Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cannibals in the Caribbean?

Images: (Top) Early Print of a Carib Family.

(Middle) Maligned heritage: 1992 photograph by Michael Auld of an Island-Carib girl from the Carib Reserve in the Eastern Caribbean Island of Dominica. Both Walt Disney Pictures and Columbus defamed her people. The Carib Reserve is the only Indigenous American reservation in the Caribbean. Jamaica has two historic African (Maroon) “reservations”.

(Bottom Left) Imaginary cannibalism: Early European illustration of an imaginary scene of Carib “cannibalism”. (Bottom Right) Real cannibalism: Pot polished and beveled human bones. Human bones from Mancos Canyon, Utah showing evidence of actual cannibalistic cooking.


cannibal, /kánnib’l/ n. From Mid 16th century Spanish canibales. 1. Somebody who eats human flesh, whether for food or as part of a religious ritual. 2. An animal that eats the flesh of other animals of the same specie.

Cannibalism is historically one of the most feared and reviled human practice. Yet the glorification of one of the forms of cannibalism, human blood drinking, is now a popular HBO Television series called “True Blood”. Cannibalism is deeply embedded in our psyche. For example, Christians perform a form of ritual cannibalism by drinking wine or grape juice that symbolizes the “blood of Christ” and eating bread that represents his body. Cannibalism occurred in all areas of the planet and is still an isolated phenomenon within some contemporary “Developed World” societies. In many of these countries there are no laws against cannibalism. It is as ancient as the Neanderthal and as recent as America’s Jeffery Daumer and Germany’s 41-year-old computer technician Armin Meiwes.

The gruesome European illustration above shows brown skinned “natives” dismembering white victims while their women cook body parts in pots and on a spit. Three heads are placed on spikes in the custom of a 16th century European practice. This early propaganda illustration depicted the unfounded Euro-centric fear that was pervasive in Europe after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492. Although he had not seen cannibalism during his many years in the Caribbean, he instigated a myth that served the goal of Spanish expansionism in the Americas. His exploits enriched Spain and ultimately Western Europe. Unfortunately the contemporary descendants of the Island-Carib on the Eastern Caribbean Island of Dominica still continue to suffer humiliation from Columbus’ 500-year-old lie. In 1992 an aid to the Carib Council on Dominica’s Carib Reserve related to me her continued plight. She spoke of how she had to defend herself against an African-Dominican assertion that her ancestors were cannibals. The elected chief then also related how non-Carib Dominicans would cross the road so as not to walk on the same side as a Carib. His preferred name for his people was Karifuna. Today they are also called Kalinago.

Disney added to this dilemma when it made the most recent sequel of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest by portraying Dominica’s Island-Caribs as cannibals. Prior to filming, despite protests from Native American groups, Disney continued with its project. The sequel was a commercial success. These misleading movie images may be forever burned into the minds of future generations. The National Garifuna Council of Dominica criticized the movie for “portraying the Carib people as cannibals”. How did this Caribbean myth begin?

Dr. Basil A. Reid a Jamaican anthropologist who teaches at the University of the West Indies in Agustine, Trinidad and Tobago has published evidence that refutes the notion of Caribbean cannibalism. In his 2009 book Myths and Realities of Caribbean History he attributed this myth to Christopher Columbus. According to a November 4 [1492] quote in Columbus’ diary, “He [Columbus] understood also that, far from there [the Bahamas?], there were one eyed men, and others, with snouts of dogs, who ate men, and as soon as one was taken they cut his throat and drink his blood.” Today it may not be difficult to accept that 15th century Europeans who thought that the world was flat also believed in fairies, mermaids and gigantic sea serpents. Dr. Reid suggested that the source of Columbus’ “New World” propaganda is contained in the following.

Cannibals: Natives who refused to submit to the Spanish were called cannibals. They were characterized as idolaters and consumers of human flesh who could not be converted into Christianity and were therefore suitable for enslaving.

