Tuesday, April 13, 2010

HUM 221: Indian nations, arts, crafts and storytelling of the Northwest Coast

For Friday, read Sherman Alexie's introduction to the screenplay of his movie "Smoke Signals" (pages vii-xi) and his poem "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" in Native American Songs and Poems, ed. Brian Swann. (It's also available on line). Does it remind you of "Dances With Wolves" or other movies about American Indians you may have seen?

The last major Native American cultural area we'll study this semester is that of the Pacific Northwest, where Native arts and crafts reached a high level of sophistication, especially in the visual arts. One reason is that the Indians of the Northwest Coast didn't have to struggle as much as others to find food, since they were expert fishermen and the seas were teeming with salmon, halibut and other fish. Their storytelling was of a high order, too, many of the stories centering on Raven, both a god and a trickster. The links in this post will give you a cursory overview of the peoples and their art.

The website Alaska: A Nation Within a State has a pretty good overview of the Northwest Coast culture, which was fairly uniform among the different tribes living along the coast from northern California to South Central Alaska. Note especially their expertise in working with wood. Representative of the Nortwest Coast peoples are the Tlingit (pronounced KLINK-it) of Southeast Alaska. Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History has an online exhibit with a brief overview of Tlingit history, art and legends. As you read the notes on woodworking, myths and clan structure, note the pictures of traditional painted woodcraft. The exhibit also mentions the Tlingits' connection with SEAlaska Corp., a regional corporation set up under the Alaska Native Claims Act in which the shareholders are enrolled members or citizens of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

Today we will read - and listen to - a poem by Tlingit linguist, poet and storyteller Nora Marks Dauenhauer. But first we'll read a story in The Juneau Empire about Tlingit language classes taught by Dauenhauer and others trying to preserve the culture. The poem is called "How to Make Good Baked Salmon from the River" ... http://poeticsandpolitics.arizona.edu/dauenhauer/salmon.htm ... (She's a linguist, so try to overlook the joke about the "glottalized alveolar fricative action as expressed in the Tlingit verb als'oos." All the big words just explain what part of the mouth she uses to pronounce the words, and her audience - apparently fellow language students - enjoyed it. We don't have to.) Is Danenhauer's poem about how to cook fish, or is it about how to live life? Or both? How does the poem reflect the conflict that comes with trying to maintain a traditional lifestyle in modern society?

We'll also watch some clips of Tlingit music and dance:
  • Tlingit dancers demonstrate traditional Tlingit dance on a ferryboat in southeast Alaska.

  • Gene Tagaban, a Tlingit storyteller and jazz musician, plays the Native flute and tells a story of how Raven brought fire to the people. While the cedar flute was originally Lakota, it has spread widely and become part of the common heritage of American Indians throughout North America. The Raven story is traditional Tlingit.
Across the Canadian border in Yukon Territory, the Taglish First Nation of Carcross, Yuk., has a government website listing its services and giving information about the local Taglish and Tlingit culture. Read the Elder's Statement explaining in Tlingit and English their sense of the past and their vision for the future.

An attractively arranged short introduction to the visual arts of the Northwest Coast is on a website put up by Free Spirit Gallery, an online art gallery that specializes in Canadian First Nations arts and crafts. Be sure to read Clint Leung's "Introduction to Northwest Coast Native American Art" and follow his links to articles on "The Basic Elements of Northwest Indian Art," totem poles and wood carving. The Free Spirit site is lavish with pictures, and most of the pictures are of contemporary professional artists working with traditional designs and motifs.

A historical tangent: One of my favorite examples of U.S. government efforts to acculturate Native Americans to Anglo society is a Report of the Siletz Indian Agency in Benton County, Oregon, dated Aug. 28, 1882. In it, the superintendent says he is making progress in teaching the Siletz how to use a sawmill, even though it "has not been used as much in the year past as heretofore, for lack of funds, a matter of much regret to a large number [of the people], many of whom have lately been induced to come in and take lands, but were unable to erect houses for want of lumber." He was especially proud of a new sawmill:
... The labor in the mills is all performed by Indians with a single exception. I am pleased to say that a number of Indians, so far as I know for the first time, cut their timber, drew their logs, and sawed their own lumber without the aid of government, thus proving themselves on the road to self-support and independence, a thing of which they feel a pride.
He added:
The Indians here I find are not very unlike white people; some are willing to labor for what they have and others think they ought to be supported in their idleness. ... The Indians here as a rule learn the trades easily, perhaps more readily even than farming. There are goodly numbers who can perform service in the shops or mills, and show evidence of rapid advancement in mechanism.
No wonder! They'd been building cedar plank houses and working with wood for centuries.

