Concepts of Native Americans
Before embarking on these art projects, you should take a little time to understand certain concepts related to Native American life. For instance, you might want to learn about Cherokee homes and customs, so that you can better understand that there is ritual even in the way that housing is set up. Below are some of the key concepts that you can keep in mind, as you work on your art projects with a Native American theme.
- Many tribes were matriarchal, meaning that the family was led by the mother rather than the father. This fact plays a key role in how the Native Americans lived, as well as how their culture was drastically changed by European settlers.
- Names are sacred to Native Americans. Most Native Americans had 2 names; one they went by, and one that was sacred to them and rarely shared with others. They believed that knowing a person’s real name gave them some advantage and power over the one whose name was known. Often, their second names were “found” through personal experience or rituals of some type.
- Generally, Native Americans believed all of nature to be sacred, with each living thing having its own purpose and value. This means that they did not consider themselves any more important than any other living thing.
- Stories and rituals carried information through this culture. Until an alphabet was created, Native Americans simply passed information through complex stories that usually involved nature and morals. The only other transportable form of communication, was through a series of knots and beads on wampum belts.
These art projects are designed to help your students better understand Native American culture. Much of the Native American culture was shared and communicated through everyday items that were works of art. For instance, a blanket, bracelet, belt or bowl might be decorated with symbology that communicated a message of peace or love.
Before you begin to work on your art projects, you may want to become well versed in different Native American cultures and symbols. Use the examples below as ideas for art projects to complete. You may use actual Native American symbology, or create symbols and “tribes” of your own, based on the requirements of the teacher.
- Masks: Create a paper mache mask to represent a member or position within a tribe.
- Wampum belts: Wampum belts were belts that carried a message through a series of knots and beads. Create your own wampum bets that deliver a message by designating knots and bead placement to have specific meaning. You can do this by weaving a belt with symbols, then allowing some of the strings to hang down. Add beads and knots to the strings to convey a particular message. For example, you might weave a belt with the symbols for peace talks, then add knots to indicate the date of the talk such as a section with 1 bead to indicate January and another section with 2 knots on one string and 3 knots on another string to indicate the 23rd.
- Totems: Since Native Americans were so close to the natural world, they often took on an animal as a totem. This might be based on a ceremony within the tribe, some item or event that the individual came upon, or some action they did. Consider what your totem would be and create a representation of that totem using clay or other craft materials.
- Natural art: Native Americans made use of just about every part they could out of a natural item. For instance, they never would have killed an animal for the look of its skin. Rather, they would have used every part of the animal that they could have, and had a nice skin as a bonus. Make use of some part of nature, or create something that represents the natural world, and demonstrate how it could be useful and artistic at the same time. An example of this would be to make a reed basket, a decorative gourd or a large seashell filled with local sand as an incense burner.
Native American art is as diverse as the tribes within the Native American culture, so make it unique to your tribe, or use any existing tribe for some inspiration.