HomeAmericaRock Art

Hiking through the savage beauty of the Southwestern desert, one may be lucky enough to come across ancient, cryptic engravings upon the red rock. Petroglyphs, they are called, relics of the Native American shamans and their commune with the supernatural world. Most rock art was made by shamans, and they almost always describe their otherworldly journeys. The shaman was often portrayed with animals in these pictures, but these are animals of the spirit world—helpers and guides for the shaman. The shaman is frequently seen with prominent, large eyes, representing his heightened power to see beyond the physical. The appearance of birds in particular represents the flight of the soul to higher planar realities. Sometimes this symbol will be taken farther, and the shaman himself will appear as a winged being.

Energy emanates from these ethereal images, vibrating with inexplicable power. At night, these inscrutable images seem not disturbing, but eerie. They seem to glow of their own will, hinting at a hidden power within. Perhaps the shamans infused a part of their mysterious power into these images of mere paint and rock, giving them a life and soul of their own. Spirits not captured by, but rather melded with the rock, a part of the living landscape. They seem to move of their own accord, dancing in eternal harmony with the natural beauty that surrounds them. In the petroglyphs, we see two worlds at once, as they bring the supernatural into the light of day, giving us a glimpse of the world beyond.

Supernatural power was associated with caves, rocks, and water, like lakes and streams. These places of energy were often chosen as vision quest sites. Shamans would paint the story there, right on the rock, the next morning. It was believed that a shaman who forgot his visions would sicken or die. Thus, rock art serves as a record of an intangible journey, a one-time experience, known only to one man.

Animal spirit helpers figure prominently in these vision quests. As far as animals go in the spirit world, dangerous equals powerful. Thus, the rattlesnake and the bear were regarded as particularly helpful to have as guides. Once an animal spirit appeared to the shaman, the shaman became then as one with the animal, taking on its characteristics and actions. Animals hunted for food were rarely spirit helpers, as shamans were forbidden to eat the meat of their animal spirit counterpart.

Visions could vary by culture and by individual shaman. They were heavily dependent on the shaman’s expectations, which in turn were primarily determined by his cultural conditioning. Thus we see a rich variety in rock art across the country, from tribe to tribe.

The trip is more than visual—a trance is comprised of four possible neurological reactions: aural, somatic, and visual hallucinations, as well as a dissociative mental state. These factors all combine to produce one experience, which the shaman holds in his mind as he translates it onto rock.

According to the model by David-Lewis Williams and Thomas Dowson, visions were controlled by two factors—the personal beliefs and expectations of the shaman, naturally, but also the optical system. The basis for the designs is unified through human anatomy—the eye is prone to see a number of specific patterns, the primary seven including zigzags, parallel lines, dots, spirals, nested curves, meandering lines, and grids. They are called entoptic patterns, literally “within the eye,” which are spontaneously generated in the optical system. As the vision deepens, these designs amalgamate into familiar forms. The basic patterns serve as building blocks for the shaman’s imagination, as well as denote the commonalities seen in rock art across distant cultures. This explanation also casts light on the origin of many rock art motifs.

In addition to generating these forms, the eye can manipulate it as well. A hallucination can take those prime shapes and subject them to fragmentation, integration, superposition, juxtaposition, duplication and rotation. This tendency explains many of the inscrutable qualities of rock art, for example when a buffalo is rotated inexplicably so that he runs down wall instead of across it, or why two different animals seem to be joined together, etc.

How the individual interprets those patterns determines all the meaning. This neurological model explains why many of the images appear as they do, superimposed, fragmented, or strangely integrated. However, it gives no direction in determining the meaning with which the artist imbued it. While vision questers share a biological premise for their visions and art, the forms and meaning that emerge are as individual as the shaman.


Fraudulence in  Native American Art

Collectors across the United States express appreciation of the Native American Arts by purchasing pieces for decoration and display. Yet companies producing inexpensive duplicates of this wonderfully unique American expression are violating the sanctity of thousands of years of tradition.