Caribes: The Spanish understood Caribes [pronounced ka-rib-hes] to be real people when in fact they were creatures who existed only in Taíno mythology.

Caniba: Columbus sought an audience with the Grand Khan of Cathay (China). Caniba is the name Columbus gave to denote the Grand Khan’s subjects.

Greek mythology also had Cyclops and cannibals. It should be remembered that until his death Columbus insisted that he had indeed arrived, explored, ruled over and lived among these Chinese or Indian Asians in the Caribbean Islands. When he first arrived in Cubanacan (Taíno word for Cuba) he sent out an inland exploratory party to find the Grand Kahn’s kingdom. Ironically, Cuban-a-kan did sound like “Kahn”.

“At the same time that Europeans were condemning various native peoples as cannibals, however, they were practicing a form of cannibalism themselves. Use of medicines made from blood and other human body parts was widespread in Europe through the 17th century. Europeans of the period consumed fresh blood as a cure for epilepsy and substances from various body parts to treat a variety of diseases, including arthritis, reproductive difficulties, sciatica, warts and skin blemishes. A primary source for this material was the bodies of executed criminals. Pieces of mummified human flesh imported from Egypt were considered a general panacea and were widely prescribed by the physicians of the day”, Brief history of cannibal controversies”,

Were the people of Cuba and Haiti cannibals?

If my child wanted to get a precise meaning of the word “cannibal”, the explanations below would probably engender lifelong misconceptions. In various dictionaries the origin of the English word cannibal is noted as follows:

  • [Mid-16thC. From Canibales, a variant (used by the explorer Columbus) of Caribes, the name of the cannibalistic people of Cuba and Haiti (see Carib).], Encarta World English Dictionary
  • [Spanish Canibal “Carib”, of American Indian origin], Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary
  • [1545-55, cannibal, variant of caríbal, equivalent to canib-, carib- (Arawak) + -al –QAL; from their belief that the Caribs of the West Indies ate human flesh]. Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language

In 1492, the indigenous people of Cuba and Haiti belonged to the extensive Taíno civilization, rivals of the Eastern Caribbean’s Island-Carib. The more diplomatic Taíno cacicazgos (chiefdoms) were not the warrior society of the Island-Carib.

Recommended reading: Myths and Realities of Caribbean History, by Basil A. Reid, the University of Alabama Press, 2009.(The book can be obtained at:

Chapters in this publication refute the following myths:

1. Caribbean History Started with the Arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492

2. The Arawaks and Caribs Were the Two Major Groups in the Precolonial Caribbean

3. Columbus Met Arawaks in the Northern Caribbean

4. The Natives Encountered by Christopher Columbus in the Northern Caribbean Migrated from South America

5. The Arawak Were the First Potters and Farmers to Have Settled in the Caribbean

6. The Ciboneys Lived in Western Cuba at the Time of the Spanish Conquest

7. The Island-Caribs were Cannibals

8. All Amerindians Migrating from South America to the Caribbean Island-Hopped from Continent to the Lesser and Greater Antilles

9. The Spanish Introduced Syphilis into the Caribbean and the New World

10. Christopher Columbus Wrote His Diario (Diary) That We Use Today

11. The Spanish Colonists Brought “Civilization” to Native Societies in the Caribbean

Click for a page on Dominica's "Carib" the Kalinago:

Click for a page an interview with a Carib chief of Dominica:

Friday, April 17, 2009


Left: (a) George Armstrong Custer (December 5, 1839–June 25, 1876). Known as an American Civil War hero, cavalry commander, and Indian Fighter. His father was a blacksmith who anglicized the German family name Küster, an occupational name for a church sexton or churchwarden, to Custer. He was the last in his class as a cadet at West Point yet he became a Civil War hero. Known as "Yellow Hair" and "Son of the Morning Star" to his Native American enemies.

