Indian Native Arts: Background and Manidoominens


The history of the human society is filled with the episodes when a nation or civilization, which had previously been flowering, went to the past and left only the material traces of its former power. The Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, etc. are all the examples of such nations, but this paper will focus on the purely American example of the kind. Native Americans have always been the rightful inhabitants of the American continent, but the course of history made them give their place on the political and cultural arena to the European conquerors (Vine, 1977). The only traces that the Native Americans left for the coming generations are the pieces of the Native American Indian Art. Represented by the items of painting, sculpture, pottery, clothes, etc., the Native American Indian Art is still one of the best ways to get acquainted with the basics of the Native American culture and see the rules according to which this civilization developed (Vine, 1977). This very paper will cover the beadwork, pottery and clay sculpture areas of the Native American Art considering the historical background and the major techniques implemented.


However, the initial consideration of the Native American Art can not be complete without the brief account of the historical and socio-political background of the topic (Young Man, 1994). First of all, the Native Americans inhabited the continent later called America for several thousand years before Christopher Columbus discovered the lands unknown for Europe in 1492. The most ancient tribes familiar to the modern scientists include Inca tribes, Aztecs, Maya, etc (Eastman, 1980). The Empires built by these tribes could compete with the most powerful European monarchies, in case if such a chance was present. The riches of these Indian states and their military powers were rather substantial but they could not stand the Conquistador invasion that followed Columbus’ discovery of America. Pursuing the huge deposits of natural resources, gold and labor force made up of the slaves captured at the newly discovered continent (Vine, 1977). The 18th – 19th centuries also brought bloody wars to Native Americans who had to defend their right for existence in the fight with the French and British armies. Having been forced to move to reservations in the remotest areas of the country, Native Americans managed to create the substantial amount of artistic legacy among which the pieces of beadwork, pottery, and clay pottery are the most notable ones (Highwater, 1976).


Seed Beads and Beadwork

To start with, the beadwork masterpieces of the Native American Art should be considered. Thus, the Indian equivalent to beadwork is manidoominens deriving from the combination of the two words and a natural phenomenon associated with them: “…”seed beads” means “little seed (-minens) that’s a gift of the spirit (Manidoo), or Spirit Seeds. “Miinens” is the fruit of the hawthorn tree, miinensagaawunzh” (American Indian Art, 2009). Drawing from this, it is obvious that the Indians attributed certain spiritual meaning to the process of beading and to the material results thereof – the pieces of beadwork. Being viewed as the things sent by the Holy Spirit, beadwork items considered the substantial part of the spiritual life of Indian tribes and served as religious items, military devices, medical support tools, etc (Eastman, 1980). In all this, “white or pink 5-petaled flower is actually the “daisy”motif, the first thing young girls learn to bead because it’s easy and fast” (American Indian Art, 2009) was the initial point from which beading developed and transcended from generation to generation.

Bandolier Bags

Historical Account

One of the most notable items of beading in the Native American Art is the so-called Bandolier Bag, or simply Bandolier (Highwater, 1976). Having been widely used by numerous Indian tribes, they became the typical distinctive features of such ones as Ojibwe, Cherokee, Potawatomi, etc.: “Bandoliers, which took a year or longer to make — honoring men — became part of Ojibwe culture, both for honoring and in relation to the Midèwewin or Grand Medicine Society” (American Indian Art, 2009). Thus, bandoliers were mainly used as peaceful instruments of medical assistance and the attributes of respect and noble position in the tribe. Nevertheless, bandoliers also had the symbolic meaning typical of the male-dominated culture: “…the large bandolier bags, straps crossed like soldiers’ cartridge belts, made a brave showing, almost like beaded saddle flaps, on the rare occasions when there were horse parades” (American Indian Art, 2009). Accordingly, bandoliers were used by Native Americans for both practical daily life purposes and the symbolic celebration events, military parades, etc (Highwater, 1976). The following artistic features can characterize the genuinely Indian bandoliers embroidered or weaved by the representatives of Ojibwe, Cherokee, and other tribes.

Artistic Features

The most interesting detail about the bandolier production was that they were beaded by women exclusively (Young Man, 1994). Thus, bandoliers were viewed as the signs of the respect and authority that men had in their households among their women (Highwater, 1976). Nevertheless, there were special cases in which women were allowed to wear the bandoliers they made for their husbands, fathers, or sons: “Occasionally, a woman might wear one she made for a husband, brother or son who had died” (American Indian Art, 2009). The bandoliers themselves consisted of the two crossed shoulder taps, a medicine bag made out of the otter skin, and several birch-bark scrolls. Bandoliers were decorated with the radiating lines all over to symbolize the place in the social hierarchy that a person wearing the bandolier takes:

American Indian clothing

American Indian clothing

American Indian clothing

American Indian Art. “Definitions, Law, Inclusions Policy.” 2009.

