American Indian Design & Decoration

American Indian Design & Decoration


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American Indian Design & Decoration by Le Roy H. Appleton, Le Roy Appleton

The most original and most powerful design art produced in the Western Hemisphere is also its most indigenous: that of the Indian, in innumerable cultures existing from prehistory to the arrival of the white man, reaching from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. It owes, of course, nothing to Europe or the classical Orient. It is tremendous in variety, differing region by region, era by era, often tribe by tribe. It is always vigorously distinctive. This book, 20 years in preparation, shows us that art in all its profuse diversity and in the almost numberless crafts for which the American Indian is famous.
Well over 700 examples, drawn with painstaking care, are shown: representations of flora and fauna, men and gods, earth and sky; symbols of clan and tribe, religion and magic; formal designs from the primal to the highly intricate. They appear in examples of basketry, weaving, pottery, sculpture, painting, lapidary work, masks, drumheads, weapons, apparel, beadwork, goldwork, blankets, ponchos, and many other forms. The arts and crafts of Inca, Tiahuanaco, Chimú, Maya, Axtec, Zapotec, Totonac, Mixtec, Navaho, Zuni, Hopi, Apache, Cherokee, Creek, Winnebago, Dakota, Blackfoot, Nez Percé, Cheyenne, Crow, Sioux, Cochiti, Haida, Bellacoola, and others known and unknown are here.
Each section is preceded by a page of typical motifs of an area, making it easy to isolate the design elements. In addition, the lore and tradition behind the designs are told in a text reproducing the Indians' own stories and songs. Separate indices simplify locating the work of particular tribes and regions.
Craftspeople will find in this book a prolific source of timeless, eternally valid design ideas representing years of research in museums all over the hemisphere; for the graphic artist there is a wealth of material than can be adapted directly to his needs. All those interested in the Americans who preceded us on these continents will find this work unique.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486227047
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 04/01/1971
Series: Dover Pictorial Archive Series
Pages: 279
Sales rank: 276,877
Product dimensions: 8.28(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.77(d)

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Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1971 Le Roy H. Appleton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13599-1



FEW PEOPLE THINK OF THE INDIAN of the Plains as anything but a whooping, half- naked savage on a pony, his head covered with a war-bonnet of eagle feathers, his coup stick ready for another triumph over palefaces. But, before moving to the Plains, these horsemen had lived in grass-covered huts and earth houses on the forest fringe of the Plains. They raised corn, tobacco, squash and beans. They fished, hunted small game, and made seasonal trips to the Plains to hunt the buffalo. They used the dog travois for carrying their baggage and small children. The papoose rode on the mother's back. In 1540, Coronado saw some of the southern groups and reported: "... they travel like Arabs, with their troops of dogs loaded with poles."

They entered the Plains from the south and the northeastern woodlands. So many groups and languages were represented that they developed the most effective sign language ever devised. Each of these groups, entering on the Plains, had its migration legends and origin tales which explained the tribal beliefs and institutions. These make up a great part of the Indian mythology.

Groups to us most typical of the Plains culture, such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Dakotas, did not move to the Plains until after 1700. The coming of the horse, the "big dog" (brought by the Spaniards, the horse did not reach the Plains in any number until the late seventeenth century), left the tribes free to roam far and wide. They abandoned their village life and their farming to become nomads, so building an entirely new culture pattern for themselves.

The buffalo was the source of their food and all the raw materials needed in their new life, and so the buffalo was a sacred thing to them. Buffalo skin was used for tipi covers (it took from ten to twelve skins to cover a typical tipi), for clothing and baggage covers, even for cooking utensils and vessels. The bones were used as tools; the hair for weaving and for ornaments. Their art they brought with them, but the large buffalo hides gave them greater scope for their porcupine quill embroidery and especially for their painting. Later, contact with white traders brought them the glass beads which replaced the quills. Cloth replaced hide for clothing, and canvas became the material for their tipis. With the westward expansion of the whites they lost their lands, their freedom, and the buffalo. The pattern was broken. They were literally starved into submission. But the legend of the buffalo lived on in tribal ceremonial, as the Cheyenne story, "The Coming of Buffalo" and the Osage child-naming ritual (pages 29 and 33) abundantly prove.

