Perhaps there is no other group in the world that has quite so diverse and rich culture as that of the Native Americans. With their gilded history that is rich in strife, struggle, and triumph, the Native American culture is indeed very colorful.
Much of the cultural customs and diversity of our world is fast disappearing. In South America, not only are the native traditions and customs in danger of disappearing entirely, but some of the native Indians are also in danger of becoming extinct. The Yanomami is a popular Indian tribe that is fast losing many of its members because of the destructive powers of the Western world. Many of the tribe's members, traditions, and culture are lost by the literal assimilation of these individuals as slave labor by the South American gold miners.
The Yanomami is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many hundreds of lesser-known tribes that are still struggling to survive culturally, as well as literally. A case I would like to point out is the Assurini tribe that is a group living in the Amazon forests of Brazil. This tribe is also known for its finely crafted pottery work, and its numbers have now seriously depleted to just 57 members. Most of these tribes have their own languages, which are always found in a spoken form and very rarely in the written form. If the Native American culture and art is not recorded and protected, it will soon disappear forever.
Symbols and Interpretations
Many symbols that we are familiar with today and have taken for granted were actually invented by the Native Americans. The totem pole, teepee, moccasins, and the peace pipe are a few popular examples, but each one of these symbols were originally tiny little pieces of a much larger picture that once upon a time wove together the tapestry of the Native American way of living.
Everything, from the animals and plants to the housing and weather, were once a very strong part of this culture. The animals were considered to be spirits and were revered, and even though they were hunted down and killed, their hides and skins were used for drums and for clothing purposes, their meat would never be wasted, and their spirits would always live on in the minds of the tribe members. Plants were cultivated, harvested, and then used for a variety of purposes, such as for making dyes. The sun and the rain were considered to be powerful Gods, hinting at the change in seasons. They believed that in the entire universe there exists only one Great Spirit or a spiritual force that is the source for all things living. The Great Spirit is not depicted as a man in the sky, but is thought to be formless and existing throughout the universe. And the sun in turn was considered to be the ultimate manifestation of power of this Great Spirit.
Totem poles were a very important part of their culture. They believed that each tribe member (or individual at that) possessed within him/her the spirit of a particular animal, and that this spirit would then be absorbed back by the concerned animal upon his/her death. The totem pole is a tall wooden structure with carvings of different animals on it, each animal representing a family member of a tribe member who has passed away.
These days, you will probably find dream catchers hanging from rearview mirrors of cars, but very few people really know about their significance. The dream catcher is based on a legend that was told by the Lakota tribe. It symbolizes all the good things in life and holding onto them, while the holes act as filters for filtering out all the bad feelings and thoughts. Smoke signals are another very interesting aspect of their culture. They were used by each tribe member to communicate to one another over a long distance, and are till date symbols of the proud heritage of the Native Americans.
Singing is the most dominant form of musical expression in all cultures all over the world, and this is also true with the Native Americans. Singing, coupled with instrumental music that served mainly as a kind of rhythmic accompaniment, played a big role in their culture and beliefs. Native American love songs are still played on the flute. The principal instruments used were the drums, rattles, whistles, and flutes. Their music style, however, changes from place to place and region to region. For example, the music in California was produced by a relaxed throat, while that in the Great Plains was tense, forceful, and pulsating.
Art and Soul
Just like music was a very important part, art also held a very special place in the lives of these people. Art has been used as a form of expression by the Native Americans for hundreds and hundreds of years. Most art forms were created as a symbol of something, like a bear, eagle, walrus, or even people.
The materials used for making artforms ranged from rocks and clay to cloth, fabric, and feathers. Basket weaving was also a very popular form of expression that served many purposes as well. Cornhusks and reeds were woven together to form intricate baskets. The material would then be dyed to make colorful tribal patterns, resulting in the creation of a beautiful work of art that was also very useful, as it could be used to transport vegetables and fruits.
Blanket weaving was a very common practice amongst the Native Americans. The women would spend hours on end weaving these threads together to make unbelievably beautiful blankets of various designs and patterns. The Navajo tribe in particular is very famous for its hand-woven blankets.
In the colder areas, Native Americans dutifully enjoyed creating art in order to pay homage to their animal friends. Walruses were carved out of whales' teeth, and bears and eagles were made out of rock. Statues and pendants were made to symbolize the respect that these tribes had for their animals. Weapons and instruments were also considered to be a form of art, and they were made with equal care and patience.