Ancient State of Indian Art

To denote the state of art among the aboriginal race, it is necessary closely to examine such monuments of it, as exist. The word “monument” is used to denote any remains of art. Such are their relics in the form of worked shells and amulets, pottery, carved implements and utensils of stone, and other antiquarian remains found in their mounds, graves, fortifications, and other places of ancient occupancy in our latitudes. Of architectural ruins in stone, which constitute so striking a portion of aboriginal antiquities, in central and South America, particularly in the ruins of their temples and teocalli, (the only form of such architecture indeed, which survives,) we have no remains north of the latitude of the mouth of the Mississippi, unless they shall be disclosed in some of the large mounds yet unopened, or in portions of the country north of such a line, which yet remains unexplored, west of the extreme sources of the Red river and the Rio Del Norte.

From this inquiry, we may peremtorily exclude, all articles and remains of metal (not gold, silver or native copper) and all sculpture and inscriptions (not picture writing) which have been found and commented on, with an air of wonder, in various places, but which are one and all, undoubtedly of European, or to give the greatest scope to conjecture, of transatlantic origin. Such are, to begin with the highest object, the Grave creek inscription in apparently Celtiberic characters, the stone with a rude inscription in Roman letters and Arabic figures found in Onondaga county, and now deposited in the Albany Academy; the amulets of coarse enamel colored pastes and glass, of the imperfect fabric of the 15th and 16th centuries, found in Indian graves; or old village and fort sites, together with the flattened gun barrels, broken locks, artists tools and other articles of Iron, brass, or semi-vitrified earthenware, which are found over so considerable an extent of country in western New York. The latter are undoubtedly, evidences of either earlier, or more systematic attempts to settle, if not to found colonies, amongst the Red Race from abroad, than we are yet prepared fully to comprehend. But there need be no question as to the general era and character of art to which they belong; they are too clearly European in every in stance to admit of scruple.

The introduction of the fabrics of European art, among the tribes of this continent, had the inevitable and speedy effect to destroy the prior Indian arts. It is astonishing to find how soon the aborigines of our latitudes, lost the art of making culinary vessels of clay; of carving amulets and pipes out of steatites and other fissile mineral bodies; of perforating, dissecting and forming sea shells into the various shapes of wampum, gorgets, pendants, necklaces, belt and pouch ornaments, and other ornamental fabrics. They no sooner obtained the light brass, copper, iron, and tin kettle, than they laid aside the more clumsy and frail Akeek, or clay pot; their women relieved from the labor of selecting and tempering the clays, and forming it into pots and dishes, were advanced one step in the art of housewifery, and took the first lesson in European civilization.

The maker of arrow and javelin heads, for this was a distinct art, was superseded by the superior efficacy of fire arms; and his red descendant at this day, as well as the gleaner of antiquities, is alike at a loss to find, where the ancient artist in chert and hornstone procured his materials of so suitable a quality and fracture, and how he obtained the skill to chip and form them into such delicate and appropriate patterns. The small and slender axe of iron, with a steel edge, and pipe-head, at once took the place of the crescent-shaped stone tomahawk, which had alone been appropriated to war; while the larger half- axe, so called, supplanted the clumsy stone Agakwut before employed rather as a gouge to detach coal in the process of felling trees by fire, than an axe proper. By the application of the common lathe and turning chisel, those species of thick sea shells, which the natives had, with so much labor, converted into seawan and wampum, were manufactured with such superior skill, expedition and cheapness, (although this is an a: tide which the trader always held comparatively high) that the old Indian art of the wampum-maker, sunk, like that of the arrow-maker, never to be revived. But of all, the ex changes made between civilized and savage life, the gift of the steel-trap, in replacing the Indian trap of wood, was the most eagerly sought, and highly prized by the hunter, although it hastened the period of the destruction of the whole class of furred animals, and thus in effect, brought to a speedy close the Indian dominion.

Pottery was an art known universally among all the tribes from Patagonia to the Arctic ocean, but was practised with very different degrees of skill. The northern tribes who bordered on the great lakes, and thence reached down to the Atlantic, made a rude article, which just answered the simple purposes of the culinary art The clay, or argillaceous material used for it, was such as is common to diluvial and tertiary soils. It was tempered with silex, in the form of pounded quartz, or often quartz and feld-spar, as it exists in granite, in quite coarse particles. This mixture prevented shrinkage and cracks in drying, and enabled the mass to withstand the application of heat an art which has resulted, and would very soon result, in any given case, from experience. There were no legs to the Indian akeek, or pot. It was designed to be used, to use a chemical phrase, as a sand-bath. Being set on the ashes, a fire was built around it. It might also admit of suspension, by a bark cord tied below the lip, which flared out well, and thus could be attached to the ordinary Indian cooking-tackle, namely; a long-legged tripod, tied at the top with bark.