(b) Lakota holy man Tȟatȟaŋka Iyotȟaŋka or Ta-Tanka I-Yotank aswe known to us as Sitting Bull. He led the Battle of Greasy Grass Creek or the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

(c) 1848 painting of orator Tecumtha or Tekamthi or Tecumseh­"Shooting Star”­ ( Shawnee) ­March 9, 1768-October 5, 1813).

(d) 1835 lithograph from a painting of Red Jacket or Sagoyewatha (Seneca)­1750-January 20, 1830. Orator and war chief of the Wolf clan.

(e) Painting of the Native American Battle of Greasy Grass Creek known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer's Last Stand. Fighting for their homeland, Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors defeated Custer’s 700-man 7th Cavalry Regiment column. In the battle, the warriors annihilated five companies and killed Custer along with his two brothers, a nephew and brother-in-law.

civilization n. from the Latin civis, a citizen or townsman governed by the law of his city. 1. places where people live, rather than uninhabitable areas. 2. a society that is marked by complex social and political organization, and material, scientific, and artistic progress.

Indian fighter n. 1. someone who fought against Native Americans and who believed that Indians should be punished, put on reservations, and forced to stay there. 2. arrogant military men who fought against Native Americans with the intent to subdue or eliminate the enemy.

arrogance .n. 1. a strong feeling of proud self-importance that is expressed by treating other people with contempt or disregard.


One day I visited the Virginia Room at the Fairfax County Regional Library. My wife and I had attended a first meeting for the kick off for a special library organization. While she was speaking to a library official, I perused a display where I came across a printed collection of newspaper articles from 1870 to 1875. An 1874 article under the heading “THE INDIAN NOT CIVILIZABLE”, from “My life on the Plains”, written by General Custer in the February Galaxy, caught my eye. This 19th century belief may have lingered into the 21st century of the present era. Custer, who met his timely end at the Battle of the Little Big Horn at 35 years old, on June 26, 1876 at the hands of his reviled objects (Lakota or Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors), wrote this opinion.

Custer’s Belief

“The white race might fall into a barbarous state, and afterwards, subjected to the influence of civilization, be reclaimed and prosper. Not so the Indian, He cannot be himself and be civilized; he fades away and dies.”

“To those who advocate the application of the laws of civilization to the Indian, it might be profitable study to investigate the effect [that] such application produces upon the strength of the tribe as expressed in numbers. Looking at him as the fearless hunter, the matchless horseman and warrior of the Plains, where Nature placed him, and contrasting with the reservation Indian, who is supposed to be reveling in the delightful comforts and luxuries of an en1ightened condition, but who in reality groveling in beggary, bereft of any qualities which is in his wild state tended to render him noble, and heir to a combination of vices partly his own, partly bequeathed to him from the paleface, one is forced even against desire, to conclude that there is unending antagonism between the Indian nature and that with which his well-meaning white brother would endow him. Nature intended him for a savage state; every instinct, every impulse of his soul inclines him to it. The white race might fall into a barbarous state, and afterwards, subjected to the influence of civilization, be reclaimed and prosper. Not so the Indian, He cannot be himself and be civilized; he fades away and dies.

Cultivation such as the white man would give him deprives him of his identity. Education, strange as it may appear, seems to weaken rather than strengthen his intellect. Where do we find any specimens of educated Indian eloquence comparing with that of such native, untutored orators as Tecumseh, Osceola, Red Jacket, and Logan; or, to select from those of more recent fame, Red Cloud of the Sioux, or Sa-tan-ta of the Kiowas?”

What are the benchmarks of a civilized society? In Custer’s mind, was the level of oratory of some Native leaders even a tiny indication of a civilized people? Apparently not. For him the “civilized white man” was the only one able to temporarily sink into the barbarism of a Civil War and afterwards, the attempted annihilation of an indigenous people, and rise again to gain his unblemished position among the civilized societies of the world.