Realistic paintings on hide, on the sides of their tipis and on their robes and shields, representations of war and hunting scenes and historical records (time counts) were painted by the men. Although lacking a knowledge of perspective, the painters had a keen sense of observation and were able to express it in graphic form—drawings full of animation. Later they made use of the white man's notebooks and ledgers for their colored drawings.

Magic powers were ascribed to the designs on their painted shirts and shields (Plate 1). Designs on their rawhide shields were intended to attract the enemy's arrows. These could not go through the tough hide. But the white man's bullets could—and did, and with the coming of the whites this magic failed. The "bullet proof shirt" used in the famous Ghost Dance was the last attempt to rely on the old magic.

The decoration of ceremonial objects, usually accompanied by ritual, was also the work of the men. The treatment here tended to the realistic. Men also did the only carving done among these people—on pipes made of catlinite, a red stone. This stone is named after George Catlin, the artist who first visited the Plains in 1832, and whose paintings and reports are of historical value. The medicine-pipe, or calumet, however, was, as a rule, of an entirely different type. It was rarely smoked, in fact it was frequently without a bowl, although Thunder in the Blackfoot tale on page 22, "The Medicine Pipe," ordered that it be smoked. Its magical qualities resided in the decorated stem.

Pottery was made by some of the border groups—also baskets and bags. The western groups made blankets of woven rabbit skins.

Abstract designs, both painted and in embroidery, were the women's work. These consist mostly of geometrical units, such as squares, triangles, diamonds, and so forth, the natural result of work with quills. Strange as it seems to us, they held to the same designs in their painted work. Parallels to this, however, will be found throughout the Americas, owing no doubt to the conservative attitude of the individual conditioned by tribal customs. Modern man is conditioned in the same way. We hold to tribal (national) styles with the same tenacity.

The beadwork of the Plains is outstanding, mostly in embroidery. Greater use was made of glass beads in applied design than by any other aboriginals, the world over. Beadwork (and quillwork, the original form) was applied to clothing and articles such as pouches and bags. Representations of plant forms are rare in the designs. Animals and insects, highly conventionalized, are numerous. Mountains, trails and stars, especially the morning star, represented by a cross, were favorite units. These were graphic expressions of their beliefs. The people of the Plains and Lakes thought of natural phenomena as deities. The sun was pre-eminent. Under him was the moon, sky, earth, and wind, as well as lesser beings, the buffalo, bear, lightning, thunder, (the Thunder-Bird was wide-spread in North America), and whirlwinds. The story of "Scarface" on page 24 shows the close relationship between the Indian and his environment. The dividing line between man, animal, and phenomena is vague.

Not too much stress should be put on symbolism in the abstract designs of the Plains. A design might be chosen because of its name (possibly a symbolic association), or given a name only as a means to teach beginners in beadwork. The same design, when used by another tribe, might symbolize an entirely different idea. Of the designs on Plates 2 and 3, only one, "Life," is a true symbol. To quote A. L. Kroeber, writing about the Arapaho: "Any interpretation of a figure is personal. Often the interpretation is arbitrary. Much depends upon what might be called symbolic context. In a decoration which symbolizes buffalo-hunting, a stripe naturally represents a bow; on a parfleche (a rawhide bag), where decoration represents such parts of the landscape as mountains, rocks, earth, and tents, an identical stripe would naturally have the signification of a river or path; but whether a path or river, would depend on the fancy of the maker of the parfleche."

Feathers, fringes, shells, bells, bear and elks teeth, and pendants in general were usually symbolic, particularly those attached to ceremonial objects. Colors too had their symbolism; red for blood, earth, sunset; yellow for sun-light or day; green for vegetation; blue for sky; black for night. The Dakota pipe bag on Plate 7 illustrates the story-telling quality of a design. In a sense, it is a military insignia. One can read on it the war record of the owner.

