The Decorative Art of the
North American Indians 1
The extended investigations on primitive decorative art which have
been made during the last twenty years have clearly shown that
almost everywhere the decorative designs used by primitive man do not
serve purely esthetic ends, but that they suggest to his mind certain
definite concepts. They are not only decorations, but symbols of definite
Much has been written on this subject; and for a time the opinion
prevailed that wherever an ornament is explained as a representation
of a certain object, its origin has been in a realistic representation of
that object, and that it has gradually assumed a more and more conventionalized
form, which has often developed into a purely geometrical
motive. 2 On the other hand, Cushing and Holmes have pointed out
the important influence of material and technique in the evolution of
design, and, following Semper, have called attention to the frequent
transfer of designs developed in one technique to another. Thus, according
to Semper, forms developed in wood architecture were imitated in
stone, and Cushing and Holmes showed that textile designs are imitated
The origin of certain designs from technical forms is now recognized
as an important factor, and it must therefore be assumed that in many
cases the interpretation has been read into the design. The existence
of this tendency has recently been pointed out by H. Schurtz 3 and by
Professor A. D. F. Hamlin, 4 who has treated in a series of essays the
evolution of decorative motives.
In speaking of the process of conventionalization or degeneration of
realistic motives, Professor Hamlin says: “Indeed, this degeneration
may reasonably be accepted as suggesting that the geometric forms
546which it approaches were already in habitual use when it began, and
that the direction of the degeneration was determined by a pre-existing
habit or ‘expectancy’ (as Dr. Colley March calls it) of geometric form
acquired in skeuomorphic decoration” 1 (i.e., in a form developed from
technical motives). At another place 2 he says: “After having undergone
in its own home such series of modifications, the motive becomes
known to the artists of some race or civilization through the agency
either of commerce or of conquest. It is carried across seas and lands,
and in new hands receives still another dress in combinations still more
incongruous with its original significance. It is no longer a symbol, but
an arbitrary ornament, wholly conventional, modified to suit the taste
and the arts of the foreigners who have adopted it. In many cases it
undergoes modification in two or more directions, resulting in divergent
developments, which in time produce as many distinct motives —
cousins, as it were, of each other — each of which runs its own course
independently of the others. This phenomenon we may call ‘divergence.’
A common cause of divergence is the tendency to assimilate a
borrowed motive to some indigenous and familiar form, usually a
natural object, thus setting up a new method of treatment quite foreign
to the origin of the motive.”
I intend to show in the following pages that the same processes, which
Professor Hamlin traces by historical evidence in the art of the civilized
peoples of the Old World, have occurred among the primitive tribes of
North America. 3
Before taking up this subject, attention may be called to a peculiar
difference between the decorative style applied in ceremonial objects
and that employed in articles of every-day use. We find a considerable
number of cases which demonstrate the fact that, on the whole, the
decoration of ceremonial objects is much more realistic than that of
ordinary objects. Thus we find the garments for ceremonial dances of
the Arapaho covered with pictographic representations of animals, their
sacred pipe covered with human and other forms, while their painted
blankets for ordinary wear are generally adorned with geometrical
designs. Among the Thompson Indians ceremonial blankets are also
547covered with pictographic designs, while ordinary wearing-apparel and
basketry are decorated with very simple geometrical motives. On the
stem of a shaman's pipe we find a series of pictographs, while an ordinary
pipe shows geometric forms. Even among the eastern Eskimo,
whose decorative art, on the whole, is very rudimentary, a shamanistic
coat has been found which has a number of realistic motives, while the
ordinary dress of the same tribe shows no trace of such decoration (Figs.
Fig. 1. Shaman's coat. Eskimo, Iglulik.
1, 2). The same phenomenon may also be observed outside of America,
as is demonstrated by the difference in style between the shaman's
coat and the ordinary coat of the Gold of the Amur River (Figs. 3, 4).
The most striking examples of this kind are the woven designs of
the Huichol Indians of Mexico. All their ceremonial weavings are
covered with more or less realistic designs, while all their ordinary wearing-apparel
presents rigid geometrical motives. In fact, the style of
the two is so different that it hardly seems to belong to the same tribe548
Fig. 2. Man's costume. Eskimo, Aivilik.549
Fig. 3. Shaman's coat. Gold.550
Fig. 4. Decorated fish skin coat. Gold.551
(Fig. 5). We may perhaps recognize the same tendency in the style
of decoration of modern dwelling-rooms and in that of public buildings.
