Indigenous art. Indigenous perspectives.

Art Terms

For art-related acronyms, please visit here.


Adobe. Clay building material that is sun-dried not baked.

Aesthetics. The philosophy or scholarly study of beauty.

Alla Prima. Painting in one session, typically referring to wet-on-wet painting in oils. Means “first attempt” in Italian.

Boban calendar wheel on amatl paper, Aztec, ca. 1545–46

Amatl: Boban calendar wheel on amatl paper, Aztec, ca. 1545–46

Amatl. Also Amate or Hun. Fig-bark paper, dating possibly to circa 300 CE in Mesoamerica. This ceremonial paper is still made today for painting supports, books, cut-outs, and clothing.

Anthropomorphic. Resembling a human. Compare to phytopomorphic and zoomorphic.

Appropriation. In art, the incorporation of borrowed elements (e.g. from pop culture or art history) into a new work; quoting another artist’s work in a new artwork. Cultural appropriation or misappropriation are negative terms for the borrowing of cultural expression from another culture,  especially if the expression is misunderstood or stripped of its cultural context.

Artist HopidA Hopi artist collective from 1973 to 1978. Members included Michael Kabotie (Lomawywesa), Terrance Talaswaima (Honvantewa), Neil David, Milland Lomakema (Dawakema) and Delbridge Honanie (Coochsiwukiomao).

At.óow. Tlingit term for a blanket or other valuable clan regalia that is collectively owned and passed from person to person.


Bacone School. A mid-20th-century intertribal art movement of painting, drawing, and printmaking influenced by Plains hide painting, ledger art, and Art Deco, named from Bacone College in Muscogee, Oklahoma.

Bambi Art. Derogatory term for Flatstyle art, including the Studio Style, Bacone School, and Southern Plains style art movements, due to the frequent depictions of blue deer, a Huichol spirit of peyote, and Walt Disney’s appropriation of Pop Chalee’s portrayals of deer.

Bandolier bag. A crossbody pouch. Early versions were made by twining or from hide and could be embellished with porcupine quillwork and/or deer hair. They became popular during the fur trade era of the 18th century and incorporated trade items such as calico, wool stroud, glass beads, and metal tinklers.

Bannerstone. Precontact, often archaic, symmetrical, stone sculptures. A butterfly shape around a hollow tube is the most common shape. Bannerstones are believed to have served as atlatl weights.

Bayeta. English wool, particularly red-dyed, that was unraveled and rewoven by Navajo weavers in the last 19th century.

Braintanned. Animal hides processed with brains, which make them soft, supple, and easily sewn. Braintan. (verb) to process a hide using brains.

Brunaille. An underpainting or painting in brown or brownish color.


Ceramic. Made from heated clay.

Chilkat Weaving. A complex Northwest Coast finger weaving style on a frame using yellow cedar bark and mountain goat wool or other wool to make curvilinear, stylized formline designs. Chilkat weavings can be robes, dance aprons, or other items, typically in yellow, black, blue, and undyed cream colors.

Chigdax. An Unangan gutskin parka.

Chunkey. Also chunky. An intertribal game originating in the pre-Columbian era in the Prairie, Plains, and Eastern Woodland regions. The game involves a stone or ceramic disc rolled along the ground towards which players toss spears. Chunkey has a religious significance, was used in divination, and often found in Mississippian iconography.

Codex (plural: codices). A handmade book, usually an ancient manuscript. Codices can either have multiple bound pages or a long, single-page folded accordion-style, as opposed to scrolls. Mesoamerican codices were primarily made from fig-bark paper, āmatl, coated with gesso.

Conceptual Art. Art in which the concept or idea is more important than the execution of the work or its aesthetics, techniques, or materials. The work is preplanned.

Contemporary Art. Art produced since World War II, 21st-century art, or work by living artists. Example: Wampanoag people make wampum in the 21st century, so that is contemporary art.

