What is traditional Native American art? What does it mean for an art object to be authentically Native American? There is a common misconception among many non-Native peoples that traditional and authentic Native American art practices are something old and unchanging—trapped in time, formed without interaction with other cultures, particularly European cultures, and eroded by post-European cultural change.
When considering art made by Native Americans in the American Southwest, the ubiquitous terms of “traditional” and “authentic” are often left undefined by scholars and collectors. Yet, they are also terms by which Europeans and non-Native peoples place value on an object. Within these groups their loosely defined “traditional” and “authentic” place Native American art within a tiny framework, one that meets non-Native expectations. Traditional and authentic are often used in such contexts to mean real or valuable, to mean historical, and uninfluenced by others. So, what makes something authentic and traditional in southwestern Native American art? And how do these traditions grow and develop?
Traditions are practices, artistic and cultural, that continue within a community from one generation to the next, while authentic Native American art, is art which is made by a Native American person either for use within their own communities or for those outside of it. These terms are related certainly but are not required to be together. A work of art may be authentic but made outside of an existing tradition. Just as the lives of the practitioners of traditions are not static, traditions do not need to be fixed to remain real and valuable. Vital and authentic work within a tradition remains relevant to those who practice it by adjusting to the complicated lives they live. The works of art considered here developed through interactions with the arts of ancestors, other Native American communites, non-Native American groups (including Mexicans, Europeans, and eventually Americans), and markets and the tourist trade.
Some traditions can be easily traced over long periods of time. This pitcher (fig. 1) by an unidentified Ancestral Pueblo artist was created between 800—1300 CE, while this pot (fig. 2) was made by an unidentified Hopi artist around the year 1900.
This Ancestral Pueblo pitcher is a work of art that is classified widely by scholars and collectors as both traditional and authentic Native American art. As is true today among Pueblo peoples, Ancestral Pueblo peoples are known to have created a number of different regional ceramic styles, including polychrome pottery. While this pitcher dates to around the ninth to thirteen centuries, we know that Ancestral Pueblo peoples started decorating their pottery with black geometric patterns as early as 600 CE.
It was quite common for ceramics such as this one to be left behind by Ancestral Pueblo peoples when they moved from one location to another, making the survival of so many examples in good condition a surprising outcome. It was the Ancestral Pueblo polychrome style known for its geometric designs of mostly black on a white ground that centuries later inspired the Hopi polychrome style seen in figure 2.
This Hopi pot is a clear counterexample to the claim that traditions are static and that authenticity requires a continual practice and lack of change, In this Hopi pot, an artist looks to their ancestors for inspiration and then adapts that tradition. The artist inserted their own artistic creativity, and created a new work at the turn of the twentieth century.
The best known practitioner of the Hopi polychrome style was the Hopi-Tewa artist Nampeyo. She was encouraged by the trader Thomas Keam to base her work on the Ancestral Pueblo ceramics that were discovered during the excavations of J. Walter Fewkes. Several elements of this need to be considered. The first is that in the “legend” that has developed around Nampeyo she is often credited as the only practitioner of this style—as its creator. Yet a number of artists were working in this style at the same time. Keam used the legend to sell more pottery at a higher price to European and American collectors who wanted the original, “authentic” work. Keam also asked Nampeyo to work in a style based upon Ancestral Pueblo ceramics because he believed in the idea of traditional and authentic work as untouched by other influences and unchanged over time. Yet, Nampeyo and other female artists were able to do more. Although they worked within the system Keam set out, they did not copy historical works; thus, their own work is not a strict continuation of the form. They used the art of previous generations—a conscious consideration of that art—to create new, authentic forms, in order to give a tradition new life and relevance to their community. This approach continues in pottery today with artists inspired by the techniques and motifs of previous generations, and also informs contemporary jewelry, weaving, and ceramics.
Traditions of the Southwest have also long mixed the desires and tastes of those outside the Native American community along with the needs and aesthetic preferences of those within the community. This is clearly demonstrated in Hopi basketry and plaque weaving, both of which are created using a technique that has been practiced for hundreds of years. While the technique has a long and consistent history, the art form is not unchanging. Artists have adapted basketry and plaque weaving over time for its audiences.
Among the Hopi of the American Southwest, the creation and use of basketry is a tradition that pre-dates any contact with Europeans. Baskets, often given as gifts at important events, continue to be given at weddings and other occasions, though typically on a smaller scale than in the past. While many scholars and collectors have incorrectly suggested that objects made for those outside of the Native community are less authentic, less real, or less valuable, it is clear that the Hopi people feel that baskets are both a continuation of a tradition and an authentic form even as they are made both for the Hopi people to use themselves (such as at weddings) and for sale at tourist and fine art markets. The range of audiences and purposes for these baskets does not diminish their quality.
