American Native Arts and Antiques

Exceptional Current and Vintage Native American Arts

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Some of the most beautifully decorated Native American items are bags: tipi bags, medicine bags, saddle bags, "possible" bags, tobacco bags, ration card bags and bags unnamed. Bags hold the necessities of life; food, shelter, medicine and they hold precious items. If you want to take something with you, you often put it in a bag.

Very early bags were likely made of leather and/or animal hides. Many Indian bags still are. Bags made of leather added to turtle shells were used by many tribes. These early bags were decorated using porcupine quills, bird feather quills and mineral pigments. Rawhide (also called parfleche) is a hide or animal skin that has not been tanned but has had fur/hair removed, makes very tough and inflexible bags, tanned leather makes softer bags that are easier to fill and carry. Post-European contact some of the tanned leather bags were decorated with trade beads made of glass. In more recent years bags made of fabric have been used and decorated with glass beads.

The image of the Wabanaki Pipe Smoking Rabbit appears scraped/etched on many birch bark items of the past 3 centuries made by Wabanaki peoples. In more current work it appears in paintings, wood carving and work of porcupine quill. I had seen the image often and found it intriguing, Over the years I posed questions about Pipe Smoking Rabbit to three artists who use this image in their work; Gina Brooks, Maliseet, David Moses Bridges, Passamaquoddy (d 2017) and Paul St John, Mohawk. Paul’s mother is Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and MicMac.

The Moose (Mus/Moz/Tia’m/Maiiz) - Maliseet, Abenaki, MicMac, Penobscot. “Moose to us (The Wabanaki) are what buffalo were to the Plains tribes. Moose hides provided temporary shelter, temporary canoes, winter blankets, much of our clothing, and containers. Moose bones were used for dice for the game of Waltes, sewing needles, awls, spear points, pipe bowls, fishing hooks and more. Moose hair was used like sewing thread for embroidery on the clothing of hides and on birch bark items. Moose tendons and skin (rawhide) were used for bow strings, andt he webbing and lashing on snowshoes.

"Emergence: Root Clubs of the Penobscot", a recent exhibit at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor Maine has brought a new focus on root clubs; truly a unique form of Maine Indian art/artifact. There don't seem to be examples of these in any other area. Made from the root ball and trunk of a small birch tree, the root club has been documented to have been made pre-European contact. After digging up a small tree with most roots intact, carvers trim and sometimes completely remove the bark of the sapling.

Birch bark is used by Native Americans/First Nations from Alaska throughout Canada to Maine, the Great Lakes regions and most places where birch trees grow. In an earlier news item. “Birch Bark: Most versatile, valuable material of the Wabanakis” many pre-European contact uses were detailed. In that article current Wabanaki birch bark artists were mentioned. In this news item the focus will be on birch bark as an artist’s medium, less functional more salable. There are many ways birch bark has sustained the more Northern Native American peoples through trade and sales.

A cradleboard is a traditional kind of Native American baby carrier used by many Native American tribes across North America. Fewer tribes traditionally made cradles; most of these were made from indigenous woven fibers. Some tribes, such as the Wabanaki of the Northeast began making the European cradle form after European contact. The basket makers of the Wabanaki adapted these European cradle form using brown ash their traditional basketry material or making a cradle of birch bark and decorating it with colorful porcupine quills.

Moose hair embroidery, usually done on birch bark but occasionally on woolen or velvet cloth. Moose hair embroidery as we now know it began around 1700 and was an art practiced by Native American tribes in Maine, Vermont, upper New York state, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Native American girls learned embroidery work in Quebec convent schools run by French Ursuline nuns. French embroidery using silk thread, woven cloth, European needles and scissors was taught in these convent schools.

Drums, flutes and rattles are the three most common instruments used by Native American tribes. The most important of these was and still is the drum. Go to any powwow or Indian event and there will be drumming. Different tribes have different traditions about the drum and how to play it, but the basic construction is very similar in most tribes: a wooden frame or a carved and hollowed-out log, with finely tanned buckskin or elkskin stretched taut across the opening by a sinew thong.

The crooked knife was an essential tool to the Northeast Native Americans. The earliest crooked knives were made from a beaver incisor left imbedded in a portion of the mandible or a beaver or porcupine incisor hafted onto a handle. After European contact, the Northeast Native Americans had access to a variety of metal blades that could be modified to make their crooked knives. The Hudson Bay Company, and other companies that traded with the Indians stocked blades for crooked knives.

Native American tribes have long used beads to decorate their material goods. Prior to European contact beads were made of local materials, shell, wood, clay, pottery, stone or bone, with more unusual materials in areas - such as copper beads made around the Great Lakes. The arrival of Europeans introduced glass beads manufactured in Europe and Asia which have now been used by Native American bead workers for almost five centuries. Along with beads, Europeans brought metal needles, thread, ribbons and cloth which gradually replaced hides, and furs.