In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Native North American Art, Pre-Contact

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Rock Art
  • Northwest Coast
  • Arctic

Art History Native North American Art, Pre-Contact
David W. Penney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0058


The art history of Native North America as a discipline is young, but an art history of pre-contact Native North America scarcely exists. Very few art historians have focused their research upon pre-contact American Indian art, and those that have tend to specialize in particular, fairly narrow topics, resulting in scattershot coverage of the field that does not add up to any comprehensive art history. The matter is complicated by the fact that the larger field of Native American art history is so broad and the arts traditions so diverse that generalizing surveys have grown to seem artificial. It is fruitful in some respects to consider post-contact Native North American art history collectively in light of its situation within a history of continental colonialism and modern nation building. There is no similarly scaled, if tragic, collective experience for the several millennia of pre-contact history. Instead there is great cultural diversity with many dynamically vital histories. The pursuit of Native North American pre-contact art history remains dependent upon the discipline of North American archaeology, with its own dependency on the unique character and developmental history of North American anthropology. Colonialist framing of the “American Indian problem” spawned the discipline of anthropology in the United States. Its 19th- and early 20th-century salvage paradigm studied American Indian communities from the vantage point of social institutions and policies that predicted and in some ways helped implement their destruction. By the mid-20th century, the positivist theorizing of American anthropology as social science saw in the North American archaeological record broad patterns of cultural development grounded in models of materialist social evolution: hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist to incipient civilization or “complexity.” Some archaeologists today refer to this disparagingly as “processual” archaeology. A “post-processual” archaeology is more concerned with the particularities of local culture, resembling a more historical approach. While the older archaeological research is valuable to the art historian for its site reports and data, more recent interpretive archaeological texts are far better for understanding the social contexts of artistic objects.

General Overviews

There are two up-to-date art history surveys of North American Indian art that incorporate informed discussions of pre-contact materials within the context of their regional traditions: Berlo and Phillips 1998 and Penney 2004. Penney and Longfish 1994 is a large picture book with a similar scope, featuring large-scale color illustrations of many significant pre-contact objects and brief interpretations. An earlier regional synthesis with a curator’s-eye selection of important pre-contact objects reproduced in larger-scale black-and-white illustrations is offered in the catalogue of the landmark exhibition The Native American Heritage (Maurer 1977). There are several broad introductions to North American archaeology of most use to undergraduate archaeology students, but they can also provide a basic grounding in the current understanding of pre-contact history to art historians having little familiarity with the subject. The best in terms of readability continues to be Jennings 1988, which is in its third edition but is overdue for an update. Gibson 1998 is organized in an encyclopedia format with good bibliographic references and many tables and charts, but relatively few illustrations. Serious students would be better off consulting texts more focused on particular regions. The websites of the National Museum of the American Indian and the Peabody Museum offer the ability to search through their important and comprehensive North American archaeological collections to find good photographic reproductions of objects and basic, yet reliable, provenance information.

  • Berlo, Janet C., and Ruth B. Phillips. Native North American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    This introductory text for undergraduates is written by two of the foremost art historians in the field. Organized regionally, and with abundant illustrations, this volume clarifies the many critical issues attendant to Native North American art history.

  • Gibson, Guy E. Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1998.

    Its encyclopedia format, thorough bibliographies following each entry, and abundance of sense-making charts and tables make this an excellent and reliable quick-reference guide, although there is little about art here. This is a comprehensive introduction to current archaeological research and interpretation.

  • Jennings, Jesse D. Prehistory of North America. 3d ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1988.

    The clarity of ideas and writing make this still the most accessible undergraduate textbook for North American archaeology, although it is now a little dated. Many of the illustrations are drawings.

  • Maurer, Evan M. The Native American Heritage: A Survey of North American Indian Art. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1977.

    Catalogue of a landmark exhibition of Native American art in the formative years of the field, during the mid-1970s. Curator Evan Maurer selected important pre-contact works from major institutional lenders. The photography and object selection are superior to the catalogues of other similar projects of this time.

  • National Museum of the American Indian: Collections Search.

    This database with a user-friendly search engine offers access to a good selection of the pre-contact North American collections at the museum, much of it acquired by George Gustave Heye early in the 20th century. One can find important objects from the Spiro site, the proto-Zuni Pueblo of Hawikku (Hawikuh), Chaco Canyon, Mississippian pottery, and much more.

  • Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

    This site offers access to images and catalogue information for much of the Peabody’s significant pre-contact holdings. Not all entries are illustrated. The collections from the Turner site, Chaco Canyon, and Mimbres cultural tradition are particularly important.

  • Penney, David W. North American Indian Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

    This well-illustrated undergraduate text begins each regionally organized chapter with a discussion of pre-contact art.

  • Penney, David W., and George C. Longfish. Native American Art. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin, 1994.

    A large-format book with enormous color plates, this volume illustrates with excellent photography and offers broad interpretations of many of the great and singular masterworks of pre-contact art as part of regionally organized chapters. For the visually inclined.

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