In the 21st century, the art of the Northwest Coast peoples is a vibrant living tradition. Visit the Coghlan Studio and Gallery near Vancouver, B.C., for a highly commercial but culturally aware approach to the art. Be sure to read the history of carving and other arts, the essay on raising a new totem pole at the Royal Museum Of British Columbia in Victoria. But most Northwest Coast art now is smaller, and it branches out into other media. Surf around the Coughlan Gallery's website, visit the gift shop and the gallery to see more. Click on the thumbnails to see larger pictures of the art, or to read artist's biographies. How much are the artists charging? How have Native American artists of the Northwest Coast adapted their traditional art forms to a market economy? (Prices that say "$ ... cdn" are Canadian, and "$ ... usd" are U.S. dollars. But you would have figured that out anyway.) Think about it, review what you've read and answer this question: What strikes you most about the art of the Pacific Northwest? Don't try to react to it all - choose one thing, perhaps the totem poles, the way the artists use color or the stylized, almost abstract, pictures of raven or a killer whale. What in your background and/or taste makes you feel that way? What specific features in the design and execution of the art speak to you across cultures? What suprises you about the art? Always look for surprises: What surprises you may be the most important thing about something new. (Fair warning: On the final exam, you'll be asked to discuss what surprised you in HUM 221. So it's not too soon to start thinking - and blogging - about surprises.) Post your answers as comments to this blogpost.

19 comments:

Roman said...

I like the costumes when they were dancing. They have full capes which probably means its cold in that area. I wasnt expecting to see the horns on the costumes. i dont know wat animal around there has horns like that. The only explanation i could think of is that the picture quality was low and they might have been feathers.

Shakeria said...

the gift shop. what strikes me is that they put all of the artwork on show and up for sale. the picture of how the artist see himself is wat suprises me.

Jake Hill said...

Their costumes were very odd. They animals were unknown to me. And it was very cold outside

dave maziarz said...

i liked that they were dancing in the cold...it showed they really didnt give a damn about the weather and that they were gonna go through with their cultural dances.

dave maziarz said...

i liked that they were dancing in the cold...it showed they really didnt give a damn about the weather and that they were gonna go through with their cultural dances.

ajgand said...

I really find the totem poles interesting. I am an outdoorsmen. I go on fishing trips to Canada and have seen numerous totem poles at the campgrounds that I have stayed at. The time that must go in to carving these things must be intense. I have always wondered how the indians decided what type of faces to put on the poles, and what order they put them in on the poles.

Jessica said...

The totem poles are very interesting. I love all the bright colors and carving they make. I wonder where they get their inspirations for them.

Tara Proctor said...

I think the Totem poles are really cool. The colors that the Indians incorporate in them are amazing. The colors are so bright and beautiful. I also think the animals and objects they include are cool, i like th birds at the top.

Kathleen said...

I like how they use bright colors. Everything seems to pop and stand out. It even seems like the more grim peices like the killing of animal were still done with bright colors. I think it makes the works more powerful and memorable. I really like it.

Brad Selvaggio said...

The Pacific northwest art is very unquie and interesting. Some of the things they made were scary and intimidating. What surprises me the most is its colors and weird shapes of the art.

mikefleshman said...

I liked the costumes and the creative dancing. The weather probably wasn't the nicest in that area because they were wearing full capes. They put their art work on display and sold it. I liked the art works they showed.

Chris Day said...

I liked the artwork, because the artwork is unique. The colors of the art pieces really stood out to me. And it is suuprising that they were selling some of thier personal art pieces.

Lucas Baugher said...

I enjoy looking at all the wood carvings. Many of these carvings are of exotic images. Fish, hawks and ravens, and warriors are just some of the carvings these Indians did. I liked all of the vibrant colors that these Indians painted, and it shows the true meaning of design. It is evident to me that these carvings take time to make and they are not easy to do. This is a special talent that not all people have and these Indians use this talent to express a lot of their feelings.

Cait131 said...

I like the totem pole symbolization. The totem carvings tell a story that are revealed only if one knows the meaning assigned to various animals, fish, birds and designs and where they are placed on the pole. There were usually different specific reasons why they were craved onto to poles. People used to say that the only person who understood the meaning of a totem pole was the owner of it, which surprises me because I thought most people then understood the different meanings of the totem poles. They have become a highly valued art form and a symbol of pride and tradition for the people of the Pacific Northwest.

Michael D. said...

The colors most suprise me about Pacific Northwest art. They are very bright. Even paintings of people have all kinds of colors like bright oranges, greens, blues, etc. Even though i like realistic paintings I liked how that even for a dull colored such as a bird or a person, vibrant colors were used. I think it leaves a lasting impression and makes certain aspects of the image stand out in your mind.

calenevill said...

The costumes they wore were fascinating to me. they wore caps which im guessing it is freezing in that part of the country. i think to myself where they thought of such costumes?

Michael Hayes said...

The totem poles were pretty cool. Its something we havent really seen with any other tribes and i really liked them. i also liked the costumes they wore during the dance. They had capes and were very interesting. They also werent really dressed for the cold which waas surprising. I thought since they came from that area they would dress for the conditions a little better.

Tom said...

They didnt let the elements effect the way they celebrated, they used creative costumes and they made great artwork that many people admire

logan eader said...

i really enjoyed the wood carvings. i found them very interesting becuase they had different kinds of animals such as hawks and fish. they also love to use very bright colors and it makes their work stand out that much more. the are very skilled at what they do.