Tecumseh’s speech

“You have the liberty to return to your own country ... you wish to prevent the Indians from doing as we wish them, to unite and let them consider their lands as common property of the whole ... You never see an Indian endeavor to make the white people do this ... Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? How can we have confidence in the white people? ” --Tecumseh to Governor William Harrison (he later became the ninth president of the United States and died in office), 1810, The Portable North American Indian Reader.

Red Jacket’s speech on the Religion of White men and the Red

“Brother, listen to what we say. There was a time when our forefathers owned this great island. Their seats extended from the rising to the setting sun. The Great Spirit had made it for the use of Indians. He had created the buffalo, the deer, and other animals for food. He had made the bear and the beaver. Their skins served us for clothing. He had scattered them over the country and taught us how to take them. He had caused the earth to produce corn for bread. All this He had done for His red children because He loved them. If we had some disputes about our hunting-ground they were generally settled without the shedding of much blood. But an evil day came upon us. Your forefathers crossed the great water and landed on this island. Their numbers were small. They found friends and not enemies. They told us they had fled from their own country for fear of wicked men and had come here to enjoy their religion. They asked for a small seat. We took pity on them, granted their request, and they sat down among us. We gave them corn and meat; they gave us poison [alcohol] in return.

Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the Book? Brother, we do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.” --Excerpt from Red Jacket’s 1805 speech on the Religion of the White Man and the Red

The epitome of arrogance or differences in values?

Today some Native American T-shirts display the saying, “Custer died for his sins.” Or, “Custer was Siouxed.” Custer, however, typified the arrogance of his time, a malady first encountered in Christopher Columbus’ writings.

Columbus’ 1492 first impression of the Taíno

“It seemed to me that they were a people very deficient in everything. They all go naked as their mother bore them, and the women also… They did not bear arms or know them, for I showed them swords and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron.”--Caribbean island of Guanahaní, October 1, 1492. --The Journal of Christopher Columbus, p.23.

Columbus judged the Taíno by their nudity since he based their practical treatment of tropical heat in a sexual context. I wonder how he would view the bikini on the same Bahamian beach today. The Taíno wove high quality cotton that married women wore as a skirt they called a nagua. They used jade and obsidian blades imported from the Maya workshops in Central America for cutting implements. Archeologists have found one of these Maya trade household items as far down the chain of islands as Antigua in the Eastern Caribbean. Obsidian knives were sharper than steel swords yet one of the benchmarks for Western Civilization was the development of steel from iron. The Taíno’s Mesoamerican neighbors, the Maya, had a network of long distance trading from the Pacific to the Caribbean. They used obsidian blades (a volcanic glass) as trade items that were even sharper than steel scalpels. Obsidian blades were also used to carry out cranial surgery or trephinin, a successful indigenous Mesoamerican and Andean practice unknown to Columbus’s medical contemporaries. “An abstract from the Western Journal of Medicine, March !982, stated, “The prismatic glass blade is infinitely sharper than a honed steel edge, and these blades can be produced in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.” (Contemporary Surgery, Bruce A. Buck, MD, Twin Falls, Idaho). According to the article, “the finest of these prismatic blades were produced in Mesoamerica about 2,500 years ago.” For example, in research done in 1982 by Dr. Don Crabtree, the possible uses of [obsidian] blades in modern surgery and animal experiments had shown the tensile strength of obsidian produced wounds to be equal to or greater than that of wounds produced by steel scalpels after 14 days of healing. Native Americans also mined, manufactured and exported obsidian implements from Casa Diablo in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California as early as 6500 to 1500 B.C. In cardiac surgery, obsidian blades produce narrower scars and less tissue damage.

Columbus’ 1492 second impression of the Taíno

[The houses of Cuba] “were made in the manner of tents, very large, and they looked like tents in a camp, with no regular streets , but one here and another there. Inside, they were well swept and clean, and their furnishings very well arranged; all were made of very beautiful palm branches. They found many images like women and many heads like masks, very well worked. [I do] not know if they had them for their beauty or whether they worshiped them.”-- The Journal of Christopher Columbus, p.47.

