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Facts About North American Sculpture

Updated on April 5, 2014

The Indian and Eskimo groups of North America produced masks, figures, and implements reflecting the differences in their geography and culture.

Eastern, Southern, and Southwestern

The tribes of the eastern woodlands carved and painted wooden ceremonial masks, of which the Iroquois "false faces," with round eyes, large, distorted noses and mouths, and attached horsehair, were superb examples. Tribes from the southern woodlands and prairie carved stone pipes in human and animal forms. Pueblo Indians in the Southwest fashioned wooden, leather, and cloth masks and small wooden dolls representing kachinas, or benevolent spirits.

Northwestern Coast

Some of the finest examples of American Indian sculpture were produced by the Kwakiutl and Tlingit tribes of the northwest coast. The area, abounding in cedar forests and salmon streams, provided the wealth and leisure to hold innumerable religious and social ceremonials requiring many works of art. Most of it was carved in cedar and polychromed.


Kwakiutl masks, hung with cloaks of shredded cedar bark, were worn by dancers in secret-society rites and in potlatch ceremonies for the prestigious giving away of wealth. Designs were inherited or acquired by warfare or other means. The masks were derived from human, animal, or hybrid forms. Shapes were frequently aggressive and dynamic. Some masks had movable parts; others were very large.

The Kwakiutl also made monumental "totem poles" from huge red cedar trees. They were polychromed in light stains, especially red, black, yellow, and white. These memorials displayed lineage through a complex arrangement of human and animal forms. Their dramatic shapes and expressions can almost be called baroque.

Tlingit masks, largely ancestral designs or insignia of rank, were smaller than Kwakiutl masks and often more naturalistic. Tlingit memorial poles, made of the slender yellow cedar of the area, were slimmer than Kwakiutl poles. Figures and masks were arranged in separated horizontal bands around the poles. Small forms and delicate colors, including a unique blue-green, give Tlingit sculpture a rococo quality.



Early Eskimo hunters in the far north, working in walrus-tusk ivory, stone, and wood, carved small implements and figures of animals and humans with incised abstract or skeletal designs. Animals were of great importance, both as the main item of sustenance and as a source of spiritual power. Many types and styles of wooden ceremonial masks evolved, combining distorted human, animal, and imaginary forms. Some were asymmetrical. Others were composites with attachments, some movable, of wood, bone, feather, and shell. In the mid-20th century, Eskimos produced polished, naturalistic, small stone sculpture that showed great feeling for animal life.


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