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Native American Art and Its Spiritual Concept

by Rod Dagan

Native American art, hand-made and performance, is diverse, because there are so many Native American tribes. But certain generalities can be made about this art, because many of their core spiritual and religious beliefs are similar all across the tribes.

One prevalent trait of all Native American art is the use of animistic themes. These are themes that stem both from lore and from shamanic teachings and experiences. Animism asserts that all beings and all things have a dynamic spiritual essence, so that in a sense all things are in unity, as some modern Western physicists have also come to conclude.

Animism does not negate duality, such as good vs. bad, male vs. female, and so forth; but it does transcend dualities to try to get to what it considers the original Source of all matter, energy, objects, and living beings. Animism is likely the oldest spiritual perspective in the world.

When animism is depicted in art, there can be found abstract shapes such as spirals and zigzag lines carved or painted on it. There will also be depictions of therianthropes. Now therianthropes are half-man, half-beast images. These are very important because they follow the abstract shapes that were made reference to in shamanic vision-journeys; and it's from their shamanistic views and their pragmatic environmentalism that all Native American art essentially springs.

So there will be depicted deer with a man's head, or a man with antlers (this is a very powerful therianthrope and seems to be universal, or that is, globally cross-cultural), or a buffalo with arms and hands like a man who shoots a bow and arrow. These therianthropes are considered to be powerful spirit guides who help the shaman walk the road between the two Worlds and provide him wisdom to impart when he mentally gets back to his tribe.

These same therianthropes make their way into the Native American performance art, and that is why the Christian Europeans, when first encountering their ritual mimes and dances were appalled at such irreverent "paganism" that worshiped animals. But it's not animal worship. Native Americans have traditionally been expert hunters, and one of the ways that they mastered the hunting of an animal was to wear its skin and behave like it, so as to "get into" that animal so that they could more successfully hunt it.

Native American dances are also magical dances, they aren't merely for aesthetics and they aren't ballet-type stories, although many of them do tell stories. Native American dance is meant to channel spiritual energies or reanimate ancient stories that can be caused to re-appear in the world today.

There is also the dream catcher as a repeated and pervasive theme. We have all seen the dream catcher, which originated with the Ojibwa Nation. This is intended to be a magical web that captures bad dreams for the sleeper so that they can be removed, while the good dreams remain in the conscience. The idea of all creation being part of a spider's web is another Native American spiritual concept that is similar to modern physics.

To many Native Americans, the most sacred animal is the wolf, and the wolf is often depicted in all manner of ways and styles in Native American art. The Wolf Tribe supposedly was the most advanced of all the original tribes and brought spiritual teachings to everyone else. Also widely depicted in Native American art is Kokopelli, the "Trickster" (sometimes also depicted as the Raven), a dancing, flute-playing shapeshifter who loves mankind but is very mischievous.
Rodney Dagan invites you to explore the culture and arts of the American Indians

You can find more about arts, crafts and culture from native and aboriginal peoples from around the world

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