The designs on the stained glass of house-windows are usually arranged
in geometrical forms; those of churches represent pictures. The wall
decorations of houses are wall papers of more or less geometrical character;
those of halls devoted to public uses are generally adorned with
This difference in the treatment of ceremonial and common objects
shows clearly that the reason for the conventionalization of motives can
not be solely a technical one, for if so, it would act in one case as well
Fig. 5. Ceremonial shield and belt for ordinary wear. Huichol.
as in the other. In ceremonial objects the ideas represented are more
important than the decorative effect, and it is intelligible that the resistance
to conventionalism may be strong; although in some cases the very
sacredness of the idea represented might induce the artist to obscure his
meaning intentionally, in order to keep the significance of the design
from profane eyes. It may, therefore, be assumed that, if a tendency to
conventionalization exists, it will manifest itself differently, even among
the same tribe, according to the preponderance of the decorative or
descriptive value of the design.
On the other hand, the general prevalence of symbolic significance
552in ordinary decoration shows that this is an important aspect of decorative
art, and a tendency to retain the realistic form might be expected,
provided its origin were from realistic forms. If, therefore, the whole
decorative art of some tribes shows no trace of realism, it may well be
Fig. 6. Parfleches. Left, Arapaho; right, Shoshone.
doubted whether their ordinary decorative designs were originally
The history of decorative design can best be investigated by analyzing
the styles of form and interpretation prevailing over a limited area. If
the style of art were entirely indigenous in a given tribe, and developed
553either from conventionalization of realistic designs or from the elaboration
of technical motives, we should expect to find a different style and
different motives in each tribe. The general customs and beliefs might
be expected to determine the subjects chosen for decoration, or the
ideas that are read into the technical designs.
As a matter of fact, the native art of North America shows a very
different state of affairs. All over the Great Plains and in a large
portion of the western plateaus an art is found which, notwithstanding
local peculiarities, is of a uniform type. It is characterized by the application
Fig. 7. Moccasin.
of colored triangles and quadrangles
in both painting and embroidery in a manner
which is found in no other part of the
The slight differences of styles which occur
are well exemplified in the style of painted
rawhide bags or envelopes, the so-called
‘parfleches.’ Mr. St. Clair has observed that
the Arapaho are in the habit of laying on the
colors rather delicately, in areas of moderate
size, and of following out a general arrangement
of their motives in stripes; that the
Shoshone, on the other hand, like large
areas of solid colors, bordered by heavy blue
bands, and an arrangement in which a central
field is set off rather prominently from
the rest of the design (Fig. 6). This difference
is so marked that it is easy to tell a Shoshone
parfleche that has found its way to the
Arapaho from parfleches of Arapaho manufacture.
In other cases the most characteristic difference consists in the
place on the parfleche to which the design is applied. The Arapaho and
the Shoshone never decorate the sides of a bag, only its flaps, while the
tribes of Idaho and Montana always decorate the sides. Another peculiarity
of Arapaho parfleche-painting, as compared to that of the
Shoshone, is the predilection for two right-angled triangles standing on
the same line, their right angles facing each other — a motive of common
occurrence all over the southern part of the Plains and in the southwestern
territories; while the Shoshone generally place these triangles
with facing acute angles. A detailed study of the art brings out
554many minor differences of this sort, although the general type is very
Certain types of designs are so much alike that they might belong
to one tribe as well as to another. A type of moccasin used by the
Shoshone, Sioux and Arapaho (Fig. 7) will serve as a good example.
Its characteristic form is a cross on the uppers, connected with a bar
on the instep, from which arise at each end two short lines. This design
is so complex that evidently it must have had a single origin. It is of
great importance to note that nevertheless the explanations given by
the various tribes are quite different. The design is interpreted by the
Arapaho as the morning star; the bar on the instep, as the horizon; the
short lines, as the twinkling of the star. To the mind of the Sioux the
design conveys the idea of feathers, when applied to a woman's moccasin;
when found on a man's moccasin, it symbolizes the sacred shield
Fig. 8. Embroidered
suspended from tent-poles. The identical design
was explained by the Shoshone as signifying the
sun (the center) and its rays; but also the thunderbird,
the cross-arms of the cross evidently being the
wings; the part nearest the toe, the tail, and the
upper part, the neck with two strongly conventionalized
heads attached. If these are the ideas conveyed
by this design to the makers, it is clear that
they must have developed after the invention or
introduction of the design; that the design is primary, the idea secondary,
and that the idea has nothing to do with the historical development
of the design itself.