This symbolism was especially important during the Mides healing ceremonies where the sick and disabled people gathered to receive the divine treatment and communicate with the spirits through powwows (Eastman, 1980). Thus, bandoliers were used as the medical bags as well, and in some tribes, including Ojibwe, this was the major function of bandoliers, or Midewewin as they were referred to in their medical function (Highwater, 1976).

Midewewin/Medicine Bags

Ojibwe Tribes

The culture of this very tribe differed slightly from the ones of other tribes of the same Woodland civilization, but the feature that distinguished Ojibwe from them was the special medical function attributed to bandolier bags. Later, the same meaning was given to bandoliers by Cherokees, Potawatomi, Winnebago, and other tribes: “Bandolier bags became associated with the ancient Ojibwe medicine, religion, history and cultural teachings society” (American Indian Art, 2009). The huge social and cultural importance of bandolier bags for the Ojibwe people can be seen from these lines, as well as from the numerous research works carried out by scholars like Densmore and others. The photos taken already in early 20th century show the Indian chiefs of the Ojibwe tribe wearing their bandolier bags during the ceremonial marches or meetings with the Governmental officials and other outside visitors (Eastman, 1980). Finally, the Ojibwe Indians also viewed “bandoliers as dance bags, worn by officiating high degree initiates during ceremonies” (American Indian Art, 2009). The overall spreading of bandolier bags and their crucial importance for the Indian traditions and cultural development allows speaking of the prominent role of beading in the Native American Culture (Highwater, 1976).


Speaking about the development of beading and bandolier bags production in the Native American culture, the Cherokee tribe topic can not be ignored. This tribe also contributed greatly to the cultural development of Native Americans, and bandoliers were not the only artistic items produced by the Cherokees. However, it should be noted that “Cherokee women made bandolier bags, which women wore (men usually wore Ojibwe bandoliers)” (American Indian Art, 2009). This was explained by the fact that the Ojibwe bandolier bags were considered the best ones, while the domestic Cherokee bags fitted only women who did not have to show up in public or represent their tribe at intertribal meetings (Highwater, 1976). As for the features of these bags, they were characterized by the wide use of the colored background which was not typical of other tribes. However, the explanation to this was the mere authors’ taste or the access to seed beads of a certain color. Bandolier bags were also used as medical bags but “they shouldn’t be confused with Midèwayaanag, the actual medicine bags given to each initiate (sick people were initiated to the first or lowest degree, to take part in healing ceremonies)” (American Indian Art, 2009). Here, the difference of the Cherokee culture from the other tribes can be observed in the small details, the ways the similar objects were named and the symbolic meaning they had.

Potawatomi and Winnebago

The Potawatomi and Winnebago tribes were also characterized by their substantial contribution to the development of the Native American Art. Speaking of these tribes in the context of beadwork and bandolier bags production, it is impossible not to mention the differences the culture and art of Potawatomi and Winnebago added to the general scope of the Native Indian Art (Highwater, 1976). Thus, the major distinguishing feature of the beadwork by these tribes was the connection of the subjects beaded to the religious and mythological stories and ideas. For example, the original name of a bandolier bag was pindgigossan meaning “something that they blow into” with the reference to “Manitous who blew into their otter bags to put their power into them, before shooting the shells out through the heads” (American Indian Art, 2009). Substantial differences can be viewed in the artistic composition of beadworks by Potawatomi and Winnebago. One of them is the wide use of orange beads, especially in the background of the bandolier bags. Although being in use since the middle of the 19th century, this feature distinguishes Potawatomi and Winnebago bandolier bags from the items of other tribes.

