Paintings of American Indians also known as First Nations people or Native Americans are essential art pieces chronicling American history and culture. Many artists who are drawn to depict scenes featuring aspects of Native American culture do so out a reverence and respect for their subjects. There are over 500 federally recognized tribes and countless more tribes from ancient history. Each tribe had aspects of its culture that would be unique unto itself. Painters of American Indian life may choose to highlight certain aspects of a tribe’s culture such as a ceremony, a hunting ritual, or simple moments of daily life.
Paintings featuring various ceremonies are common in the category of Indian Cultural paintings. Many First Nations peoples had ceremonies which served similar functions. For example, almost every tribe had ceremonies and rituals for death, for healing, and for spiritual practices. Many Native peoples had a ‘holy’ or ‘medicine’ man or woman as part of the cultural make-up. These individuals would conduct rituals that may include dancing, chanting, herbs and drugs, and other means of performing the healing process. To this day the workings of medicine or ceremonial people are largely unknown. Such specialized individuals were wont to be quite secretive and protective of their knowledge.
Dance in the broad and varied cultures of the Native American peoples was a common component of cultural life. Dance rituals were most ubiquitous for life transitions such as birth, death, romantic unions, and rites of passage. War and hunt dances were part of many tribal cultures but not all. Painters of Indian cultural subjects may portray such dances in their artwork. These dance rituals capture the inherent beauty and power of a group of people moving in rhythm and strength for some kind of spiritual and cultural purpose. Themes of unity and symbiosis between humanity, nature, and spirit are inherent to the subject of Indian cultural dance paintings.
The confluence of cultural significance with spiritual or religious tradition is often impossible to parse out for many Native American cultural rituals. During spiritual rituals such as dances, the symbolism of the participants carried special meaning. Gender would often play a significant symbolic role. The male dancers may have represented the more aggressive or violent supernatural beings, whereas the women could represent fertility. Just as the difference in every aspect of a tribe’s culture could be vastly different from another, so could the ritualistic traditions and symbolic meanings. This rich diversity is the subject of contemporary Indian cultural artists. An almost unlimited wealth of culture and beauty lies as a foundation for the topic of Native American cultural art.