It may be well to give a few additional examples of such similarity
of design and difference of symbolism. One of the typical designs of
this area is a cross to the ends of which deeply notched squares are
attached (Fig. 8). Dr. Kroeber 1 received the following explanation of
this design from an Arapaho: the diamond in the center represents a
person; the four forked ornaments surrounding it are buffalo hoofs
or tracks. Dr. Wissler found the design on a pair of woman's leggings
of the Sioux. In this case the diamond-shaped center of the design
represents the breast of a turtle; green lines forming the cross indicate
the four points of the compass; the forked ornaments symbolize
forks of trees struck by hailstones, which are indicated by small white
555rectangles. Mr. St. Glair came across the same design among the
Shoshone, where it was found on a cowhide bag. The central diamond
was interpreted as the sun and clouds; the notched designs were
explained as mountain-sheep hoofs. There is a certain similarity in
this case between the explanations given by the Arapaho and those of
the Shoshone, while the Sioux connect ideas of a different type with
Such differences of interpretation are also found on painted designs.
The Shoshone sometimes imagine they see a battle scene in the squares
and triangles of their parfleche designs. The square in the center of
Fig. 9. Parfleche. Shoshone.
Fig. 9 was explained to Mr.
St. Clair as an enclosure in which
the enemy was kept by a besieging
party, represented by the
marginal squares. The narrow
central line is the trail by
which the enemy made good his
escape. Many others represent
geographical features, such as
mountains and valleys. Such geographical
ideas are represented
on some Arapaho parfleches,
while others exhibit a more complex
symbolic significance. Battle
scenes, however, are not found in
interpretations given by the
The similarity of complex designs,
combined with dissimilarity of interpretation, justifies a comparison
of simpler forms. These might be believed to have originated independently
; but the sameness of the complex forms proves that their
component elements must have had a common origin, or at least have
been assimilated by the same forms. One of the striking examples of this
kind is the cross. Among the Arapaho it signifies almost invariably the
morning star. To the mind of the Shoshone it conveys the idea of barter.
The Sioux recognizes in it a man slain in battle and lying flat on the
ground with arms outstretched. The Thompson Indians of British
Columbia recognize in it the crossing trails at which sacrifices are made.
The simple straight red lines with which skin bags are decorated are
556another good example. A specimen was collected by Dr. Kroeber among
the Arapaho (Fig. 10, front and side). He explains the stripes on the
beaded design on the narrow sides and on the flaps of the bag as camp
trails; the shorter transverse stripes intersecting these longitudinal lines,
as ravines, that is, camping-places. On the front of the bag the horizontal
lines of quill-work, which resemble the lines on buffalo-robes, are
paths. Bunches of feathers on these lines represent buffalo-meat hung
up to dry. Adjoining the bead-work are small tin cylinders with tufts of
red hair; these represent pendants or rattles on tents. Mr. St. Clair
obtained the following explanation of a Shoshone bag of almost identical
design: The porcupine-quill work on the front of the bag represents
Fig. 10. Embroidered skin bag. Arapaho.
horse-trails. The red horse-hair tassels at each side are horses
stolen by people of one village from those of another, the villages being
represented by the bead-work at the sides of the bag. The bead-work
on the flap represents the owners of the horses indicated by the horsehair
tassels on the flap. Among the Sioux the same design is used in the
puberty ceremonial, and symbolizes the path of life.
It must not be believed that the interpretation of a certain motive,
or even of a complex figure when used by the members of one tribe,
is always the same. As a matter of fact, the number of ideas expressed
by it is often quite varied. We find, for instance, an obtuse triangle with
enclosed rectangle (see Fig. 11) explained by the Arapaho as the mythic
cave from which the buffalo issued, as cattle-tracks, as a mountain,
557cloud, brush hut and tent; an acute triangle, with small triangles attached
to its base, as a bird-tail, frog, tent and bear-foot.
Nevertheless the explanations given by various tribes show peculiar
characteristics in which they differ from those of other tribes. The
explanations possess no less a style of their own than the art itself.
Triangles are explained as tents by all the tribes, and mountains or
hills form a prominent feature of their descriptions; but among the
three tribes mentioned only the Sioux see wounds, battle scenes with
moving masses of men, horses, the pursuit of enemies, the flight of
arrows, in their conventional designs; only the Shoshone see in them
Fig. 11. Pueblo patterns. From specimens
in the U. S. National Museum.
pictures of forts and stones piled up
in memory of battles; only the
Arapaho recognize in them prayers
for life directed to the morning
We find, therefore, that in this
area the same style of art is widely
distributed, while the style of explanation
differs materially among
its various tribes.