The first houses that some Spanish conquistadors felt lucky to buy in the Caribbean were bohios (a roundhouse) made by the Taíno since the caney (a square chief’s house) was not commonly available on the housing market. Water resistant and thatched like many English houses at the time, they constructed the walls with timber (like insect repellant mahogany and other tropical hardwoods) and decorated the interiors with painted or woven decorations of varying designs. As the Japanese also knew, wood was better suited for earthquake zones than the brick and mortar structures that the Spanish later imported from their motherland. According to an abstract on architecture by Banu Çelebioğlu & Sevgül Limoncu , Department of Architecture, Yıldız Technical University, Turkey, “Timber structures are the most earthquake resistant among other traditional forms.”

A change in the times

Europeans who came to the Americas had set their benchmarks of evaluating “civilization” after they themselves had become heirs to the civilizing accomplishments of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. They also had built on borrowed ideas from Arabia (algebra first written about by Muhammad ibn Muas al-Khwarizmi who used his al-jabr to help him in scientific work in geography and astronomy, etc.), China (invented gunpowder, printing, etc.) and India (invented zero, the numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). By Custer’s time most Americans also knew nothing about the great civilizations of the Americas, so opinions were characteristically flawed. In spite of Columbus’ erroneous first impression of the “Indios”, and Custer’s last stand on the “Indian’s” inability to become civilized, we have made-enlightened strides in the knowledge of indigenous American civilizations.

Yet in the Americas, most of our current populations remain as ill informed as Custer and Columbus about indigenous American civilizations and their accomplishments. For example, both men did not know of the early Maya mathematician’s (of Central America) own independent invention of zero; the advanced civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes; the Olmec of Mexico’s invented uses of latex rubber, or the early Mexican horticultural “engineering” of corn from a small wild grass. In President Obama’s recent speech to Congress, he expressed the importance of our educational system. Although we in the United States have made great strides in the inclusion of knowledge about Native American cultures in the school curriculum, we need to become more aware of their impact on both our and world cultures. As an educator, I have often been shocked at the abysmal lack of knowledge about the ancient history of our hemisphere. We know more about Europe, Asia, and Africa than we do about the Americas, the hemisphere in which most of us were born and in which we will probably die. Without knowledge of a people’s history we cannot award them their deserved respect.

Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate who repeatedly included Native Americans in his speeches. In the spirit of his emphasis on education in his first speech to Congress, we can go one-step further. “Change”, our educational system to include instruction indigenous American contributions to other world civilizations, as an integral part of the school curriculum. National Native American Heritage Month (November) should be treated equally as is Black History Month (February) where even the television stations use their “bully pulpit” to enlighten us. If we do not give credit where it is due, our children will continue the Custer fallacy of having a one sided view of their inherited history in the Americas.

Red Jacket’s 1804 speech in its entirety:

Maya Trade & Economy

Ancient and modern uses of obsidian

Friday, January 30, 2009

Akhenaten? Obama?

(Click on image to enlarge)

Amenhotep IV – better known as Akhenaten was one of the most historically profound pharaohs to rule Egypt. He led Egypt in a direction that would tag him “The Heretic Pharaoh.” He brought forth new ideas mainly in religion and art that would leave a lasting impression on the world. Unlike most pharaohs, Akhenaten presented himself in a way that would lead to controversy and would shock the world of his contemporaries.