Cuzco School

Cuzco School: St. Joseph and the Christ Child, ca. 18th c., oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum

Cultural Patrimony. An artifact or object which has a lasting historical, traditional, or cultural significance to a tribe or cultural group, as opposed to an object belonging to a single individual. The ownership of such an object by the tribe or cultural group is considered inalienable.

Cuzco School. Also Cusco School. A baroque, Mannerist style of Roman Catholic devotional painting among Quechua, Aymara, mestizo, and other Andean peoples. Originating in 1534 colonial Cuzco, Peru, the style spread to Bolivia and Ecuador and continued into the 18th century.


Deconstruction. The act of breaking down a concept, text, or entity to its most basic element to understand the underlining, unspoken assumptions or frames upon which it is founded. This analytical approach to criticism was pioneered by Jacques Derrida.

Distemper. Also poster paint. A water-soluble paint made of pigment, whiting (such as chalk), and either gum water or glue as its binder.

Duho. A ceremonial seat among Arawak and Taíno people that is often carved from Lingam vitae (genus Guaiacum).

Dye. Pigment dissolved in a solution.


Effigy. A representation, especially sculpted, that be anthropomorphic (of humans), anthropomorphic (of animals), or phytomorphic (of plants).

Eqqumiitsuliorneq. Greenlandic word for art, which translates literately as “to create something strange.”


Flatstyle. Representational, narrative painting styles characterized by solid color fields, minimal backgrounds, and little shading or perspective. Flatstyle includes the San Ildefonso painting movement, Studio Style, Bacone School, and Southern Plains painting movements of the early to mid-20th century.


Formline: Capt. Richard Carpenter (Heiltsukw), bentwood chest, ca. 1860, cedar and paint, Seattle Art Museum

Formline. Curved linear form characteristic of much Northwest Coast art. Primary formlines tend to be thick, black lines or shapes, including U-shapes and ovoids. Secondary formlines tend to be red and thinner. The term was coined by Bill Holm.


Geoglyph. A massive design (larger than a human) scraped into or sculpted on the earth’s surface.

German Silver. Also electrum. A metal alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc, that is in silver in color but contains no actual silver. Popular in Southern Plains jewelry.

Gouache. Also body color. Opaque watercolor paint, a water-based paint with gum arabic as a binder. Calcium carbonate, chalk, is often added to increase its opacity.

Grisaille. An underpainting or painting in grey or a desaturated, greyish color.

Guilloché. A repetitive design motif of lines which creates the illusion of braiding or twining.

Gutskin. Processed intestines of sea mammals. Items made from the intestines, e.g. gutskin parka.


Hair pipe bead. Long, tubular, bone bead, popular among Plains people for breastplates and chokers.

Haute couture. One-off fashion designed for a particular client by a design house designated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Haute Couture design houses must employ more than 15 full-time staff, have 20 full-time technical workser, fit clients multiple times, and present collections each January and July with a minimum of 50 original designs. For a list of Haute Couture members, click here.

Henequen. The succulent plant, Agave fourcroydes, that grows in Guatemala and southern Mexico, and fibers from this plant, which are used by Maya people for textiles.

Hösig di. A chunga-palm basket woven by Wounaan and Embera artists from Darién Province, Panama. These elaborate baskets are often globular, pictorial, and polychromatic.

Hue. Pure color, such as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, or violet.

Chehalis Basket

Imbricated Chehalis coiled cedar root basket, collection of the Washington State History Museum. Photo: Joe Mabel.

Imarnin. Seal gut raincoat.

Imbricated. Of baskets, a design woven into the main structure. Imbrication is often used in coiled baskets and found in Northwest Coast baskets, particularly Coast Salish.

Intaglio. Printmaking, in which the image is incised into the matrix, as opposed to relief printmaking, in which the image is raised from the background surface. Engraving and etching are intaglio techniques.


Intellectual Property. Knowledge, creative ideas, or any expression of the human mind, such as inventions, medicinal formulae, designs, and works of art, which might have commercial value and can be protected by laws.

