Cherokee Art

History of Cherokee Indians

Evidence of human inhabitance of North and South America has been dated back more 10,000 years. There are many theories about how the migration patterns of Native Americans twisted and floated across the continents. It has been widely accepted that Native American Indians originally crossed the land bridge from Asia, when it was possible after the last ice age. This is perhaps the most plausible explanation. Other theories discuss the possibility of boats carrying huge loads of people from Islands in the South Pacific. They crossed the ocean using trade winds and navigating tribal shifts. There is evidence of Japanese pottery found in South and Central America. It is likely that each of these played a role in the population of North and South America. “When Christopher Columbus arrived, the country was already occupied with hundreds of specialized tribes ranging from hunter-gatherers on the central plains, settled fisherman of the north west, farmers from the Mississippi delta and City builders of South America,” (Cornell University).

Native Americans, in a variety of ways, have influenced modern art. Each tribal group had its own specific style. This makes categorization of artistic techniques on a broad scale virtually impossible. Specifically, The Cherokee Indians had a number of influential facets. Their tribes existed in the southern Appalachian area, what is now western North Carolina and Kentucky, as well as farther south in Georgia around the coast.

The Purple represents the Cherokee Indian’s land.

The white settlers described the Cherokee people as one of a few “civilized” societies, because they had advanced tools and methods of farming. The Cherokee people are similar to the Iroquoian Nation in the northeast. The two languages were grouped into Iroquoian language family along with others. Most of what is known about early Native American life is based on Spanish exploration journals. The Cherokee were referred to as a civilized group based on their tools and building structure.

They existed predominately in the south until 1838, when President Martin Van Buren ordered militia to relocate the southern Indians westward to Indian Territory. This was known as the Trail of Tears. Tens of thousands of Cherokee Indians were forced out of their home and across the country. Thousands dropped dead during the march. They were separated as a group between those that went farther west and those that settled in Arkansas and Texas. In 1939, they were reunited as a single Cherokee Nation.

Still today, Cherokee people exist in great numbers. There are over 300,000 members of the Cherokee Nation alive today in North America, which makes this culture one of the largest still surviving groups of Native American Indians.


Cherokee Art and the Elements and Principles of Design

First of all, the most popular form of Cherokee art is the basket. The Cherokees have been weaving baskets for over nine thousand years. Cherokees take great pride in making fine, intricate baskets. These baskets are generally made with white oak, cane, hickory bark, and honeysuckle, and then dyed with natural plant dyes. What makes these baskets visually unique is that they are said to be made from the soul. Cherokees take inspiration from nature when they weave baskets; they take inspiration from mountains, streams, forests, and from anything else found in the natural world. This natural influence makes the baskets very pleasing to the eye and more meaningful for the viewer. Other Cherokee crafts include carving soapstone, making dance masks, weaving, pottery, beadworks, and quilts. Every form of Cherokee art is inspired by nature, and is made with the beauty of nature in mind.

Many of the Elements and Principles of Design can be found in Cherokee art. Rhythm is perhaps the most prevalent principle used. In Cherokee art, the flow and pattern of the design is very important, because it provides the artwork with a sense of nature and ease. Whether it is the flow of a river on a piece of pottery, or the continuous pattern of a basket, rhythm can be easily seen.


Lisa Rutherford, Spiro Fish

Form is also often used in Cherokee art. Cherokees use three-dimensional forms to create beautiful sculptures that depict the natural world.


Nancy Crabtree, Drifting Spirits

Ron Mitchell, Soar with Eagles

Texture and pattern are then widely used in Cherokee basket making. The patterns of the baskets are generally very cohesive and simple, and the texture depends on the type of materials used to create the basket.


Mike Dart, Untitled

The colors found in Cherokee art are also quite unique. Cherokees use color to create calm, relaxing pieces that often refer to nature, and then brighter colors as well to convey strong feelings or emotions. In the following examples the soft, Summer colors of the basket greatly contrast to the strong, vibrant red color of the piece of pottery.


Lisa Blackbird Forrest, Summers End

Joseph Erb, Caller

This last piece by Joseph Erb also has a strong sense of unity. The color and pattern, no matter how busy the pattern seems, create a cohesive piece. Cherokee art is very cohesive and beautiful.

Overall, many of the Elements and Principles of Design can be found in Cherokee art. In Cherokee art, the elements and principles serve to create pieces that really reflect the beauty of nature. Cherokees use the colors found in nature, the rhythm and flow of nature, natural forms, and they also use patterns and textures to create pieces that reflect nature more abstractly. Cherokee art definitely deserves much appreciation for its use of the elements and principles of design.


