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.
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.