It may be worth while to review
briefly the distribution of the style
of art here discussed. On the whole,
it is confined to the Plains Indians,
west of the eastern wooded area. It
would seem that it has been carried
into the plateau region rather
recently, where, however, it has
affected almost all of the tribes east of the Cascade Range and of the
Sierra Nevada. We find the acute triangle with small supporting triangles,
and the obtuse triangle with enclosed rectangle, in the characteristic
arrangement of the parfleches, on bags of the Nez Percés. At
first glance, the art of the Pueblos seems quite different from the one
that we are discussing here; but I believe that an intimate association
of the two may be traced. The ancient pottery described by Dr. Fewkes,
for instance, shows a number of the peculiar triangle and square motives
which are so characteristic of the art of the Indians of the Plains (Fig.
11). The same triangle with supporting lines, the same triangle with the
enclosed square, is found here. It seems very plain to my mind that the
558transfer of this art from pottery to embroidery and painting on flat surfaces
has brought about the introduction of the triangular and rectangular
forms which are the prime characteristic of this type of art.
In the prehistoric art of the northern plateaus, in California, on the
North Pacific coast, in the Mackenzie basin, in the wooded area of the
Atlantic coast, we find styles of art which differ from the art of the
Plains, and which have much less in common with Pueblo art. Therefore
I am inclined to consider the art of the Plains Indians in many of
its traits as developed from the art of the Pueblos. I think the general
Fig. 12. Quail-tip designs on California and Oregon baskets.
facts of the culture of these tribes are fairly in accord with this notion,
since it would seem that the complex social and religious rites of the
southwest gradually become simpler and less definite as we proceed
northward. If this opinion regarding the origin of the art of the Plains
is correct, we are led to the conclusion that the tent with its pegs is the
same form in origin as the rain-clouds of the Pueblos, so that the scope
of interpretations of the same form is still more enlarged. Under these
conditions, we must conclude that the interpretation is probably secondary
throughout, and has become associated with the form which was
559obtained by borrowing. With this we are brought face to face with the
skeuomorphic origin of the triangular design from basketry motives,
which has been so much discussed of recent years.
The so-called “quail-tip” design of California is another example of
the continuous distribution of a motive over a wide area, the occurrence
of which in the outlying districts must be due to borrowing. The characteristic
feature of this design, which occurs in the basketry of California
and Oregon, is a vertical line, suddenly turning outward at its end.
This motive occurs on both twined and coiled basketry, and with many
explanations. 1 In some combinations it is explained as the lizard's foot
(Fig. 12, a), in others as the pine cone or the mountain (Fig. 12, b).
The gradual distribution of this motive over a wide area can best be
proved in this case by a comparison with the distribution of the technique
in which it is applied. The design occurs all over central and
northern California. On Columbia River it is found on the Klickitat
baskets. These are of the peculiar imbricated basketry which is made
from this point on, northward. While the designs on imbricated basketry
found in British Columbia are of a peculiar character, the Klickitat
baskets of the same make (Fig. 12, c) have the typical California designs
which also occur on the twined bags of this district.
Thus we find, not only that the distribution of interpretations and
that of motives do not coincide, but also that the distribution of technique
does not agree with that of motives. I think we can also demonstrate
that the limits of styles of interpretation in some cases overlap
the limits of styles of art. We have seen that on the Plains the style
of art covers a wider area than the style of interpretation. It would
seem that in other regions the reverse is the case. For instance, the
style of art of the Nootka tribes differs very much from that of the
Kwakiutl. Although both apply animal motives, the Nootka use very
little surface decoration consisting of combinations of characteristic
curved lines, which play an important part in Kwakiutl art, and which
serve to symbolize various parts of the body. Nootka art is more realistic
and at the same time cruder than Kwakiutl art. The ideas expressed in
the art of both tribes, however, are practically the same. In the southwest
we find that the culture of the Pueblos has deeply influenced the
neighboring Athapascan and Sonoran tribes, while at the same time the
decoration of their basketry bears a close relation to that of Californian
560basketry. Although I do not know the interpretations of designs given
by the Apache, Pima and Navaho, it seems probable that they have been
influenced by the ideas current among the Pueblos. Among the Pueblos
themselves — and in these I include the tribes of northern Mexico, such
as the Huichol — there are well-marked local styles of technique and
of decoration, and a general similarity of interpretation. I think the
marked prevalence of geographical interpretations found among the
Salish tribes of British Columbia, the Shoshone and the Arapaho is
Fig. 13. Tlingit baskets. After Emmons.
another instance of distribution of a style of interpretation over an
area including divers styles of art.