Some art objects are created purely for the tourist or art market, such as this Hopi plaque with the depiction of a Kachina (fig. 3). The subject matter, Kachina, is greatly desired by tourists and collectors alike. Kachinas are spirits able to bring prosperity to communities. Among the Hopi, men create small dolls—depicting one of the hundreds of Kachina—that are given to young children as a means of teaching and rewarding good behavior. Beginning in the 1930s, these dolls were also sold to individuals outside of the community, with many artists creating the figures purely for sale to non-Native peoples.
Depictions of Kachina date back to at least the fifteenth century, and most present-day Pueblos continue to perform Kachina ceremonies. These ceremonies are meant to mobilize sacred knowledge, performance, and an artist’s skill in service of the community and its relations with others, including the spiritual world.
When depicted for outside consumption, artists often adjust the depiction of a Kachina so that it is not identical to those used by the community, thereby makings its sale within a tourist or art market acceptable and not offensive to the spirits. This sale to those outside the community has created a new art form and tradition—images of Kachina created for the art and tourist markets.
The Kachina depicted here (fig. 3) suggests it was chosen for a number of reasons. It made a sale to European and American audiences more likely, it allowed the artist and community to control the depiction of these important spirits, and it was a method to teach others about their culture, again in a way that the artist and community could control.
The Two Gray Hills style rug by Katherine Nathaniel is an iconic example of Diné (Navajo) weaving (fig. 4). Today such rugs are often held up as traditional and authentic Native American art among scholars, museums, dealers, collectors, and artists themselves, but many are surprised to learn about the history of their creation. Inspired by Persian rugs as well as a European desire for borders, the Two Gray Hills rug style, which was developed in the twentieth century, is firmly rooted among Diné weavers. The name “Two Gray Hills” is not a description of the rugs themselves, as no hills are depicted. Rather, the name refers to the Two Gray Hills community and trading post in New Mexico, where this style of rug is made and sold. The characteristics of the rugs include the use of geometric motifs within at least two borders, a black outer border, and the use of natural wool colors such as brown, white, and black.
In such rugs, weavers blend historic weaving practices with tourist desires. Now, less than a century later, this tourist trade–inspired form is traditionally Diné. Weaving itself has a long history among Native Americans, as does its creation for non-Native peoples. Blankets were given to the Spanish in the seventeenth century and were traded with other Native American groups before that (including those outside of the Southwest, extending into the plains). In their early trade with the Spanish, thin striped patterns were created based on Spanish models, and imported dye was used to appeal to Spanish taste. As with early twentieth-century Hopi pottery, Diné weavers were not mere copyists. They acknowledged the preferences of their audience while also innovating. What makes a tradition continue is its flexibility, the ability to be built upon from one generation to the next and adapt over time, from one audience or one purpose to the next.
It is important to note that trade is not new, and it did not start with the arrival of Europeans. Chaco Canyon, located in what is today western New Mexico, was a thriving trade center for both Native Americans and indigenous groups from modern day Mexico by 900 CE.
The Yei Rug depicted here (fig. 5) has similar origins to both the Two Gray Hills rug and the plaque depicting a Kachina. It depicts the Yei, Diné holy people who are often seen in sand paintings, which are not preserved after they have served their function. For the Diné, Yei are often called upon through sand paintings used during healing ceremonies. Much like the Kachina (fig. 3), depictions in Yei rugs are almost always intentionally inaccurate.
Not all figures that are depicted in Diné weavings are Yei, some are dancers, people going about their lives, or references to mythological stories. Figures first appeared in Diné weavings in the 1860s, and, while Yei rugs are often based upon or inspired by sand paintings, they are not religious objects and were never used for ceremonial purposes. These rugs were instead created purely for the tourist and art markets—which does not mean they are not also valued, purchased, and displayed by Diné people as well, but this tradition began with the intention of being sold.
It is important to remember that many art lovers, scholars, and art historians based in the European tradition do not judge the authenticity of European or American art on the fact that it was created for a particular patron or for the general art market. Less is not thought of Monet because he wanted to sell his art for a profit, or of Michelangelo for often working and taking artistic direction from religious organizations. Therefore, it is important to question why the issue of authenticity needs to be addressed when Native American artists create for the art market, and when they adopt religious imagery based on the desires of the people who will buy their art. Traditions that do not adapt do not last. They must continuously grow and develop with those who practice them. Their value undiminished, traditions grow in strength and emotional power as communities change. Native American communities have continued to maintain their artistic traditions over time, keeping them relevant to the communities they interact with, as well as their own lives and desires.
Emma earned her masters degree in Art History from Indiana University with a focus on the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and Indigenous Art of the Americas. In her role at the Eskeanzi Museum of Art she works with and conducts research on the AOA collection.
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Fulce, Emma. "Tradition and Authenticity in Southwestern Native American Art." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020. https://artmuseum.indiana.edu/collections-online/features/tradition-authenticity-native-american-art.php.