Powwow Outfits

The so-called Powwow Outfits are also a substantial part of the Native American Art on the whole, and the art of beading in particular (Eastman, 1980). This area of the Indian culture is especially significant for the ordinary people as well as for the nobility, i. e. powwows, who are entitled to speak with the spirits and convey their words to the world of the objective reality: “Indian identity is fostered by dancing, and by very fancy outfits, which require major amounts of time (often by relatives) to make. Here powwow dancers express meanings dancing has for them, sometimes relating it to beadwork on their powwow outfits” (American Indian Art, 2009). The very traditional outfits of the North American powwows consists of a beaded headband, a chest-cover having the V-shape, a white apron with the beaded ornament on it, bands for the arms, cuffs worn after them, and two front panels decorated with diamonds and fixed not completely to enable them move freely (Eastman, 1980). In this dress, all the items and especially their coloring and beaded ornaments are the symbols of the traditional Indian belief of the divine nature of mountains and their being closely connected to the sky and its supreme power (Highwater, 1976).

Wampum Beadwork

Historical Context

Meanings close to the symbolism of the powwow outfits are associated with the wampum beadwork pieces. However, the latter also have a considerable historical background. The shell beads aging over 4, 500 years are found from time to time in New England and other neighboring areas (Eastman, 1980). The beadwork pieces created of this material are also found in the region, symbolizing the fact that “Shell beads have long had cultural significance to the Native Americans” (American Indian Art, 2009). The diplomatic activities were always associated with the wampum beadwork items in the culture of Native Americans. For example, the first union of sovereign nations in the history of the world took place between the 5 Indian tribes almost a thousand years ago and was symbolized by the wampum belt. Another example of the wampum beading symbolism is the belt preserved in Vatican today: “It represents a “Concordat between the Holy See and the Mik’maq Nation,” of Nova Scotia, Canada” (American Indian Art, 2009).

Spiritual Meaning

As for the spiritual meaning of beading on the whole and the wampum beading in particular, it is rather important for the Native Americans in the sense that the beadworks are viewed as symbols of the divine power and as the items that help people either communicate with the divine forces of have their protection (Young Man, 1994). For example, displaying certain beaded necklaces, already mentioned bandolier bags, or any other things decorated by beads, are considered to have the magical power among the Native Americans (Eastman, 1980). Thus, a bandolier bag, besides its actual function as a device for carrying things, is viewed by the Indians as a means of protection of the bandolier bag carried against the negative influences of the evil spirits, people’s negative emotions, etc. The shape of the straps crossed on a person’s chest is viewed as the armor against the outside interference (Eastman, 1980). The wide use of wampum and other beaded items by the powwows of the Indian tribes is also the evidence of the considerable spiritual significance attributed by this civilization to the items produced of or with the help of beads (Highwater, 1976).

Techniques and Materials

Accordingly, beadwork items have specific techniques of creation and materials used during this process. First of all, every author of beaded clothes, bags, etc. is unique in her, as only women are busy with beading, set of images and templates used for the creative work. In the past, and the tradition has been preserved in many cases today, these templates are usually performed on birch bark or paper and are either cut out or pinched with the sharp bone of a fish (Highwater, 1976). These templates “comprise every sort of pattern which can be outlined, such as leaves, flowers, angular patterns and double curve motives; if lines are to be placed inside the pattern, as veins in a leaf, they are indicated by pencil marks” (American Indian Art, 2009). The material used is wampum, and the very word “comes from the Narragansett word for ‘white shell beads’” (American Indian Art, 2009). There are two major types of wampum, one consisting of the white shell beads, and another being comprised of the purple black beads:

major types of wampum

major types of wampum

American Indian Art. “Definitions, Law, Inclusions Policy.” 2009.

Pottery and Clay Sculpture


However, the Native American Art is not limited to the beadwork pieces and powwow outfits production. Pottery and clay sculpture also constitute a substantial part of the artistic legacy of the Native American peoples. Thousand years ago the first Indian potters started working in the settlement like Mata Ortiz, “a small (2,000 pop.) village in northern Chihuahua 100 miles south of New Mexico”, which has always been a pottery center and is nowadays one of the most prominent producers of the souvenir pottery for sale (American Indian Art, 2009). The history of the clay sculpture is also rather long and encompasses the periods when clay was substituted by stone or wood as leading materials used. On the whole, both pottery and clay sculpture developed together with the history of the Native Americans, and the materials used corresponded to the area of location of a certain tribe and the materials available there. Moreover, the close contact with the European settlers influenced the development of these art forms by introducing more updated carving technologies, material processing techniques, etc (Eastman, 1980). Here are the major techniques typical of the Native American Art.

