Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Arts and Industries of Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[For further information consult the page at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians]



The arts and industries of the North American aborigines, including all artificial methods of making things or of doing work, were numerous and diversified, since they were not limited in purpose to the material conditions of life; a technique was developed to gratify the aesthetic sense, and art was ancillary to social and ceremonial institutions and was employed in inscribing speech on hide, bark, or stone, in records of tribal lore, and in the service of religion. Many activities too, existed, not so much in the service of these for their own sake as for others. After the coming of the whites, arts and industries in places were greatly improved, multiplied in number, and rendered more complex by the introduction of metallurgy, domestic animals, mechanical devices, and more efficient engineering. Great difficulties embarrass the student in deciding whether some of the early crude inventions were aboriginal or introduced.


The arts and industries of the Indians were called forth and developed for utilizing the mineral, vegetal, and animal products of nature and they were modified by the environmental wants and resources of every place. Gravity, buoyancy, and elasticity were employed mechanically, and the production of fire with the drill and by percussion was also practised. The preservation of fire and its utilization in many ways were also known. Dogs were made beasts of burden and of traction, but neither beast nor wind nor water turned a wheel N. of Mexico in Pre-Columbian times. The [Natives]   were just on the borders of machinery, having the reciprocating two-hand drill, the bow and strap drills, and the continuous-motion spindle.


Industrial activities were of five kinds: (1) Going to nature for her bounty, the primary or exploiting arts and industries; (2) working up materials for use, the secondary or intermediary arts and industries, called also shaping arts or manufactures; (3) transporting or travelling devices; (4) the mechanism of exchange; (5) the using up or enjoyment of finished products, the ultimate arts and industries, or consumption. The products of one art or industry were often the material or apparatus of another, and many tools could be employed in more than one; for example, the flint arrowhead or blade could be used for both killing and skinning a buffalo. Some arts or industries were practised by men, some by women, others by both sexes. They had their seasons and their etiquette, their ceremonies and their taboos.


Stone craft - This embraces all the operations, tools, and apparatus employed in gathering and quarrying minerals and working them into paints, tools, implements, and utensils, or into ornaments and sculptures, from the rudest to such as exhibit the best expressions in fine art. Another branch is the gathering of stone for building.


Water industry - This includes activities and inventions concerned in finding, carrying, storing, and heating water, and in irrigation, also, far more important than any of these, the making of vessels for plying on the water, which was the mother of many arts. The absence of the larger beasts of burden and the accommodating waterways together stimulated the perfecting of various boats to suit particular regions.


Earth work - To this belong gathering, carrying, and using the soil for construction purposes, excavating cellars, building sod and snow houses, and digging ditches. The Arctic permanent houses were made of earth and sod, the temporary ones of snow cut in blocks, which were laid in spiral courses to form low domes. The [Inuit] were especially ingenious in solving the mechanical problems presented by their environment of ice. The St. Lawrence Atlantic, and Canadian tribes undertook no earth-building that required skill; but those of the Mississippi valley, the Gulf states, and the far S. W., in their mounds and earthworks developed engineering and co-operative ability of no mean order. In some cases millions of cubic feet of earth were built up into geometric forms, the material often having been borne long distances by men and women. The tribes of the Pacific coast lived in partly subterranean houses. The Pueblo tribes were skilful in laying out and digging irrigating ditches and in the builder's art, erecting houses and walls of stones, pisé, or adobe. Some remains of stone structures show much taste in arrangement.


Ceramic art - This industry includes all operations in plastic materials. The Arctic tribes in the extreme W., which lack proper stone, kneaded with their fingers lumps of clay mixed with blood and hair into rude lamps and cooking vessels, but in the zone of intense cold besides the ruder form there was no pottery. The tribes of Canada and of the N. tier of states w. of 1. Superior and those of the Pacific slope worked little in clay; but the Indians of the Atlantic slope, of the Mississippi valley, and especially of the S. W. knew how to gather and mix clay and form it into pottery, much of which has great artistic merit. This industry was quite generally woman's work, and each region shows separate types of form and decoration.


Metal craft - This included mining, grinding of ores and paint, rubbing, cold-hammering, engraving, embossing, and overlaying with plates. The metals were copper, hematite and meteoric iron, lead in the form of galena, and nugget gold and mica. No smelting was done.


Wood craft - Here belongs the felling of trees with stone axes and fire. The softest woods, such as pine, cedar, poplar, and cypress, were chosen for canoes, house frames, totem poles, and other large objects. The stems of smaller trees were used also for many purposes. Driftwood was wrought into bows by the [Inuit]. As there were no saws, trunks were split and hewn into single planks on the N. Pacific coast. Immense communal dwellings of cedar were there erected, the timbers being moved by rude mechanical appliances and set in place with ropes and skids. The carving on house posts, totem poles, and household furniture was often admirable. In the S. W. underground stems were carved into objects of use and ceremony.


