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Native American Artists Past and Present

Native Americans have been using natural materials for thousands of years as a medium to create utilitarian objects as well as to express their cultural and personal identity. Today Native Americans continue to practice traditional crafts that have been passed on for generations. Through the exploration of oral history and stories, and through viewing the work of contemporary Native Americans, it might be possible for archaeologists to enrich their interpretation of ancient artifacts. This web site of Native American visual art demonstrates that there may be correlations between the very first Native American artists and the contemporary Native Americans who are continuing the creative work today. This display brings together artifacts from archaeological sites in the La Crosse area, archival photographs (used with permission from the Ho Chunk Department of Heritage Preservation) and contemporary objects made by Native American artists from across the United States.

 

Tools

Pre-European stone tools

Pre-European stone tools

Pre-European Native Americans made tools from stone for cutting, scraping, and piercing. Examples of tools such as knives, scrapers, spear tips, arrowheads, drills and gravers are found archaeologically. The technology of making tools from stone is a process called flintknapping. It is not a lost tradition today, however, it is rarely used to make functional tools. Many of the stone tools made in the past were beautiful as well as functional, particularly points such as the Clovis and Folsom that were made over 10,000 years ago. 

Tools such as screwdrivers, hammers, and knives are modern examples of tools found in your toolbox or kitchen that would have been made from stone in the past. Today these items are rarely made by individuals, instead they are manufactured by large companies. Archival images show the use of traditional materials continue to be used, such as the wooden hide scraper shown below, while metal tools replaced those previously made made from stone.

   

Lena Shegonee tanning a hide with wooden tool

Lena Shegonee tanning a hide with wooden tool.

Unknown family using metal tools: rake and axe

 

Unknown family using metal tools - rake and axe.

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Containers

Pre-European pottery

Pre-European pottery

Throughout time people have needed and created containers that are both functional as well as beautiful. In the La Crosse area, pottery is the only example of containers found in the archaeological record. A few fragments of woven grasses are the only remains of weaving activities in the local archaeological record. From these limited artifacts and from examples of woven materials recovered from archaeological sites in other parts of the United states we can speculate that the early inhabitants of our area must have known how to make and use containers made from such natural materials as woven fibers and hides.

Contemporary pot made by a Jemez artist

Contemporary pot made by a Jemez artist from the southwestern United States

Contemporary Native people continue the art of pottery today with techniques and designs that are rooted in the past as well expressions of contemporary life. 

Contemporary ash basket

Contemporary ash (left) and birch (right) baskets

Contemporary birch basket

The art of making containers using woven materials is beautifully represented in the basketry of the Ho Chunk. Archival photographs show a skill that has been handed down through the generations. 

Martin Lowe pounding an ash tree log with the flat-end of an axe

Martin Lowe pounding an ash tree log with the flat end of an axe before strips can be pulled off, thinned, and used as basketry material.

Mabel Lowe and Mrs. John Davis preparing basket strips

Mabel Lowe and Mrs. John Davis preparing basket strips.

Mabel Lowe weaving the bottom of a basket

Mabel Lowe weaving the bottom of a basket.

Angeline White Bear Thunder and Rosella Thunder Mallory making baskets, Joyce Mallory and Curtis Mallory watching

Angeline White Bear Thunder and Rosella Thunder Mallory making baskets, Joyce Mallory and Curtis Mallory watching.

Click here if you would like to hear Dorothy Decorah talk about her parents making baskets.  Click here for a transcript.  You will need a player to listen to the MP3 files.  Click here if you want to download a free version of RealPlayer.

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Metal

Copper artifacts made by the pre-European inhabitants in the La Crosse area
Copper artifacts made by the pre-European inhabitants in the La Crosse area.

Copper items were made for decoration along with serving utilitarian functions prior to European contact. Copper beads, spear points, awls, and fishhooks are a few examples of the items that were made. Ancient artists developed this technology about 5000 years ago.  Techniques of metal crafts or metallurgy have been passed down for many generations. Ho Chunk artists created both silver and copper ornaments and tools. 

Edna, Nellie and Agnes Eagle dressed in beaded outfits with lavish jewelry and beading

Edna, Nellie and Agnes Eagle dressed in beaded outfits with lavish jewelry and beading.