Techniques and Materials

First of all, the Native American pottery art had been considered not very skillful due to the lack of the technological development in the Indian tribes. Nevertheless, the relatively poor quality does not deprive these pieces of art of their cultural value and the nation-wide importance. With the development of the relations with the European countries, the Indians faced both the increase in technological opportunities brought by the progressive British and French manufacturers and the loss of national identity in the political sense (Highwater, 1976). Having been forced to move to reservations, the only option the Native Americans had to preserve their ethnic culture was to put it into the pieces of art (Vine, 1977). The materials used by the natives for this purposes included clay, stone, wood, turquoise, etc., all with the purpose of long-term preservation and transferring to the coming generations (Highwater, 1976). The major techniques used to work with these materials included deep carving on stone and wood, and the tender treatment of clay for which paints were used as both ornamental tools and means of preservation.

Modern Native Art

Fake Pieces of Art

Nowadays, the Native American Art faces another challenge to its existence (Native American Art, 2009). This challenge is the huge amount of faked items of the art which spoil the image and the international reputation of the Native American culture and deprive the Native artists of their rightful income for the copies of their genuine works of art: “…the rising popularity of both Eskimo art and Native American art has resulted in the increased proliferation of imitations and mass-produced reproductions of original Native arts.” (Native American Art, 2009). Although easy to figure out due to their clumsy manner of work, the fake pieces of the so-called Native American Art cause harm to the culture of the Native Indians as a whole (Young Man, 1998). The latter thus needs the respective legislative protection in order to reduce or eliminate such examples of fake Indian art as this owl sculpture or any other similar items:

Authenticity of Eskimo Art
Native American Art. “Authenticity of Eskimo Art.” 2009. Freespiritgallery.

Native American Art. “Authenticity of Eskimo Art.” 2009. Freespiritgallery.

Legislative Protection

Accordingly, the US Government tries to provide the demanded protection of the rights of Native Americans and their cultural legacy: “The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of Indian arts and crafts products within the United States” (US Department of Interior, 2009). The mentioned Act prohibits the use of the tribe name or the name of any of its members in order to promote, advertise or sell an item of art or any other good with the reference to the Native American art in case if the actual item producers are not affiliated to the Natives in any way or are not Indians themselves. Nevertheless, the seemingly powerful state protection only adds controversy to the actual position of the Native American Art in the USA, Canada, Mexico, etc.: “At the recommendation of the U.S. Attorney’s office, the interpretation of the law-as-passed states that tribes will probably adopt provisions for certifying tribally-associated artisans with blood quantum provisions of 25%” (American Indian Art, 2009). This actually means that to be officially accepted as a Native American, a person must have 25% of the Indian blood and must also take the respective biological testing to prove it. Taking into consideration the historical background of the Indian-European relations, the people considering themselves Indians might have less blood percentage and not fit into the legislatively defined category irrespective of their contributions to the actual development of the Native American Art. Therefore, the legislation needs further improvements to ensure both the adequate protection of the Natives in their right for the cultural legacy and the respective defense of the Native Americans against the discrimination imposed by some of the initially protective laws.


To conclude, the Native American Indian Art is still one of the best ways to get acquainted with the basics of the Native American culture and see the rules according to which this civilization developed. This very paper managed to cover the beadwork, pottery and clay sculpture areas of the Native American Art considering the historical background and the major techniques implemented. The materials used by the Indians to create their masterpieces have also been considered in this paper in detail. The results of the research carried out also allow speaking of the serious danger in which the modern Native American Art develops, and state the need of the actual, non-discriminatory, governmental protection of the legacy created by Native American artists. The current protection that the US Government seems to provide is inefficient and demands serious improvements. The latter will allow Native Americans to develop their culture and preserve their national identity.

Works Cited

American Indian Art. “Definitions, Law, Inclusions Policy.” 2009.

Eastman, Charles. “Indian Religion: One Man’s View.” Wassaja: The Indian Historian 13.3 (1980).

Highwater, Jamake. “What is Indian about Indian Art?” Song from the Earth, 1976.

Native American Art. “Authenticity of Eskimo Art.” 2009. Freespiritgallery.

US Department of Interior. “The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.” 2009. Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Web.

Vine, Deloria, Jr. Civilization and Isolation. Athabaska University Wolfe Memorial Lecture, 1977.

Young Man, Alfred. “The Metaphysics of North American Indian Art.” Canadian Music: Issues of Hegemony and Identity. Eds. by Beverly Diamond and Gobart Whitemer. Scholars Press Inc: Toronto, 1994.

Young Man, Alfred. “Issues and Trends in Contemporary Native Art.” Parallelogrammer 13.3 (1998).

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