and their family, and objects with restricted-use decorations were expressions of political power and family affiliation. Wealth and status were legitimized through the public display of art, for which there was an increased demand in the early contact period because of the fur trade. The potlatch was a communal feast celebrated in this area, and characterized by give-aways that affirmed the family’s wealth. Coppers embodied the family’s wealth at the potlatches. Crests were a family’s exclusive property, and were emblems of a family’s totemic ancestor. Crest poles acted as support beams, symbolic doorways, free-standing memorials, burial poles, and visual records of a clan’s history. These documented clan interaction. Crests were arranged in a fluid manner, with transformation emphasized, and with horror vacui. These are generally created frontally with a use of split representation, which divided the 2 equal flat halves. There is also configurative representation which allows the being to be shown in profile in a straightforward manner. The designs are either expansive with some body parts being omitted or redistributed; or distributive, with radical rearrangement of the features and limbs that usually fills the whole space. There are specific elements that make up the basic parts of Northwest Coast design throughout the region. Oviods are made up of curved corner rectangles. A formline is a contour line that swells in shape when they meet other formlines. The artists on the Northwest Coast tend to fill the spaces between spaces to symbolize the fluid nature of existence, and use balance and repetition to enforce order. During the 19th century, the northern style spread south, and the art of the people of the Northwest Coast generally became more elaborate. Many of the masks from this area, especially those of the Kwakwaka’wakw, are very heavily detailed, with elements that move, open and close, or transform into other characters in the story at the appropriate time in the dance. Many of these masks were used in Winter Ceremonial Dances, which were times when initiations, such as that into the Hamatsa society, could be performed, and when the relationships between the people and the spirits could be affirmed.


Tlingit, Hoonah Tribal House Interior, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska (photo By Pi3.124 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Charles and Isabella Edenshaw (Haida), Painted Woven Hat, c. 1895 (photo By Pi3.124 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Tlingit, Chilkat Blanket and Edwards Brothers, Nass Indian Chief in feast robe, 1902 (photo By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Chilkat Blanket  Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Vancouver Public Library Historical Photographs [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons)

Kwakwaka’wakw, Crooked Beak of Heaven mask, 19th century and Oscar Matilpi (Kwakwaka’wakw), Raven/Sisutl transformation mask, 1996 (photo by See page for author [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Map, California Culture Area

The native peoples of the region of California, which has the largest number of Native groups in any North American culture area, are known for their basketry. Most of the culture groups from this region were nomadic or semi-nomadic, which means that most of the objects they created had to be portable for easy transport from place to place. The basketry was characterized by a rhythmic repetition of pattern and complex schemes of rotational geometry, much of which related to symbols for nature or water. The Pomo are most famous for their ceremonial baskets that had feathers woven into the flat or conical exterior. Red woodpecker feathers were the most highly valued, and abalone or clam shell beads carved by men were added as decoration. Later, trade beads are added as well. There was a deliberate interruption of the design pattern. These sorts of baskets were typically given to young girls or exchanged as part of marriage ceremonies, and were treasured objects. In the late 19th century, baskets were made for sale, and the external market encouraged extremes of baskets that tested the maker’s skill. Many of these were either extremely large or extremely small, and oftentimes basketmakers, such as Dat So La Lee, a Washow woman, could become famous for their baskets.


Edward S. Curtis, Klamath Tule Hut, c. 1923 (photo Edward S. Curtis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Pomo, Coiled Basket, 19th century and Twined Storage Basket, late 19th-early 20th century (photo I, BrokenSphere [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Hiart (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)


Pomo, Feather Basket, c. 1905 (photo By Bin im Garten (Own work (own picture)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)


Dat-So-La-Lee Demonstrating Basket Weaving, c. 1905 (photo By Unknown – Nevada National Historical Society (, Public Domain,

southwestcultureThe Southwest was known for settled, sedentary tribes that were matrilinear and relied on farming for food. Corn cultivation was introduced from Mesoamerica about 1500 BCE. The Hohokam, Mogollon, and Ancestral Pueblo groups had a self-defining approach to art and architecture, but shared principles of space planning, construction, and pictorial design. They also shared a common concern of unreliable water sources. Art helped to alleviate the stress of the environment, and engineering was used with ritual, art and architecture to secure the community. Their success eventually led to their demise. Pottery manufacture took hold in the Southwest after 700, although it was introduced from Mesoamerica in the 3rd century CE. Both utilitarian and ritual wares were made.


Map, Southwest culture area, c. 1350

The Ancestral Pueblo people occupied the Southwest from at least 500 CE, and, in the period between then and 1200, moved from pithouses to masonry structures called cliff dwellings. Pithouses were made from supporting wooden posts, with an entrance hole in the roof, and the walls and ceilings were made of sticks covered in adobe. Each had a central sipapu.   After 900, multi-room, multi-storey structures began to be built. Kivas were ceremonial structures in the center of plazas. These were special use structures made to mimic the pithouse form, with the sipapu the most sacred part of the space. The earliest known artifacts are basketry, with designs being created through geometrics. Historic Pueblo peoples are descendants of these peoples. The Ancestral Pueblo people are known for the high degree of technical sophistication of their ceramics, with some groups using vegetal pigments for slip painting and other using mineral pigments. The designs on these pots, much like the designs on the baskets from California, reflect concerns for the natural environment and water.