In a few cases it seems almost self-evident, from a consideration of
the interpretations themselves, that they cannot have developed from
realistic forms. The multiplicity of Arapaho explanations for the triangles
which I mentioned before suggest this. According to G. T.
Emmons, 1 the zigzag and the closely allied meander in Tlingit basketry
561have a variety of meanings. The zigzag may represent the tail of the
land-otter (Fig. 13, a), the hood of the raven (Fig. 13, b), the butterfly
(Fig. 13, c), or, when given a rectangular form (Fig. 13, d), waves and
floating objects. It is evident, in view of the data here discussed, that
these must be different interpretations of motives of similar origin.
We conclude from all this that the explanation of designs is secondary
almost throughout and due to a late association of ideas and forms, and
that as a rule a gradual transition from realistic motives to geometric
forms did not take place. The two groups of phenomena — interpretation
and style — appear to be independent. We may say that in many,
perhaps in most cases, designs are considered significant. Different tribes
may interpret the same style by distinct groups of ideas. On the other
hand, certain groups of ideas may be spread over tribes whose decorative
art follows different styles, so that the same ideas are expressed by different
styles of art.
We may express this fact also by saying that the history of the artistic
development of a people, and the style that they have developed at any
given time, predetermine the method by which they express their ideas
in decorative art; and that the type of ideas that a people is accustomed
to express by means of decorative art predetermines the explanation
that will be given to a new design. It would therefore seem that there
are certain typical associations between ideas and forms which become
established, and which are used for artistic expression. The idea which
a design expresses at the present time is not necessarily a clue to its
history. It seems probable that idea and style exist independently, and
influence each other constantly.
For the present it remains an open question, why the tendency to
form associations between certain ideas and decorative motives is so
strong among primitive people. The tendency is evidently similar
to that observed among children who enjoy interpreting simple forms
as objects to which the form has a slight resemblance; and this, in turn,
may bear some relation to the peculiar character of realism in primitive
art, to which I believe Von den Steinen 1 was the first to draw attention.
The primitive artist does not attempt to draw what he sees, but merely
combines what are to his mind the characteristic features of an object,
without regard to their actual space relation in the visual image. For
this reason he may also be more ready than we are to consider some
562characteristic feature as symbolic of an object, and thus associate forms
and objects in ways that seem to us unexpected.
It may be worth while to mention one general point of view that
is suggested by our remarks. The explanations of decorative design
given by the native suggest that to his mind the form of the design is
a result of attempts to represent by means of decorative art a certain
idea. We have seen that this cannot be the true history of the design,
but that it probably originated in an entirely different manner. What
is true in the case of decorative art is true of other ethnic phenomena.
The historical explanation of customs given by the native is generally
a result of speculation, not by any means a true historical explanation.
The mythical explanation of rites and customs is seldom of historical
value, but is generally due to associations formed in the course of events,
while the early history of myths and rites must be looked for in entirely
different causes, and interpreted by different methods. Native explanations
of laws, of the origin of the form of society, must have developed
in the same manner, and therefore cannot give any clue in regard to
historical events, while the association of ideas of which they are the
expression furnishes most valuable psychological material.563
1 The Popular Science Monthly (Oct., 1903).
2 A. C. Haddon, Evolution in Art (London, 1902).
3 H. Schurtz, Urgeschichte der Kultur (Leipzig and Vienna, 1900), p. 540.
4 The American Architect and Building News, 1898.
1 Ibid., p. 93.
2 Ibid., p. 35.
3 The examples and illustrations here represented are taken, unless otherwise
stated, from specimens in the American Museum of Natural History. The information
and material used were collected by Dr. Roland B. Dixon, Professor Livingston
Farrand, Dr. A. L. Kroeber, Dr. Berthold Laufer, Dr. Carl Lumholtz, Mr. H. H.
St. Clair, Mr. James Teit and Dr. Clark Wissler, all of whom have contributed to the
systematic study of decorative art undertaken by the museum.
1 A. L. Kroeber, “The Arapaho,” Bulletin American Museum of Natural History,
vol. 18 (1902-1904).
1 Roland B. Dixon, “Basketry Designs of the Indians of Northern California,”
Bulletin American Museum of Natural History, vol. 17 (1902), pp. 2 et seq.
1 “The Basketry of the Tlingit,” Memoirs American Museum of Natural History,
vol. 3 (1903), pp. 263 et seq.
1 Unter den Naturvölkern Zentral-Brasiliens (Berlin, 1894), pp. 250 et seq.