There is no evidence in the structure of any of this species of pottery, at least, in these latitudes, that it had been raised or formed on a potter s wheel. The fact that prepared clay placed on a revolving horizontal circle, would rise, by the centrifugal force, if resisted by the hand, or a potter’s stick or former, was not known to these tribes; although it is admitted to be one of the oldest arts in the world. Some skill was consequently required to form the mass and shape the vessel, without machinery. It was essential to its utility, and to prevent unequal shrinkage in drying, that the body should be of uniform thickness; and this art was also, if we may judge from fragments, and one or two entire vessels examined, very well attained. It is believed that this art, in this quarter, was in the hands of females; but every female or mistress of a lodge, was not adequate to it. It must have been the business of a class of persons in each village, who were professed potters. Tradition says that it was the practice to mingle some blood in wetting and tempering the clay.

It was impossible that this art, so rude and laborious, and so ill-suited to perform its offices when done, could survive and continue to be practiced for any length of time after the tribes had been made acquainted with the products of the European potteries, rude as these were comparatively speaking, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Architecture, as it existed in the north and w est, was confined, we may suppose, to earthen structures, crowned with wood, in the shape of beams and posts. And it is only as it exhibited a knowledge of geometry, in the combination of squares and circles, to constitute a work of defense, that it is deserving of notice. The knowledge of the pyramid and its durability, is one of the most ancient geometrical discoveries in the world, and it is quite clear, in viewing the mounds and teocalli of North America, that the aborigines possessed, or had not for gotten it. In most of the works of defense, in the western country, the circular pyramid, or mound of earth of various sizes, formed a striking feature; whilst in relation to the mounds used for religious ceremonies, as we must suppose the larger mounds to have been, its completeness of plan and exact truncation, parallel to the plain or basis, denotes the prevalence among them, of this ancient architectural idea. We detect also, in a survey of the old works, the square, the parallelogram, the circle, and the ellipsis. And these figures were variously employed in the arrangement of masses of earth, to produce a rampart and a moat.

The domestic economy required implements to perform the arts which we express by the words sewing and weaving.

The awl and needle were made from various species of animal bones of the land and water. The larger awl used to perforate bark; in sewing together the sheething of the northern canoe, made from the rind of the betula, was squared and brought to a tapering point. A very close grain and compact species of bone was employed for the fine lodge awl used for sewing dressed skins for garments. After this skin had been perforated, a thread of deer s sinew was drawn through, from the eye of a slender bone needle. There was, besides this, a species of shuttle of bone, which was passed backwards and forwards, in introducing the bark woof of mats and bags; two kinds of articles, the work of which was commonly made from the scirpus laeustris or larger bulrush. It was only necessary to exhibit the square and round awl, and grose and fine needle of steel, to super-cede these primitive arid rude modes of seamstress-work and weaving.

In an examination of Indian antiquarian articles, taken from the graves and mounds, there is some glimmering of the art of design. There is no other branch of art to which we can refer the numerous class of carved ornaments and amulets, or their skill in symbolical or representative drawing, evinced in their picture writing.

Amulets and neck, ear and head ornaments, constituted a very ancient and very important department in the arcanum of the Indian wardrobe. They were not only a part of the personal gear and decorations which our old British writers sometimes denote “braveries,” but they were connected with his superstitions, and were a part of the external system of his religion. The aboriginal man, who had never laid aside his oriental notions of necromancy, and believed firmly in witchcraft, wore them as charms. They were among the most cherished and valued articles he could possibly possess. They were sought with great avidity, at high prices, and, after having served their office of warding off evil, while he lived, they were deposited in his grave, at death. Bones, shells, carved stones, gems, claws and hoofs of animals, feathers of carnivorous birds, and above all the skin of the serpent, were cherished with the utmost care, and regarded with the most superstitious veneration. To be decked with suit able amulets was to him to be invested with a charmed life. They added to his feeling of security and satisfaction in his daily avocations, and gave him new courage in war.