Ancestral Pueblo, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, (photo By James Q. Jacobs – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By National Park Service (United States) – Chaco Canyon National Historical Park: Photo Gallery, Public Domain,


Ancestral Pueblo, Great Kiva, Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon (photo By National Park Service (United States) – Chaco Canyon National Historical Park: Photo Gallery, Public Domain,

Ancestral Pueblo, Pitcher with Black on White Geometric Design, 900-1300 and Olla with Black on White Designs (photo By Gift of Charles A. Schieren (Brooklyn Museum) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons and By Alan Levine from Strawberry, United States – Rock Art Ranch PotsUploaded by PDTillman, CC BY 2.0,


Ancestral Pueblo, Saludo Polychrome Olla, c. 1340-1450 (photo By US-NPS –, Public Domain,

The Mogollon occupied a large territory in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico that extended into present day Mexico. They had close trading ties with the Hohokam, and borrowed painted motifs from both the Hohokam and the Ancestral Pueblo people. The Mimbres branch was active from about 1000-1150, a period marked by unstable weather that undermined agriculture. Pithouses were replaced with apartment-style dwellings in this period, and there was a high level of artistic complexity. The hemispheric bowls were painted with linear representations of people and animals in the Classic Black-on-White style. The Mimbres exhibited a preference of the hemispheric vessel as mortuary furniture. These bowls were often used for food preparation before burial, and both of these functions were important. The designs on these bowls exhibit a shared ideology but not specific prototypes. There was a deliberate breakage of these forms with the “kill holes,” and often multiple bowls were placed upside down over the face of the deceased individual before they were buried under the floor of the houses, a practice that may indicate ancestor worship.

Mimbres, Bowl with Two Human Figures, c. 1000-1150 and Bowl with Bighorn Sheep and Geometric Design, c. 1000-1150 By Photo: User:FA2010 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By Photo: User:FA2010 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Hohokam, Casa Grande Ruins, Arizona, c. 1350 (photo By Offworlder (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Hohokam, Santa Cruz Red on Buff Plate, 900-1150 (photo By Wmpearl – Own work, CC0,

The Hohokam are the ancestors of the Tonoho O’odam (Pima and Papago), and had their heartland in what is now the Phoenix basin. Their territory extended for about 40,000 square miles, with agriculture sustained by irrigation systems. They were active from about 1 CE through about 1350/1450 CE. Originally they lived in semi-subterranean pithouses with communal plazas. Their garbage piles were coated with plaster, and used as platform mounds. Oval shaped ballcourts were also built, although around 1200, the ballcourts were made into trash pits, and elite houses were built on the mounds. This culture shared the most ties with Mesoamerica, and maintained a long distance trade. Sites along the trade routes were marked with rock art. (A petrogylph is engraved into the rock, and a pictograph is painted) Hohokam pottery is characterized by fine, wavy lines, and a more dynamic composition than Ancestral Pueblo or Hohokam ceramics. The image of the flute player, popular now as Kokopelli in Southwestern tourist arts, also comes from this culture, and was almost certainly a fertility symbol.

Maria and Julian Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo), Wedding Vase, c. 1929 and Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), Jar, early 1900s (photo By Uyvsdi (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons and By Wmpearl – Own work, CC0,

Maria and Julian Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo revitalized the black-on-black style of pottery. This style is created through a reduction firing process. Men painted the pottery that women created in the early 20th century. A number of other Puebloan people also created pottery for sale to tourists coming to the Southwest. The Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo sold her Sityatki Revival wares at the Grand Canyon.


Photograph of a Navajo woman weaving at her loom outside her hogan, 1905-1932 (photo By Pennington, William M. –, Public Domain,

Navajo, Second Phase Chief’s Blanket, second half 19th century and Transitional Blanket, c. 1880-1885 (photo By Anonymous – Bonhams, Public Domain, and By Unknown Navajo weaver, pre-1889 –, Public Domain,

The Navajo and Apache migrated to the Southwest after 1300. The Navajo especially borrowed from Pueblo traditions, and used their own multi-sensory aesthetic of the beautiful to create dynamic asymmetry. Weaving and sandpainting were learned from the Pueblos. Men create the sandpaintings and women weave. Silversmithing is a relatively recent craft, learned from Mexican smiths in the middle of the 19th century. Atsidi Sani is one of the first Navajo to learn the craft. Originally horse gear and belts were made, and by the end of the 19th century, turquoise was being inset into silver. By the turn of the century, primarily jewelry was made. The Navajo then taught the Zuni and Hopi. Weavings and silver-work has a cash value that adds to a family’s income. Art, ritual, and music are all characterized as hozho, which is beauty, and has the capacity to change evil into good.   Beauty is found in the act of making the object, rather than the object itself. There is a dichotomy between dynamism and activity and stability and conservatism, with men being the latter and women the former. There is also a pride in the quality of work. Originally, the Navajo wove blankets, with “eyedazzlers” being created in the 1880s using chemical dyes and spun Germantown yarn. There was an experimentation with color and pattern. In the 1890s, trading post owners encouraged weavers to use Persian rug designs, which created the Teec Nos Pos, Two Grey Hills, and Ganado styles. This is also the period when the form changed from blankets to rugs. Weaving is considered to be a sacred activity, a paradigm for womanhood. Hosteen Klah was a singer and weaver of the early 20th century who experimented with the sandpainting rugs. When sandpaintings are woven into rugs, though, elements of the paintings are changed, so that they do not perfectly mimic the ritual sandpaintings. This keeps the yeis from being trapped in the weavings.


Navajo, Ganado Rug, c. 1910 and Sandpainting Weaving (probably whirling Logs from the Night Chant), 1940 (photo By Hiart – Own work, CC0, and By Gilcrease_-_Navajo_Sandpainting_Rug.jpg: Wolfgang Sauberderivative work: JanManu – This file was derived fromGilcrease – Navajo Sandpainting Rug.jpg:, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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