Exploring Meaning In Native American Art

Native American artwork includes symbolism that will inspire students' own work.

By Amy Medico


Native American Pottery

Native American artwork provides a wide variety of artistic traditions, which can inspire young artists. Native American art work is rich with symbols, and what we may see as a simple piece of pottery, jewelry, or basketry often holds a much deeper meaning for the culture from which it originates. After exploring the meanings behind symbols and images found in Native American artwork students can discover new means for self-expression.

Every Native American culture developed its own art forms and symbols depending on the locations and the resources available to them. The Native Americans of the American Northwest, for example, carved trees into elaborate totem poles. The animals and figures carved into these totem poles served as symbols to retell legends or explain family histories. In contrast, the Hopi wove local grasses into baskets. These baskets often include images of figures from tribal legends. For Native Americans of the Southwestern Pueblos, pottery was covered with geometric symbols that told of everything from tribal legends to local wildlife and weather.

totem poleExploring the way Native American artists used symbols can be a perfect vehicle to lead students to create artwork that uses their own symbolism. Students can be shown images of Native American artifacts and asked guiding questions like, “What do you think these symbols mean?” and “What do you think the artist is telling us in these symbols?” Such discussions can lead to investigations of how students might represent themselves through symbolism.

Discussion Question:

What topics do you cover when your students are learning about Native American artwork?

Native American Lesson Plans

Bead Weaving on a Loom: In this lesson, students learn about Native American beadwork. A loom is created, and students design their own patterns and symbols for weaving. This lesson includes great resources for teachers on Native American beading. It also helpfully provides a pattern for loom construction as well as sources for buying bead looms.

Totem Pole: Students learn about the totem poles created by Native Americans in the American Northwest. Students then use collage techniques to create a totem. This lesson asks students to create an imaginary story for their totem, but a teacher could easily adapt the lesson to have students depict their family, or a story from their life.

Native American Basket Making: Authentic Native American basket making techniques are taught to students. Students design Native American symbols to embellish a basket plaque. Although this lesson plan encourages students to use traditional tribal symbols, the lesson could be adapted to allow students to design their own symbols.

Facial Tattoos or Face Painting: This lesson teaches about facial tattoos used by Native American tribes. Students learn about the symbols and meanings within Native American tattoo art. The lesson culminates with students designing personal symbolism to overlay images of their own faces. Tattooing is often a sensitive topic and this lesson should be used with mature students.




Art Guide

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Amy Medico