The very use of the word art suggests one of the basic differences between European or European-derived and American Indian concepts. For not only did few American Indian groups allow art to become a major way of life, as in the West, but many Native American languages even lack a term meaning “art” or “artist.” If one wished to refer to a beautiful basket or a well-carved sculpture, it was usually necessary to rely upon such terms as “well-done,” “effective,” or perhaps “powerful” (in the magical sense). And the concept of an artist was largely of a person who was simply better at the job than was another. Generally, artists were accorded special significance only where wealth was a major factor in the culture. The elite of many cultures, whether wealthy in their own right or (more commonly) by having attained a high religious office, supported groups of artists who produced memorial and religious art.
Although American Indian people may not have considered artistic skill in terms of a vocation, the difference between a well-woven basket and a careless piece of work or a particularly well-designed carving and a crudely made example did not go unnoticed. Fine workmanship commanded a premium long before European contact, and with the advent of the monetary system, it was even more highly prized.
The basic role of the American Indian artist is the same as that of the artist in any culture: to arouse an emotional response in his or her audience. In Native American cultures, the artist’s ability to communicate successfully depended largely upon the recognition of the force of tradition. The social organization of the various tribes allowed less latitude for experimentation than Western cultures and usually compelled the artist to work in familiar channels. Yet, within this rigid framework of tradition, there was sometimes a surprising degree of freedom of expression. There are recorded instances of individuals having made considerable changes in the art (and the economy) of their tribes. In North America, perhaps the most striking have been the careers of Nampeyó, the famed Hopi potter, and María Martínez and Julián Martínez, of San Ildefonso pueblo. Through sheer individual talent these people achieved a personal triumph by developing a style that not only was copied by other artists but in time also was regarded as “traditional” in that particular village. Although there is no way of knowing how often this happened in the past, there are suggestions that it occurred at Mimbres, among the Haida slate carvers, and quite possibly in some areas of the so-called Mound Builder cultures of the Southeast. Continue reading from Encyclopedia Britannica