Porcupine quill weaving and moosehair embroidery reached a high point in the Great Lakes area. Quillwork was more widely spread than beadwork. It was used throughout Canada and the eastern United States and finally carried to the Plains. In contrast to the designs of the Plains, the Lakes groups used floral motives, conventionalized in woven work but highly realistic in embroidery. (See Plates 9 and 10). The floral character of the designs, and the fact that these tribes were in early contact with the whites, has caused some scholars to suspect a European influence, but Wissler points out that their oldest and most characteristic designs on bark and skin could not have been so influenced. "All that can reasonably be conceded is that their trade stimulated the use of beads and their decorative preferences tended to emphasize the old floral character." The same holds true for the silk appliqué embroidery (Plate 9), wherein they used silk ribbons obtained from the whites.

Woven bags of buffalo wool or bark fibers (sometimes combined with yarn) show both abstract designs and conventional bird and animal figures (Plate 8). The Thunder-Bird and Panther designs on ceremonial bags had magic significance. The way in which the Menomini received their first bags is recalled in the story on page 36, "The Birth of Manabush." In this, and the following stories, something may be learned of the mind of the Lake tribes and their rationalization of the forces of nature. The intricacies of tribal organization are explained in the Winnebago story, "The Origin of the Thunder-Bird Clan" on page 36.


THUNDER-YOU HAVE HEARD HIM, he is everywhere. He roars in the mountains, he shouts far out on the prairie. He strikes the high rocks, and they fall to pieces. He hits a tree, and it is broken in slivers. He strikes the people, and they die. He is bad. He does not like the towering cliff, the standing tree, or living man. He likes to strike and crush them to the ground. Yes! yes! Of all he is most powerful; he is the one most strong. But I have not told you the worst: he sometimes steals women.

Long ago, almost in the beginning, a man and his wife were sitting in their lodge, when Thunder came and struck them. The man was not killed. At first he was as if dead, but after a while he lived again, and rising looked about him. His wife was not there. "Oh, well," he thought, "she has gone to get some water or wood," and he sat a while; but when the sun had under-disappeared, he went out and inquired about her of the people. No one had seen her. He searched throughout the camp, but did not find her. Then he knew that Thunder had stolen her, and he went out on the hills alone and mourned.

When morning came, he rose and wandered far away, and he asked all the animals he met if they knew where Thunder lived. They laughed, and would not answer. The Wolf said: "Do you think we would seek the home of the only one we fear? He is our only danger. From all others we can run away; but from him there is no running. He strikes, and there we lie. Turn back! go home! Do not look for the dwelling-place of that dreadful one." But the man kept on, and travelled far away. Now he came to a lodge,—a queer lodge, for it was made of stone; just like any other lodge, only it was made of stone. Here lived the Raven chief. The man entered.

"Welcome, my friend," said the chief of Ravens. "Sit down, sit down." And food was placed before him.

Then, when he had finished eating, the Raven said, "Why have you come?"

"Thunder has stolen my wife," replied the man. "I seek his dwelling-place that I may find her."

"Would you dare enter the lodge of that dreadful person?" asked the Raven. "He lives close by here. His lodge is of stone, like this; and hanging there, within, are eyes,—the eyes of those he has killed or stolen. He has taken out their eyes and hung them in his lodge. Now, then, dare you enter there?"

"No," replied the man. "I am afraid. What man could look at such dreadful things and live?"

"No person can," said the Raven. "There is but one old Thunder fears. There is but one he cannot kill. It is I, it is the Ravens. Now I will give you medicine, and he shall not harm you. You shall enter there, and seek among those eyes your wife's; and if you find them, tell that Thunder why you came, and make him give them to you. Here, now, is a raven's wing. Just point it at him, and he will start back quick; but if that fail, take this. It is an arrow, and the shaft is made of elk-horn. Take this, I say, and shoot it through the lodge."

"Why make a fool of me?" the poor man asked. "My heart is sad. I am crying." And he covered his head with his robe, and wept.

"Oh," said the Raven, "you do not believe me. Come out, come out, and I will make you believe." When they stood outside, the Raven asked, "Is the home of your people far?"

"A great distance," said the man.

"Can you tell how many days you have travelled?"

"No," he replied, "my heart is sad. I did not count the days. The berries have grown and ripened since I left."

"Can you see your camp from here?" asked the Raven.

The man did not speak. Then the Raven rubbed some medicine on his eyes and said, "Look!" The man looked, and saw the camp. It was close. He saw the people. He saw the smoke rising from the lodges.