Susie Redhorn weaving the base of a basket wearing ornate jewlery

Susie Redhorn weaving the base of a basket wearing ornate jewelry.

Today Native artists in the southwestern United States craft beautiful objects from silver. Some pieces such as the concha have been made for generations in traditional ways, while others are made by more modern techniques.

Contemporary silver concha made by an artist in the southwestern United States

Contemporary silver concha made by an artist in the southwestern United States.

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Weaving

The limited examples of woven fibers found in the La Crosse area consist of natural fiber grasses recovered as charred remains. These may have been used for mats or on the walls of wigwams. Archival images show woven mats, similar in construction to remnants found at archeological sites, being used on the walls of wigwams.

Unknown people in front of a wigwam covered with woven cattail mats
Chief Yellow Thunder (seated) and two unknown men in front of a wigwam covered with woven cattail mats.
Ethel Wilson, Nettie Wapp and Nellie Wabiness standing in front of a wigwam covered with woven mats
Ethel Wilson, Nettie Wapp and Nellie Wabiness standing in front of a wigwam covered with woven mats. 

No examples of weaving of fibers using a loom have been found in this area. This is, however, a technique that has been beautifully executed by tribes in the southwestern United States for generations. 

Contemporary loom woven rug
Example of a woven rug done by a young contemporary southwestern United States artist.

Weaving can be accomplished without the use of a loom by a process called finger weaving. This is a technique of weaving without warps or wefts. The fingers pick up the vertical warp threads through which the horizontal wefts are passed. This technique of weaving is centuries old and practiced throughout North and South America.

Young man wearing a finger woven sash

Young man wearing a finger woven sash

The Ho Chunk have used finger weaving for generations to make decorative sashes and bands as can be seen in the archival image of the young man wearing a sash. Linda Shegonee, a contemporary Ho Chunk artist made the turquoise, black and white child's sash that can be seen below.

Finger woven sash for a child made by Linda Shegonee

Sash made for a child by Linda Shegonee.

Linda Shegonee in the process of making a finger woven sash

Close up of Linda finger weaving

Linda Shegonee in the process of making a finger woven sash

Click on one of the following links to hear Linda Shegonee talk about making and wearing finger woven sashes.  You will need a player to listen to the MP3 files.  Click here if you want to download a free version of RealPlayer.

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Carving

Drawing of an etched catlinite tablet

Drawing of an etched catlinite tablet

Catlinite or pipestone is a type of rock that has been used by Native people for hundreds of years. In the La Crosse area archaeological examples of catlinite occur as pieces of raw stone and finished carvings. 

Chief Black Hawk with pipe
Chief Black Hawk with pipe

Archival images show a pipe made from what looks like catlinite in a shape that is represented in the archaeological record and is still made today. Contemporary Native American people continue to work catlinite for tribal needs and for commercial sale. Some of the techniques for working the stone remain the same however some of the tools have changed. 

Catlinite pipe made by a contemporary artist

Catlinite pipe made by a contemporary artist

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Music

Pre-European bone rasp and whistle

Pre-European bone rasp and whistle

On occasion musical instruments such as rasps and whistles are preserved in the archaeological record. From the artifact alone it is difficult to impossible to know how past people used these objects and what their role was in the culture. The beautiful bird bone whistle is one example made by an artist several hundred years ago. The hollow nature of bird bones makes them an ideal material for whistles. Some decorative incising was added to the outside of the whistle. The rasp may have been made for a variety of purposes including a musical instrument. The rasp is made from the rib of a bison. Today we can admire the beauty of these objects, however speculation about the use and purpose of the object is limited. 

Men using drum and rattles

Men using drum and rattles

Native American people have continued to make musical instruments such as drums and flutes. This archival image shows the use of a drum and rattles in Native American Church services.

Flute made by a contemporary Native American artist

Flute made by a contemporary Native American artist

This example of a flute made by a contemporary artist from South Dakota is the love or courting flute. It serves as an example of a beautiful art object that is also functional. It is made of wood and has decorative carvings and is brightly painted. In traditional times men used the love flute to play only love songs and for courting. Different tribes have a variety of stories that tell how the love flute was given to the people.

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The Native American Artists Past and Present web page would not be possible without the assistance of the Ho Chunk Department of Heritage Preservation and funding from the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse Diversity 2008 grant.

 
 
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All material Copyright 2000-2014 Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse

*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.