But if such were the influence of pendants, shells, beads and other amulets or ornaments, inspired by children who saw and heard, what their parents prized, this influence took a deeper hold of their minds at and after the period the virile fast, when the power of dreams and visions was added to the sum of their experimental knowledge of di vine things, so to call them. To fix it still stronger, the Indian system of medicine, which admits the power of necromancy, lent its aid. And thus, long before the period which the civilized code has fixed on, to determine man s legal acts, the aboriginal man was fixed, grounded and educated in the doctrine of charms, talismans, and amulets.

To supply the native fabric in this particular branch, was more difficult. Christianity, in a large part of Europe, certainly all protestant Europe had, in 1600, religiously discarded all such, and kindred reliance’s on amulets, from its ritual and popular observances, where they had taken deep root during the dark ages; and hence the first English and Dutch voyagers and settlers who landed north of the capes of Florida, regarded the use of them as one of the strong evidences of the heathenishness of the tribes, and made light of their love of if beads and trinkets.” It was necessary, however, to the success of their traffic and commerce the great object of early voyages, that this class of articles should be noticed; and they brought from the potteries and glass-houses of Europe various substitutes, in the shape of white, opaque, transparent, blue, black, and other variously colored beads, and of as many diverse forms as the genius of geometry could well devise. We see, what it is somewhat difficult as an inquiry of art otherwise to reach, that they also brought over a species of paste-mosaic, or curious oval and elongated beads of a kind of enamel or paste, skillfully arranged in layers of various colors, which, viewed at their poles, represented stars, radii, or other figures. These were highly prized by the natives, (ignorant as they were of the manner of making them,) and were worn instead of the native amulets. In place of their carved pipes of steatite, or clay pipes ornamented with the heads of birds, men, or animals, they sup plied them with a somewhat corresponding heavy, plain, or fluted pipe-bowl, which was designed, like the native article, to receive a large wooden stem, such as we see among the remote interior tribes, at the present day. The jingling ornaments of native copper or deer hoofs, were replaced from European workshops, by the article of brass, called “hawks-bells,” an article which, like that of wampum, still retains its place in the invoices of the Indian trade.

But by far the most attractive class of fabrics which the commerce of Europe supplied in exchange for their rich furs and peltries, was armbands, wristbands, earrings, gorgets, and other ornaments, both for the person and dress, of silver. This metal was esteemed, as it is at this day, above all others. Its color and purity led them to regard it as pre-eminently the noble metal, and its introduction at once superseded the cherished Nabikoagun Antique, and other forms of medals and gorgets made from compact seashells.

In this manner the introduction of European arts, one after another, speedily overturned and supplanted the ancient Indian arts, and transferred them, at the end of but a few generations, from useful objects to the class of antiquities. It is unnecessary to pursue the subject to the department of clothing, in which woolens, cottons, linens and ribbons, took the place of the dressed skins of animals and birds, and the inner barks of trees, &c. Such objects are no part of the antiquities to be studied here. They are wholly perishable, and if any thing is to be gleaned from their study in the unburied cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, where stone and marble offered objects of temporary resistance to currents of flowing lava, they offer no facts to guide the pen of the antiquarian here. The European and the Indian fabrics of the 16th century have alike submitted to the inevitable laws of decomposition but were it otherwise, could we disinter from the Indian graves the first duffels, strouds, osnaburgs, and blankets, that were given to the race, they would only prove that the latter quickly laid aside the inferior when they could get the superior article. It would prove that guns and gunpowder, brass kettles and iron axes, had caused the manufacture of stone darts and lay kettles to be thrown aside and forgotten, and in like manner the labors of the spindle and loom had given the Indian, even before Columbus descended to his grave, a new wardrobe.

To denote what the Indian arts were, at the beginning of the 16th century, we must resort to their tombs, mounds, and general cemeteries. The melancholy tale that is told from the dust and bones of these sacred repositories is to be our teacher and schoolmaster. Its whispers are low and almost inaudible. There are pauses and lapses which it is difficult to make out. It requires great care nice attention examination and re-examination. We must not hastily compose the thread of the narrative. We must doubt and reject where doubt and rejection are proper. We must discriminate the various epochs of art from the objects disinterred. If objects of various ages lie in the same cemeteries we must not confound them. Carefully to labor, patiently to study, cautiously to conclude, is the province of the antiquarian; and if, after all, he has but little to offer, it is, perhaps, because there is but little to glean.


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Notes on the Iroquois: Or, Contributions to American History, Antiquities, and General Ethnology. E. H. Pease & Company. 1847.

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