Native American Art
Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the American continent, there were millions of Native American tribes each with their own unique culture, traditions, and language. Despite the rapid technological developments brought to their continent due to its European colonization, many of these ethnic groups survived intact today and were able to successfully preserve their native cultures. One of the most well-preserved aspects of the Native American culture is perhaps the art.
Native American creativity is limitless and highly spiritual. Their artistic expressions serve as a means of worshiping the gods. Their artistic designs display beauty and love for nature. Their artworks revolve around a sacred belief that “everything living or inanimate shares a place in the universe, and that no one thing is above the other” (Native American Art)
The ecological/environmental care of American Indians was evident long before pollution came into the spotlight, and every object in their (art)works are implemented with a specific purpose. Native art designs have also evolved into a form of communication by transcending the language barrier using repeated geometric designs that create symbols.
In the novel “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, Junior’s grandmother sells beaded keychains on eBay to make her living, Ted the billionaire mentions indian art as a symbolism of his passion for American Indians, and powwow dancers own dance outfits with unique designs. As previously mentioned / As can be seen, art has been a way of life for many Native Americans.
It is an oversight to leave out the Navajo Indian tribe in the world of sand painting. Navajo or “Peoples” (in their language), the second-largest federally-recognized tribe in the United States, has a long history in art. This is evident in their silverwork, pottery, basketry, blanket-weaving, and many other art forms. Among them, sand painting is what helped the tribe to achieve the most fame. (most exclusively done)
For the Navajos, sand painting is regarded as a profoundly sacred art form; “iikaah” is what they call it, which means “a place where the god comes and goes”. It is a crucial part in the traditional healing rituals performed by a singer or medicine man that are termed “hataalii", and its fundamental purpose is to regain “hózhó”, which is a Navajo term for balance or a perfect state. (Anderson)
“Hózhó” is an important concept for the Navajos. Navajo religion says that every element in Nature holds a powerful force, for example the Changing Women, Twin War Gods, Sun, Holy Man, Holy Women, Earth, Moon, Thunder, Wind, etc; they believe that angering these Holy persons in manners such as throwing rocks from mountains or watching dogs evacuate their bowels will lead to the loss of “ hózhó”. A Navajo afflicted with the loss of “ hózhó” visits a “hataalii” and his/her apprentice for a ceremony that would help the patient cure the imbalance. The ceremony can last 2-9 days, with events involving chants, songs, dances, prayers, lectures, sweat baths, sand paintings, and more.
Sand painting comes last in the ritual. The “hataalii” will sprinkle colorful powders onto a 1-2 inch thick bed of sand that is placed on the floor of a traditional cribbed-log residence. The pigments are made from natural minerals: lignite, graphite, and charcoal for black; ochres and hematite for red; copper minerals and soladinite for blue or blue-green. The size of finished paintings range from 1-20 feet square, the average being 6-8 feet square.
For rational and divine reasons, the painters first work from the center, then outward in a sun-wise motion. On the borders of the sand painting, a garland — usually a rainbow, sunflowers, or interconnected arrowheads — is painted to block out the evil. An opening is located at the east of the painting for Holy people’s entry. For further protection from the wicked, spiritual guardians such as beaver and otter are fixed to the east. (Where the Gods Come and Go)
There are three main patterns of the sand painting compositions — linear, extended-center, and radial. Objects in linear sand paintings are arranged in one or more lines above the ground bar. Extended-Center sand paintings, just like its name, consist of a single central design that extends to its four sides. In radial sand paintings, images rotate around a center point.
With the final touches of a foot long black lines to symbolize the power of gods, the painting is done and the patient is seated in the center, directly on top of the painting. The “hataalii” rubs a certain part of the patient’s body with the pigments from the matching part of the painted figure, and says “life is restored in beauty”. The powers of Holy People are now transmitted to the patient, and the lost “ hózhó” is restored. The sand painting is destroyed after the ceremony.
To modern days, sand painting has undergone great changes. First, it has become a permanent art form! Hosteen Klah was the first man to do so. He transformed the “Whirling Logs” sand painting from the Night Way Ceremony into a rug. Later, various sand painting designs have also been developed into sketches, drawings, and even books. The most commonly seen reproduction is on a particle board covered with a thin layer of glue. Second, it now represents a strong art movement by incorporating realist and impressionist movements. Third, due to an increasing significance of the innovation in art, the paintings improved in both quality and quantity. Fourth, the blending of paintings from two different artists created masterpieces.
Sand painting as art is continuously growing. For the Native Americans, art is not simply displays for people’s appreciation, instead it is now part of their lives and culture. Grandmother Spirit would have continued to make beaded keychains while sitting back in her rocking chair if only she were alive, and the powwow dancers will continue to meet, dance, and sing in their fancy shawl jingle dresses even in the future.