Root craft - Practised for food, basketry, textiles, dyes, fish-poisoning, medicine, etc. Serving the purposes of wood, the roots of plants developed a number of special arts and industries.


Fibre craft - Far more important than roots for textile purposes, the stems, leaves, and inner and outer bark of plants and the tissues of animals, having each its special qualities, engendered a whole series of arts. Some of these materials were used for siding and roofing houses; others yielded shredded fibre, yarn, string, and rope; and some were employed in furniture, clothing, food receptacles, and utensils. Cotton was extensively cultivated in the S. W.


Seed craft - The harvesting of berries, acorns and other nuts, and grain and other seeds developed primitive methods of gathering, carrying, milling, storing, cooking, and serving, with innumerable observances of days and seasons, and multifarious ceremony and lore.


Not content with merely taking from the hand of nature, the Indians were primitive agriculturists. In gathering roots they first unconsciously stirred the soil and stimulated better growth. They planted gourds in favoured places, and returned in autumn to harvest the crops. Maize was regularly planted on ground cleared with the help of fire and was cultivated with sharpened sticks and hoes of bone, shell, and stone. Tobacco was cultivated by many tribes some of which planted nothing else.


Animal industries - Arts and industries depending on the animal kingdom include primarily hunting, fishing, trapping, and domestication. (See Hunting.) The secondary arts involve cooking and otherwise preparing food; the butchering and skinning of animals, skindressing in all its forms; cutting garments, tents, boats, and hundreds of smaller articles and sewing them with sinew and other thread; working claws, horn, bone, teeth, and shell into things of use, ornaments, and money; and work in feathers, quills, and hair. These industries went far beyond the daily routine and drudgery connected with dress, costume, receptacles, and apparatus of travel and transportation. Pictographs were drawn on specially prepared hides; drums and other musical instruments were made of skins and membranes; for gorgeous head-dresses and robes of ceremony the rarest and finest products of animals were requisite; embroiderers everywhere most skillfully used quills and feathers, and sometimes grass and roots.


Evolution of arts - Much was gathered from nature for immediate use or consumption, but the North Americans were skilful in secondary arts, becoming manufacturers when nature did not supply their demands. They built a different kind of house in each environment - in one place snow domes and underground dwellings, in another houses of puncheons hewn from the giant cedar, and in other regions conical tents made of hides of animals, pole arbours covered with matting or with cane, and houses of sods or grass laid on a framework of logs. The invention of house furniture and utensils, such as cooking vessels of stone, pottery, or vegetal material, vessels of clay, basketry, worked bark or hide for serving food, and bedding, developed the tanner, the seamstress, the potter, the wood-worker, the painter, the dyer, and the stone-cutter. The need of clothing the body also offered employment to some of these and gave rise to other industries. The methods of preparing food were baking in pits, roasting, and boiling; little invention was necessary therein, but utensils and apparatus for getting and transporting food materials had to be devised. These demands developed the canoe-maker and the sled-builder, the fabricator of weapons, the stone-worker, the wood-worker, the carvers of bone and ivory, the skilful basket-maker, the weaver, the netter, and the makers of rope and babiche. These arts were not finely specialised; one person would be skilful in several. The workshop was under the open sky, and the patterns of the industrial workers were carried in their minds.


The arts and industries associated with the use and consumption of industrial products were not specially differentiated. Tools, utensils, and implements were worn out in the using. There was also some going about, traffic, and luxury, and these developed demands for higher grades of industry. The [Inuit] had fur suits that they would not wear in hunting; all the deer-chasing tribes had their gala dress for festal occasions, ceremony, and worship, upon which much time and skill were expended; the southern and western tribes wove marvelously fine and elegant robes of hemp, goat's hair, rabbit skin in strips, and skins of birds. The artisans of both sexes were instinct with the aesthetic impulse; in one region they were devoted to quill-work, those of the next area to carving wood and slate; the ones living across the mountains produced whole costumes adorned with beadwork; the tribes of the central area erected elaborate earthworks; workers on the Pacific coast made matchless basketry; those of the S. W. modelled and decorated pottery in an endless variety of shapes and colored designs. The Indians N. of Mexico were generally well advanced in the simpler handicrafts, but had nowhere attempted massive stone architecture.

Return to the Index page of Indians of Canada and Quebec


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 42-44.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College