Qualities of Cherokee Design

Religious Qualities of Cherokee Design

Along with the ceremonies and rituals that were integral to Native American life came the long-held tradition of smoking.  To make these traditions even more unique, the Cherokee created stone effigy pipes, which came to be a vital art form of their tribe.  Pipe-makers used metal tools to carve pipes from green or grey steatite, grey-black shale, or occasionally fragments of older soapstone pots.  Each pipe was then completed with an effigy animal carved in full sculptural relief.

One of the most dominant themes underscoring Cherokee art represented the tribe’s close relationship to nature.  The Cherokee sustained an intimate connection to their sacred surroundings and the natural powerhouse forces it symbolized.

Visual Qualities of Cherokee Design

The use of geometric design was established early on in the history of Native American art, especially in textiles, mats, baskets, and ceramics.  The Cherokee continued to use these motifs throughout the centuries and favored such shapes as diamonds and X’s.

Ceramics were textured with curvilinear and rectilinear complicated stamping, check stamping, and basket impressing.  These curvilinear designs, characterized by combinations of spirals and circles, could readily be found in a majority of late eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Cherokee art.

While beadwork was important for all Native American art, the Cherokee developed their own distinct style.  Their skill simultaneously demonstrated the strong creative impulse of individual bead workers while displaying a cohesive Cherokee bead style that evolved throughout Cherokee history.  Some of the most artistically compelling Cherokee beadwork could be found in the zigzag patterns that complemented floral patterns on moccasins.

Social Qualities of Cherokee Design

Throughout the history of Cherokee art, the use of red and white colors was continually used to symbolically represent war and peace.  The symbolism of these colors traces back to Cherokee mythology, where figures such as the Red Man, Red Bear, and Red Dog were prominent.  Additionally, white had ties to the Green Corn Ceremony, which was the only time when white moccasins were worn by priests.

Cherokee Architecture

A majority of people who lived in the Cherokee nation dwelled in these circular houses fit for one family.  They were built using tree branches that were bent into a circular shape, and then plastered by mud.  To keep the house warm and to cook, these houses typically had a stone hearth for fire in the center.

When summer came around, some Cherokee families chose to live in summer homes.  These were more spacious and had more windows as they did not need to stay as warm as during the winter.  A lot of times, multiple families would share these types of homes.

Cherokee Clothing

The traditional dress for Cherokee women was known as a “tear dress.”  In addition to alluding to the Trail of Tears, the name is derived from the fact that these women did not have scissors and had to tear the cloth in order to make their dresses.  The dresses were made with dark, cotton calico and featured lighter patterns.

Cherokee Art

Bandolier bags are elaborately decorated shoulder bags that were typical of all Native American tribes. Stylistic preferences for decoration varied from tribe to tribe, but they all served the main purpose of showcasing artistic skill. This particular Cherokee bandolier bag was created in the early 1800s before the Trail of Tears.

Cherokee Housewares

Cherokees were sure to use all pieces of fabric, even the scraps, for their creations.  This traditional Cherokee art form, the “rag rug,” is a prime example of the tribe’s resourcefulness.  They were developed to use the scraps leftover after sewing garments and used as mats in Cherokee households.


Modern Day References to Cherokee art  Found in Western Society:

1. Baskets

Even after 9000 years of making baskets, the Cherokees still continue to sell their popular baskets in the United States. Native American baskets in general can be bought all over the country, and are very diverse in design. Cherokee baskets in particular can be bought from numerous shops all over the country, not to mention from an infinite amount of websites dedicated solely to selling Cherokee baskets. Although baskets in the United States are not extremely popular, they can still be found every now and then in the ordinary American home. Baskets are especially popular, however, during Easter time when children search for hidden eggs, and then plop the ones they find into a small, woven basket.

(Picture from:

(Picture from:

2. Moccasins

Modern day moccasins, which have become a popular choice of footwear, borrow their design elements from components integral to Cherokee art.  The tribe was known for creating elaborately decorated moccasins, and although these aren’t as embellished, they certainly allude to the creations made decades ago by the native Cherokees.  Additionally, this particular pair of Minnetonka moccasins uses red and white beads, which were two colors often found in every Cherokee art form to represent war and peace.

3. Jewelry

Modern beaded jewelry has derivatives in Native American culture. Traditionally, beads were worn by warriors and highly regarded members of society to denote importance. Recently, however, beads have lost their symbolism, and are worn solely to accessorize. Also, this consists of red, pink and teal blue, which represents passion, serenity and peace of mind.



Power, Susan C. Art of the Cherokee: Prehistory to the Present. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2007. Print.



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