Intertribal. 1 involving multiple tribes who maintain their distinctions. 2 a social dance at powwows

Inuksuk (plural: Inuksuit). A single stone or piles of stone or cairns made by Arctic peoples in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, as landmarks or guides in traveling or caribou herding.

Iroquois Realist School. An art movement created by the Tuscarora brothers David and Dennis Cusick in the 1820s. Through painting, drawing, and printmaking, artists create representational works documenting Iroquois beliefs, lifeways, fashion, and history. About 25 artists continued this style throughout the 19th century.


Jacla. Also jackla or jocla. Double loops of heishi, flat disc beads, typically of turquoise, typically used as earrings or pendants. Derives from a Navajo term for “ear string.”


Kiowa Six. Also known as the Kiowa Five. A group of Kiowa artists, Spencer Asah, James Auchiah, Jack Hokeah, Stephen Mopope, Lois Smoky, and Monroe Tsatoke, who studied at St. Patrick’s Mission School and the University of Oklahoma. The five men exhibited in First International Art Exposition in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1928 and the Venice Biennale in 1932.

Lane stitch

Lane stitch: detail of Blackfeet or Lakota beaded bags, ca. 1875–85, Children’s Museum of Indianapolis


Lane Stitch. Also, hump stitch or lazy stitch. A beadwork technique in which designs are built up by rows of multiple beads, usually six to ten. Lane stitch lends itself well to geometric designs on hide.

Ledger Art. Stylized, narrative painting or drawing. Primarily from the Great Plains, but also found in the Plateau and Great Basin. Ledger art, based on Plains hide painting but painted or drawn on paper or cloth surfaces, thrived from the 1860s to 1920s, was revived in the 1960s, and has experienced a major revival in the 2010s. Some Native scholars defined ledger art more narrowly, as representational art on actual ledger paper.


Medium (plural: media). The form that art takes, physical, performative, or other. Art media include architecture, beadwork/quillwork, basketry, design, drawing, installation, jewelry, new media (including video art), performance art, painting, photography, printmaking, and sculpture.

Mimesis. Mimicking observed reality in artwork.

Minimalism. An American art movement of the 1960s and 1970s that stripped artwork down to its most essential elements, a continuation of geometric abstraction. Minimalist art “is what it is,” with no intentional symbolism or cultural references.

Modern Art. Art from the modern era (approximately 1860s–1960s), influenced by changes in Western society including industrialism and increased urbanization, “art for art’s sake,” and an ideal of universal expression, and originality. Modern art was characterized by a rejection of past art styles, and modern painting was freed from the goal of mimesis or imitating observed reality.


Native American Church. An intertribal religion, incorporated in Oklahoma in 1918, with syncretic Indigenous and Christian beliefs with the sacramental use of peyote, or Lophophora williamsii.

Naturalism. Creating the illusion of reality in artwork, with attention to details; a faithful reproduction of observed reality; see mimesis.

NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). A US federal law, passed in 1990, that requires federal agencies and institutions receiving federal funds to share their inventories with tribes and repatriate human remains to lineal descendants, as well as funerary items, sacred objects, and other items of cultural patrimony.

Naaxein (Tlingit) and Naaxiin (Haida). woven, formline chief’s robes; Chilkat robes

Nuchu (plural: Nuchukana). An anthropomorphic wood carving used in Guna healing ceremonies


Opaque. Blocking light, solid, neither transparent or translucent.

Oil Paint. Paint with linseed oil as a binder.


Palladium. A precious metal related to platinum but denser and with a lower melting point.

Paint. A substance, typically liquid, containing pigment and a binder, an agent such an oil or resin that adheres the pigment or dye to a surface.

Pan-Indian. An American term for concepts, movements, etc. that cross tribal lines. Powwows and Native American Church are major pan-Indian cultural expressions.

Yakama Parfleche

Yakama artist once known, Parfleche, ca. 1900, rawhide, pigment, hide thongs, collection of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. Photo: Sailko.

Parfleche. A rawhide container, typically a folded envelope painted with abstract geometric designs, historically made by Plateau, Great Basin, and Great Plains women artists.