My wife, Rose, mentioned to me how similar in visual imagery and symbolism Barack Obama was to an Egyptian pharaoh. She said, “Amenhotep”, at the same time that I said, “Akhenaten.” We were both on the same page, a phenomenon that often occurs after 42 years of marriage. Amenhotep, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh who reigned about 3,500 years ago, was an agent of CHANGE. “He made some major, but rather short-lived changes to various aspects of ancient Egyptian culture, the most notable one[s] being his religious [governmental, and artistic] revolution.” Upon his ascent to the Egyptian throne, he changed his name from Amenhotep (meaning Amun is Satisfied) to Ahkenaten (meaning Effective Spirit of Aten). “Akhenaten ruled in the eighteenth dynasty, which seemed to be an age of revolution in ancient Egypt. Only a few reigns before his had been the reign of Hatshepsut, the most famous (but not the only) female pharaoh.”

Akhenaten represents many things to diverse people--to some he personifies a fanatical lunatic, to others, he comes across as a strange, eccentric young man whose behavior was strongly influenced by his mother. Was he a Christ-like visionary and a mentor of Moses? Did he simply happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and have nothing to do with the dramatic reformations that went on during his reign? “Many early historians, determined to link Akhenaten's religion somehow to the Jewish religion, said that he was inspired by Joseph or Moses (Redford, p. 4, 1984). This is a possibility, considering that Joseph, at least, was around in roughly the same time period as Akhenaten. However, after close examination of Akhenaten's religion, this hypothesis seems unlikely. Akhenaten's religion did center on one god, but his major emphasis was on the Aten's [the Sun] visibility, tangibility, and undeniable realness. Akhenaten placed no emphasis, therefore, on faith.

According to John Tuthill, a professor at the University of Guam, Akhenaten's reasons for his religious reform were political. By the time of Akhenaten's reign, the god Amon had risen to such a high status that the priests of Amon had become even more wealthy and powerful than the pharaohs.”-- by Megaera Lorenz.

Another similarity to Akhenaten is Obama’s open demonstration of his love for children. In the above stone relief, (a), Akhenaten, in a un-pharaoh-like depiction, is shown with Nefertiti and two of their daughters, as loving parents. He broke the conventions of Egyptian art by showing himself in intimate family scenes with his wife and children, and portraying himself and the rest of the royal family in a much more human and naturalistic manner than any of his predecessors had. Obama also demonstrates convincing affection for his children. No doubt, we could find more similarities between the two charismatic world leaders, such as Middle Eastern/Arab phenomena, etc. As Obama’s administration unfolds, let us hope that this “reincarnation” is not a history-repeating drama. After Akhenaten died, the opposition (the powerful priests of Amon) changed the Egyptian religion from the worship of Aten to that of Amon and the many local gods. They abandoned his newly built city of Amana, and tried to erase all evidence of Akhenaten from Egyptian history.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Influences of Amerindian Art

Images: [a] “Rainy Night Downtown”. Painting by Georgia Mills Jessup (Pamunkey) (in the permanent Contemporary Collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C).
[b] “Chickahominy Heritage Keepers”[cousins Lenora and Troy Adkins]. Painting by Rose Powhatan (Pamunkey/Tauxenent).
[c] “Kingpin” by David Mills (Pamunkey). NBC’s crime drama miniseries of a powerful Mexican drug-trafficking family.
[d] “Pigmentary Glaucoma”. Watercolor and airbrush medical illustration by Marsha Jessup (Pamunkey).
[e] “Flower Power”. Photo by Bernie Boston (Tauxenent). Pulitzer nominated iconic 1967 anti-war protest photograph.
[f] Maya Chacmool (Mexico) sculpture and Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure”. [g]. Jackson Pollock’s 1943 painting, “She Wolf”. [h] “Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, an echo of Weatern Indian cliff structures. It is obvious that set designers from movies such as “Time Machine” also drew their architectural inspiration from the Anasazi cliff dwellings. (Google anasazi cliff dwellings )

  • primitive n, 1. first at or relating to the first stages or form of something. An often misused and misunderstood word that may or may not denote inferiority. 2. used in art to denote a concept of purity untainted by the corruptions of modern society. Also artistically untrained created by an artist with no formal training, especially using a simple style. 3. art created by an early medieval European artist or folk artist.
  • primitivism n, 1. the belief that less technologically dependent cultures and ways of living are inherently better than more technologically dependent ones. 2. a 1930s and 1940s style of art preferred by some Modernist artists, who were disillusioned with the impersonal uses of technology, as a more pure form of human expression in the visual arts.