"Now you will believe," said the Raven. "Take now the arrow and the wing, and go and get your wife."

So the man took these things, and went to the Thunder's lodge. He entered and sat down by the door-way. The Thunder sat within and looked at him with awful eyes. But the man looked above, and saw those many pairs of eyes. Among them were those of his wife.

"Why have you come?" said the Thunder in a fearful voice.

"I seek my wife," the man replied, "whom you have stolen. There hang her eyes."

"No man can enter my lodge and live," said the Thunder; and he rose to strike him. Then the man pointed the raven wing at the Thunder, and he fell back on his couch and shivered. But he soon recovered, and rose again. Then the man fitted the elk-horn arrow to his bow, and shot it through the lodge of rock; right through that lodge of rock it pierced a jagged hole, and let the sunlight in.

"Hold," said the Thunder. "Stop; you are the stronger. Yours the great medicine. You shall have your wife. Take down her eyes." Then the man cut the string that held them, and immediately his wife stood beside him.

"Now," said the Thunder, "you know me. I am of great power. I live here in summer, but when winter comes, I go far south. I go south with the birds. Here is my pipe. It is medicine. Take it, and keep it. Now, when I first come in the spring, you shall fill and light this pipe, and you shall pray to me, you and the people. For I bring the rain which makes the berries large and ripe. I bring the rain which makes all things grow, and for this you shall pray to me, you and all the people."

Thus the people got the first medicine pipe. It was long ago.



IN THE EARLIEST TIMES there was no war. All the tribes were at peace. In those days there was a man who had a daughter, a very beautiful girl. Many young men wanted to marry her, but every time she was asked, she only shook her head and said she did not want a husband.

"How is this?" asked her father. "Some of these young men are rich, handsome, and brave."

"Why should I marry?" replied the girl. "I have a rich father and mother. Our lodge is good. The parfleches are never empty. There are plenty of tanned robes and soft furs for winter. Why worry me, then?"

The Raven Bearers held a dance; they all dressed carefully and wore their ornaments, and each one tried to dance the best. Afterwards some of them asked for this girl, but still she said no. Then the Bulls, the Kit-foxes, and others held their dances, and all those who were rich, many great warriors, asked this man for his daughter, but to every one of them she said no. Then her father was angry, and said: "Why, now, this way? All the best men have asked for you, and still you say no. I believe you have a secret lover."

"Ah!" said her mother. "What shame for us should a child be born and our daughter still unmarried!" "Father! mother!" replied the girl, "pity me. I have no secret lover, but now hear the truth. That Above Person, the Sun, told me, 'Do not marry any of those men, for you are mine; thus you shall be happy, and live to great age;' and again he said, 'Take heed. You must not marry. You are mine.'"

"Ah!" replied her father. "It must always be as he says." And they talked no more about it.

There was a poor young man, very poor. His father, mother, all his relations, had gone to the Sand Hills. He had no lodge, no wife to tan his robes or sew his moccasins. He stopped in one lodge to-day, and to-morrow he ate and slept in another; thus he lived. He was a good-looking young man, except that on his cheek he had a scar, and his clothes were always old and poor.

After those dances some of the young men met this poor Scarface, and they laughed at him, and said: "Why don't you ask that girl to marry you? You are so rich and handsome!" Scarface did not laugh; he replied: "Ah! I will do as you say. I will go and ask her." All the young men thought this was funny. They laughed a great deal. But Scarface went down by the river. He waited by the river, where the women came to get water, and by and by the girl came along. "Girl," he said, "wait. I want to speak with you. Not as a designing person do I ask you, but openly where the Sun looks down, and all may see."

"Speak then," said the girl.

"I have seen the days," continued the young man. "You have refused those who are young, and rich, and brave. Now, to-day, they laughed and said to me, 'Why do you not ask her?' I am poor, very poor. I have no lodge, no food, no clothes, no robes and warm furs. I have no relations; all have gone to the Sand Hills; yet, now, to-day, I ask you, take pity, be my wife."


Excerpted from AMERICAN INDIAN DESIGN AND DECORATION by LE ROY H. APPLETON. Copyright © 1971 Le Roy H. Appleton. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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