Patchwork. Layered, appliqué clothing and embellishments, developed by Seminole women in the Florida Everglades at the turn-of-the-century, that has spread to Muscogee Creek, Yuchi, and Oklahoma Seminole people.

Petroglyph. An image carved, scratched, or otherwise incised into a rock face.

Peyote Stitch. Also brick stitch or gourd stitch. A beadwork technique, typically wrapped around a structure but can be flat, in which layers are built a single bead at a time. The name comes from the technique being used in Native American fan and gourd rattle handles.

Photorealism. An American art movement of the 1960s and 1970s of representational art mimicking the details and surface of photography. Photorealists often used banal urban scenery in order to paint imagery that had never previously been painted.

Phytopomorphic. Resembling a plant. Compare to anthropomorphic and zoomorphic.

Canyon Pintado

Pictographs at Canyon Pintado, Colorado.

Pictograph. An image painted onto a rock face.

Pigment. A coloring agent.

Platinum grass. A rare strain of sea-lyme grass, Leymus mollis, from near Platinum, Alaska, prizes for its strength and color. It grows to be a brilliant red and dries to a delicate lilac color. Yup’ik: taperrnapinilreat: strong grass.

Pochoir. A highly refined stenciling technique, historically used in book illustrations.

Polychrome. Multicolored; a term used for ceramics with more than two slips.

Pony bead. Larger, spheroid seed bead, typically glass and often around nine millemeters in diameter.

Postmodern Art. Arts, including architecture and literary arts, after the Modern Era, which rejects a “global cultural narrative.”  Arts can reflect pluralistic viewpoints and often feature appropriation, or reuse, of earlier art forms and popular culture. Discontinuity is common, reflecting post-modern society.

Precontact. Prior to contact between a particular tribe and European and African people. The time frame ranges from 1492 in the Caribbean to the 19th century in areas such as the Great Basin, Arctic, and remote Amazon Basin.


Quillwork: Mi’kmaq box with porcupine quills on birch bark, ca. 1850, Peabody Museum, Harvard.

Pre-Columbian. Prior to the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus and his men in the Americas.


Quillwork. Textile art, unique to North America, which uses porcupine, or more rarely, bird, quills to embellish hide, cloth, or wood. Quillwork can be embroidered directly onto a surface or created on a loom.

Quipu. Also khipu. Knot strings used by Andean cultures, especially the Inca Empire, to record census and accounting data, and possibly even poetry. The types of knots, positioning, the direction of knots, and colors of strings are all believed to record information; however, the code has not been fully deciphered.


Ravenstail weaving. Northwest Coast twining style among Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit peoples using mountain goal or sheep wool to form geometric patterns in black, sometimes yellow, and the cream-white of the undyed wool.

Repatriation. In regards to art or cultural items, physically returning these items to the tribe or cultural group that created them or the lineal descendants of that group.

Ribbon shirt. Long-sleeved, cloth shirt embellished at the yoke and cuffs with ribbon. Popular men’s clothing at powwows.

Ribbon skirt. Cloth skirts with ribbons sewn across them, originally a Northern Plains and Great Lakes clothing.

Ribbonwork. A layered, appliqué technique using ribbons or cloth, popular among Great Lakes and Prairie tribes for regalia, including dance shawls. Ribbonwork, both geometric and curvilinear, makes use of symmetry and negative space.


San Ildefonso Painting Movement. Flatstyle painting movement, inspired by Pueblo pottery and mural painting traditions, thrived from 1910–1932 and included Pueblo artists such as Crescencio Martinez, Julian Martinez, Alfredo Montoya, Tonita Peña, Alfonso Roybal, and Abel Sanchez.

Seed bead. 1  Small, manufactured glass bead, typically under 7 mm in diameter. 2 Bead made from a plant seed.