The foreign manufacturers that produce these knock offs care not for ancestry, but for marketability. The overseas factory worker who runs his paintbrush across a piece of pottery isn’t expressing his tribal tradition and technique, but merely doing a job.

A survey conducted in 1985 estimated that the sale of Native American arts and crafts generated sales in the range of $800 million per year. Today, those estimates are well over $1 billion per year and rising.

Despite the continued popularity of Native American arts and crafts, the unemployment rate at leading Southwestern arts tribes has risen.

Zuni, Navajo and Hopi style arts, crafts and jewelry account for an estimated 90% of the market.

Instead of artisans from these tribal nations enjoying the monetary benefits from the popularity of their work, unemployment among these tribes has risen over the past two decades to seventy percent.

Unable to support themselves though their craft, many chose to abandon their craft and seek other means of employment.

Jewelers at the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico, once famous for their stunningly crafted Heishi beads, have all but stopped producing this traditional jewelry.

Counterfeits produced in cheap-labor countries such as Mexico, Pakistan, India, Thailand and the Philippines produce and distribute much of the market share of what fraudulently claims to be authentic, handmade Native American Art.

These infringements on American history are imported and brought to market. They are misrepresented as authentic and purchased by Americans, appreciative of the beauty and spirituality of what they believe to be traditional tribal pieces, unknowingly rewarding the plagiarism of Native American Art with their dollars.

As if this fraudulence were not enough, the low overhead incurred at these manufacturing facilities, along with the influx of inexpensive and imitation materials, has driven down market prices for genuine Native American Art, further injuring the authentic tribal artisan.

Yet, the infringement upon the Native American artist goes beyond the end game of a competitive marketplace.   The internet has made the distribution and sale of these copies much easily and there are many for sale in internet marketplaces like eBay.  Manufacturers and distributors often hide their real identity by choosing a server from the new proxy site to hide their real IP address when posting or communicating with customers.

If the incentive for income is lost, then the undertaking becomes a hobby. At this level, the tradition of sharing the teachings of the elders to future generations will diminish, and with it, a culture will become as extinct.

Alongside ignorance stands silence, for artisans who are able to continue to support themselves through the sale of their crafts are afraid to rock the boat, fearful of diminishing consumer confidence and permanently damaging the market.

Ignorance is intolerable. Silence is unacceptable.


Limitations of the Law

Laws created to protect the Native American Arts are good in their intentions, and the overall situation can be improved and has been improved through their existence.

Yet, laws are not enough, and sometimes they do unintended harm.

Firstly, laws must be enforced and obeyed to have relevance in the world of people and commerce.

Secondly, there is an inherent dilemma in the nature of the situation at hand. Consider the irony: the white man’s law is functioning to define the red man and his culture in terms suitable to the culture of the white man in an attempt to protect the consumer and producer of the red man’s ware.

To a certain extent this aspiration is achievable. To another it is absurd.

  • For, what is Native American?
  • Who is a native American or a Native American?
  • The American Indian is the Native American. But what makes someone an American Indian?
  • Blood?
  • Culture?

There are those who argue that they are being excluded by the very laws that are to protect them. For, to protect the American Indian, Congress had to define the American Indian, and definitions are inherently exclusive.

There are men and women who live Indian, dress Indian, worship Indian, care for Indian elders, raise Indian young, and preserve and perpetuate Indian culture.

Then, there are those who have Indian blood in there veins.

These are sometimes the same people, but not always.

Can we define with law that which exists beyond it? Can we protect what we cannot define? How do define one nation from another? Do you become an American because you eat plenty of high cholesterol foods? Do you become an Arab if you enjoy a good Shavurma? Do you become a Brit if you speak with British Accent?

There exists a problem, and there is no easy answer.

Stopping fraudulent practices is good, but it is only the first step.