Influences of Amerindian Art

Writers have often applied the two words above from the dictionary to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Asia, Africa and Polynesia and some modern artists influenced by these cultures. The dictionary describes art as “the creation of beautiful or thought provoking works, e.g., in painting, music, or writing [etc.].” Quite often historians have stated that many non-Western societies did not have a name for art, yet Mesoamericans did. In art history contexts, anthropologists, art historians and other writers applied the words “primitive”, “naive”, “Native”, and “tribal” to artistic expressions by some African, Asian, Polynesian, and Native American art forms. In the book Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960 author Bill Anthes stated that even well meaning writers like Jewish American 1940s New York art critic and painter Barnett Newman used the word “Primitivism” to describe Native American-influenced art. Newman promoted the conscious incorporation of Native American artistic aesthetics in creating the new form of visual expression, America’s Modern art movement.

In the 1940s some American artists, especially those with recent European immigrant roots broke with Europe, especially Paris, as their main inspiration for creating avant-garde art. Earlier, in the 1800s, French artist Paul Gauguin had gone to Tahiti for his artistic inspiration where he reveled in the “purity” of Polynesian culture and broke from European realism. In the early 1900s, Pablo Picasso and other Europeans looked towards Africa as a model for their artwork. Native American art and architecture influenced both American (mainly centered in New York) and European artists. This New York centered art movement became the basis for Abstract Expressionism. However, this cross-cultural influence was not a one-way street. Upon their arrival in the Caribbean and later in “Terra Firma” as they called the American mainland, the Spanish employed indigenous artists to create works for their expanding empire. The Spanish émigrés used ornately decorated stone pillars known as the “Seville carvings” for buildings in their Jamaican capital Santiago de La Vega, now Spanish Town in the parish of St. Catherine. Historians believe that the indigenous Taíno stone carvers made the elaborately decorated architectural columns for the conquistadors. In Terra Firma, the Spanish also used the talents of indigenous artists and artisans for the construction of religious and governmental buildings.

Later, in North America “between 1940 and 1960, many Native American artists made bold departures from what was the traditional style of [American] Indian painting.” Some of the better-known 20th century pioneering modernist Native American painters were José Lente and Jimmy Byrnes (Pueblo), Patrick DesJarlait and George Morrison (Ojibwa), Dick West (Cheyenne) father of Rick West, past director of the National Museum of the American Indian, and Oscar Howe (Dakota). “Many anthropologists, archaeologists, and art historians are also now studying modern Latin Native American cultures for vestigial manifestations of or similarities to pre-Columbian civilization.” (Encarta Encyclopedia online article on Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture).


What did pre-Columbian people of the western hemisphere think about the discipline that some cultures in the eastern hemisphere called art? The book Esthetic Recognition of Ancient American Art by George Kubler includes the 1500s investigative work with the Aztec/Mexica (Nahua) people of Mexico conducted by Franciscan missionary Bernadino de Sahagún. In Sahagún interviews, he asked these indigenous American informants their opinions “on the historic origins of sculpture; on the ancient estimation of artists; and the kind of recognized artists.” These Nahua-speakers considered the older Toltec civilization in the Valley of Mexico at Tula, flourishing before A.D 1300, as the originators of toltécayotl, or “artistry”. They called practitioners of these revered art forms of sculpture, painting, pottery, and metalwork toltécatl. The informants said that toltécatl had a “marked individual identity, a striving for excellence and as being of moral worth”. For example, “teaching the clay to lie” was one of the metaphors that these Mesoamerican civilizations applied to ceramics or pottery.