"The Death of Cleopatra" by Edmonia Lewis (Mississauga Ojibwe), 1876. Photo: Cliff 1066

Sculpture: “The Death of Cleopatra” by Edmonia Lewis (Mississauga Ojibwe), 1876. Photo: Cliff 1066

Serigraphy. Screen printing, printing using a silk or synthetic cloth screen stretched over a frame.

Sculpture. A three-dimensional artwork made by an additive process, such as a casting metal; a reductive process, such as carving marble; or a combination of various processes.

Shade. A pure color with black or similar color added, to create a darker version.

Slip. Liquid clay with pigment used to paint ceramics.

Sprengperlen. Lit. Broken beads in German. Antique, cut, tubular beads from Bohemia, now a region in the Czech Republic.

Sumi-e. Black ink painting technique characterized by calligraphic brush strokes and delicate washes. Also known as pinyin in Chinese.

Support. In 2-D art, the surface on which the art is constructed, e.g. canvas, paper, cloth, wooden panel, or metal sheet.


Tempera. Paint that can either mean distemper, a water-soluble paint with either gum water or glue as a binder, or egg tempera, paint with egg yolk as its binder.

Terra sigillata. In contemporary ceramics, an ultrafine, liquid slip, which can be burnished to a high-gloss sheen.

TesseraA small piece of stone, shell, or other hard material used in a mosaic. Plural: tesserae.

Three-Dimensional Art. Or 3-D Art. Art in the round, often freestanding, such as sculpture.

Tint. A pure color with white added to create a lighter version or pastel.

Tlacuilo. Nahuatl term for a codex painter.

Tone. A color that has been greyed down or desaturated, through the addition of a complementary color or a neutral.

Trompe-l’oeil. “Fools the eye.” Painting, usually still life, designed to create a convincing optical illusion of having three dimensions.

Two-Dimensional Art. Also 2-D Art. Flat art on a surface, such as painting, printmaking, collage, or drawing.

Example of a verdaille.


Utilitarian. Having a practical use, e.g. a seed beater is a utilitarian basket because it can be used to separate seeds from the chaff.


Verdaille. An underpainting or painting in green or a greenish color.

Viewer. The audience for visual art.

Viewpoint. The position from which something is viewed. In photography, film, and video, the position of the camera. Popular viewpoints include bird’s-eye view, from above, or worm’s-eye view, from below.


Wampum wrist ornament

Wampum wrist ornament, Haudenosaunee, attributed, 18th century, Peabody Museum, Harvard

Wampum. Shells beads, typically purple or white tubular beads hand-carved from Quahog shells, Mercenaria mercenaria, but also white tubular beads carved from Atlantic channeled whelk shells or Quahog shells of varying shapes. The term, derived from the Massachusett term wampumpeag, originally referred to only the white beads.

Watercolor. A paint with a binder of gum arabic, derived from an acacia plant, typically transparent or translucent. Opaque watercolors are known as gouache.

Whimsey, also whimsy. Beaded soft sculpture, typically stuffed velvet shapes with Haudenosaunee raised beadwork, often embellished with sequins, popular in the late 19th and 20th centuries, made by Tuscarora, Seneca, and other Haudenosaunee artists primarily for the tourist trade around Niagara Falls and surrounding areas. They often hang and can be decorative or serve as pincushions, picture frames, wall pockets, or pillows.

Woodlands School. Also known as Woodlands style or Legend Painting, an Anishinaabe and Cree painting movement founded by Norval Morrisseau (Sand Point Ojibway). Woodlands art is highly visionary, characterized by X-ray views, black outlines, and bold primary colors, and is influenced by Anishinaabe birch bark scrolls and petroglyphs.


X-Ray Painting. A feature of Woodlands School artwork, in which the interiors of humans and animals are portrayed, especially ribcages and heartlines. This style might have been inspired by Anishinaabe rock art, which in turn may have been influenced by fossils.


Zemi. Taíno concept of an immortal being or ancestral spirit; a sculpture, often stone and often three-pointed, that houses this spirit. Also Cemi.

Zoomorphic. Resembling a non-human animal. Compare to anthropomorphic and phytopomorphic