In some Native American nations, such as those from the Plains, painting on a surface such as animal hide was common. But it wasn’t until 1821 that painting on paper or canvas became popular among the Haudenosaunee.
The earliest known Haudenosaunee painter was Dennis Cusick, Tuscarora. Using watercolors, Cusick made a series of paintings of life in the Seneca mission school and in his village. In 1901, young Jesse Cornplanter drew and painted Haudenosaunee the way they looked and dressed during his time. In the 1930.s Sanford Plummer from Cattaraugus reservation attended art school in New York City and returned home to paint ceremonial dances and scenes from history. The best known of the early Haudenosaunee painters was Ernest Smith from Tonawanda. By the time he died in 1975 Smith had produced over 100 watercolor, oil, and pen and ink works. His hard work helped to record many traditions that might have otherwise been forgotten.
"Snowsnake" by Jesse Cornplanter, Seneca
early 20th century
In the 1970’s Native Americans throughout the United States began to use art to express their ideas about what it meant to be native. Some Native artists became very famous and experimented with ways of painting that made people take notice. Like artists from other nations, Haudenosaunee paint to communicate how they feel or to try to capture in a picture what is beautiful or significant about their culture. Often clan animals, symbols and objects from the past or nature are included in the picture. Other Haudenosaunee paint stories about the way things are changing in their communities or how Haudenosaunee are treated by other people. Sometimes the painters use symbols almost like a secret language as a way to connect an event from the past with a modern event. Like other art forms, painting is a way of showing pride and also a way to speak about Native life without using words.
"Meeting of Hiawatha and Deganawidah" by Sanford Plummer, Seneca
The Evil Witch" by Ernest Smith, Seneca
Untitled by Linley Logan, Seneca