Judging by the beauty of Native American regalia on today’s powwow circuit and the variety of artworks at Indian Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, art has always been and continues to be an integral part of American Indian life and practice. The following proves my point. I am a visual artist who married into a family of Native American artists. In my wife’s indigenous American family, more than 29 of them are artists who have both worked and have gained recognition in the various fields of creative expression. For starters, my wife’s mother is a noted painter, ceramist, and sculptor whose painting is in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Some of her siblings were artists and accomplished musicians. My wife is a painter, sculptor, designer, actor, and storyteller. One of her sisters is a noted medical illustrator/administrator. Her two brothers are musicians; one was the lead guitarist for Mandrill, the internationally famous funk band formed in Brooklyn, New York in 1968 by brothers who were born in Panama and who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Her second brother is a singer/composer and bass guitar player. Her other two sisters received degrees in drama and music. A cousin with a surname (like my mother-in-law’s) from Virginia’s Pamunkey people was a Washington Post writer turned Hollywood screen writer/producer of film and television. A maternal cousin’s first degree was in art therapy and is now a PhD professor/writer/photographer. A late paternal Tauxenent cousin, a newspaper photographer detailed to the White House by the Washington Times and Los Angeles Times, was a noted Pulitzer nominee for a famous Vietnam-era demonstration photo. Another maternal cousin is a noted retired photographer/editor for the Washington Post. Other cousins, nephews and nieces continue to be involved in the performing and visual arts during their lifetimes. From the second generation, our middle son is a lawyer for New York City’s Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA). Our youngest son, who has also finished law school, has acted in films, shares a passion for screenwriting with his older brother.

Indigenous America aesthetics and Modern American Art of the 20th century

Whether we know it or not indigenous American art has deeply influenced all of our lives. The conscious influence of Amerindian visual aesthetics, beginning in the Caribbean, has been a driving force in my own works. I have come to learn that these indigenous American influences began early in the post-Columbian history of this hemisphere. Art historians have amply documented the similar profound indigenous American aesthetic influences on abstract art movements. In the book American Indian Contributions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations, Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield stated on page 1 under (ca.1930-present) North American, Mesoamerican, South American Andean cultures:

  • “Abstract art consists of works that are not subject to the limits imposed by representation. The emphasis in abstract art is on form rather than subject matter. Some abstract designs have no recognizable subject matter. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, pre-Columbian and post-Columbian abstract art that is indigenous to the Americas served as inspiration for the modern American abstract art movement. This reversed the stance of early ethnographers who had termed American Indian art as primitive, often because the works were executed on buildings, pottery vessels, clothing, and textiles, rather than on canvas or in marble as was done in the European tradition.”

English artist Henry Moore’s abstract statues, one of which graces the entrance to the East Wing of the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., is a Modernist reinterpretation of Mesoamerica’s indigenous sculpture. Similarly, ancient buildings from America’s southwest influenced noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright whose work in turn inspired other architects. The permeating influence of indigenous American art and aesthetics continues around the world today.

Some types of visual arts

  • Fine Arts: Painting, printmaking, and the plastic arts of ceramics and sculpture.
  • Applied Arts: Architecture, fashion design/illustration, industrial design (furniture automotive, airplanes, appliances, instruments etc.), commercial art (graphic design, illustration, and computer graphics), animation, cartooning, fashion design/illustration (divided into other specialties such as shoe designs, etc.), medical/biological illustration and prosthetic design, etc.
  • Crafts: pottery, woodworking, paper-mâché, gilding, metalwork, bead/feather work, leatherwork, etc.

For examples of works by select persons in this blog, click on to the following website pages:
  1. Georgia Mills Jessup and Rose Powhatan--
  2. Michael Auld-- and
  3. Dick West--
  4. Patrick DesJarlait--
  5. George Morrison --.
  6. Oscar Howe --