North American Cultures: Seeking Harmony
In the early 16th century, when Europeans encountered the peoples of North America for the first time, some 1,000 peoples and tribes, speaking more than 200 different languages, inhabited the continent. These distinct peoples ranged from simple hunter-gatherers to irrigation farmers; from nomads to villagers and town dwellers; and from loose, unstructured bands to stratified societies, centralized chiefdoms, and full-fledged nations.
Despite their cultural differences, the Eskimos and Aleut of the northern latitudes, the Pueblo and Navajo of the Southwest, and the Tarahumara of North Mexico all share a common worldview: a belief in the sanctity of nature and the need for balance and harmony between
human beings, their environment, and the universe, from the heavens to the earth and to the underworld. Their artworks demonstrate a wealth of ideas, as well as a vast range of motifs, techniques, and materials. The selection displayed here is arranged by geographically defined cultural regions: Arctic; Subarctic; Northeast; Southeast; Northwest Coast; Great Plains; Plateau and Great Basin; and California and the Southwest, including North Mexico.
In the late 17th century, when the European powers established their colonies, the tribes and nations of North America suffered devastation; only in areas beyond colonial settlement did the native population survive intact. After maintaining their way of life for thousands of years, these peoples underwent a sudden transformation. Horses, firearms, hard metals, and glass beads, all previously unknown to them, became part of their culture, which nevertheless continued to express their identity and cultural heritage.