Native American Portraits

Native American portraits are the least traditional of all their art forms. Many of the tribes had painting traditions, but these were all meant for ceremonial purposes or for decorating functional items such as war shirts and tipi covers. Most of the Native American portraits found today are by tribal artists but may be just reflections of their way of life and not necessarily have any kind of traditional painting elements. Still there is no denying the beauty of these lovely Native American portraits. A talented artist must be able to convey to his audience the personality of the individual portrayed in the painting. This depends largely on the context in which the individual is painted.

The term Native American portraits might be more relevant when applied to the paintings of tribesmen or tribal life made by non-Native individuals. This is also relevant to portrait photography of a few decades ago which depicts Native American chiefs or prominent personalities. Many famous photographers such as William Heick have earned a reputation for themselves in the field through their collections of Native American portraits. Many books are also available on the subject with beautifully illustrated layouts. Many museums of Native American art have entire sections devoted to portraits and paintings.

Charles Milton Bell is yet another person who earned himself a name as a photographer of Native American portraits. Bell took the majority of his photographs for the Bureau of American Ethnology. Currently, many Native Americans utilize these photographs as a means of recreating their history within their communities. Many governmental organizations dedicated to carrying out programs for Native American communities also provide training to historians and curators enabling them to do better in preserving this rich cultural heritage. Photographs and Native American portraits are but a part of the much bigger picture involving a whole different culture.

Joseph Paige 2006

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