Art and life

storeys beach

Trees meet water in the Pacific Norhtwest. Photo courtesy of Port Hardy

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.


Photo courtesy of Port Hardy

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.

The exterior of Fort Rupert Bighouse

The entrance to the Fort Rupert Bighouse is under Sisiutl, the triple-headed sea serpent, symbolizing protection, power and revival. Image courtesy Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions

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This view inside the Fort Rupert Bighouse provides the feeling of a typical ceremonial gathering with traditional dancers. Image via Vancouver Sun

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.

Heiltsuk Mask PEM

This striking mask is in PEM’s collection and can be seen in the current exhibition Ravens Many Gifts. Mask, ca. 1845, Heiltsuk (Bella Bella), Central coast, British Columbia, wood, pigment

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.

Eagle and Wild Woman by Henry Hunt PEM

The woman in this silkscreen print depicts Dzunukwa, “the wild woman of the woods.” Eagle and Wild Woman (83/170), early 1980s, Henry Hunt (Kwakwka’wakw). This piece in the museum collection can be seen in Raven’s Many Gifts.

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.

Raven's Many Gifts gallery shot by Karen Kramer

Raven’s Many Gifts installation. Photo by Karen Kramer

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 customary ways to electronic beats.

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.


  1. Jim Olson says:

    Great story Karen, thanks for sharing it. Can you tell us more about the potlatch? I assume that several meals were shared during the ceremony. What kinds of gifts are exchanged?

  2. Janet lack says:

    Very impressive. Looking forward to seeing the exhibit.

  3. Karen says:

    Indeed, Jim, several meals (including snacks and refreshments) were shared over the course of the potlatch. It was my first time trying oolichan (eulochon) oil, which is a highly prized, rich and tasty treat – I dipped bread into it. I also remember eating amazing salmon, among many other generous offerings.

    As for gifts that were distributed to the attending guests…when you walked into the Bighouse, you saw humungous piles of goods on the floor that would be distributed over the course of the potlatch. There were lots of everyday, useful things ranging from plastic laundry baskets, towels, and dishes to 5 lb. bags of flour, sugar, pot holders, and handkerchiefs. Cash and blankets were also given. There is a specific order in which these items are passed out, and not everyone gets everything.

    Each community has their unique way of potlatching. Here is a link to more information on Kwakwaka’wakw potlatching, as provided by the U’mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay, BC:

  4. Jim Krebs says:

    Karen, sounds wonderful. I,ll be over soon.

  5. Ruthann Ruthfield says:

    Congratulations, Karen, on such an interesting exhibit! We look forward to seeing you and the exhibit.

    Ruthann & Barry

  6. Hi Karen — I’m a reporter with Alaska Dispatch up in Anchorage, AK. I’m writing about the “Native Fashion Now” exhibit slated for 2015 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. I’m wondering if there are any Alaskans that will be featured in the show. Can you please write me when you have a chance? Thanks! –Laurel

  7. Anna Tropelgyn says:

    Looking forward to seeing the show before it closes. Regarding the electronic beats “composed” by Galanin, the audio can easily be traced directly to the instrumental track rapped over by Dizzee Rascal on “Respect Me” which was actually a virtually unaltered earlier DJ Wonder track titled “What”. While we know that now, “composition” can mean nearly anything, including a simple recontextualizing, I don’t believe that proper attribution detracts from Galanin’s contribution. We know that he is a skillful musician, songwriter and composer. However, to acknowledge his appropriation and minimal alteration, — simply shifting the starting point — and to not simply assume it was his “composition” strengthens the degree to which we might comprehend the potential implications this mash-up holds.

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