I remember the exact time and place when Northwest Coast art and life came together for me – when I first truly understood just how integrated the two are for many indigenous people living there (and elsewhere for that matter). It was 2001, and I was in Tsaxis, Fort Rupert, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, at the northern tip. It was my first trip to this neck of the woods, and I was with my former boss at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Mary Jane Lenz, and exhibition project consultants Peter Macnair and Jay Stewart. We had, just hours before, attended a 12-hour memorial potlatch at the Bighouse, a large wooden building used for Kwakwaka’wakw dancing and band gatherings. We were there bearing witness to a family honoring a deceased relative, as part of the curatorial research for NMAI’s 2005 exhibition, Listening to our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the North Pacific Coast.
Straight from Anthropology 101: at a potlatch, hosts give their guests quantities of gifts and perform songs and dances to manage relations with family, ancestors, and the supernatural world. In return, guests validate the host’s demonstration of high social standing and economic wealth. Culture bearers – chiefs, ritual specialists, and performers – dressed in their finest regalia dance, sing, and drum. These gift-giving feasts continue to bring Northwest Coast communities together at occasions of births, deaths, weddings, and other major life events in places like the Bighouse as seen below.
Inside the Fort Rupert Bighouse, a fire blazed in the center of the dirt floor. Peter speaks Kwakwala, the indigenous language spoken by the Kwakwaka’wakw, and lived in the community for a number of years. He translated for us throughout the elaborate, theatrical performances. Dancers wore masks and capes, shook rattles, and sang songs that were given to them at the beginning of time. It was impressive – all of it – and it went on for about 12 hours. All that notwithstanding, it wasn’t until the next day that the coalescence of art and life hit me over the head like a ton of bricks.
After the potlatch, the next day, the four of us were walking around the forest outside of town, and Peter showed us a stand of cedar trees. He explained why cedar is preferred for carving masks. He talked to us about cedar bark, and when and how people strip the bark for weaving baskets and capes. Before harvesting can begin, artists make offerings to the tree for giving them beautiful materials.
It was misty (we were in a temperate rain forest, after all). We piled back into the car, and Peter started telling us about the giant named Dzunukwa who lives deep in the mountains and forests. Known as the “Wild Woman of the Woods,” Dzunukwa is recognizable by her dark skin and messy hair, and for crying “Hu! Hu!” through her pursed mouth. She stuffs misbehaving children into a big basket on her back and carries them off, but because she is pretty slow, she can be easily outwitted. She’s not all bad though. She owns the wealth of the forest, including the highly-valued mineral copper, and bestows gifts of good fortune to those who befriend her. She appears at many occasions of wealth-giving, including the potlatch we saw the night prior.
So Peter is relaying this to us, and I asked if she used to live in these particular woods. Jay turned to look at me from the front seat, responding with, “Used to live? No, she didn’t used to live here. She lives here.” Notice, emphasis on the present tense.
Light dawns slowly on marble head…as we say on the North Shore of Boston.
Ohhhhh. Okay. Got it. She LIVES here. She liiiiiiiives here. Still here. Living.
It was a humble moment for me. I don’t know why it hadn’t all fully clicked into place before. I thought it had, yet, it was then that I truly understood. These stories aren’t just stories. They are lived experiences. Still. Living experiences. Art is life on the Northwest Coast.
This is the main point I want people to take away from Raven’s Many Gifts: Native Art of the Northwest Coast, which runs at PEM from April 5, 2014 – mid-2015. That art IS life on the Northwest Coast. It wasn’t just happening then. It is still happening now.
I chose three themes to underscore this idea of the integration of art and life: Living Stories, Family Connections, and Market Innovations. Three masks introduce the exhibition, conveying ancestral narratives and cultural values. Raven’s Many Gifts includes historic and contemporary art: jewelry, textiles, masks, prints and a video installation by rising star Nicholas Galanin that is a mash-up of the past and present.
In this two-part video, Galanin opens a dialogue between past and present. In Part I, the non-Native hip-hop dancer David “Elsewhere” Bernal free-forms to traditional Tlingit chanting and drums. In Part II, the Tlingit dancer Dan Littlefield, wearing full regalia and carrying a raven rattle, moves in traditional ways to the electronic beats composed by Galanin.
Northwest Coast people incorporate art into all aspects of life, continuing traditions of visual expression into the present that reflect dynamic and ongoing relationships among humans, ancestors, and supernatural beings. The past and present merge into one continuum. Come see for yourself.