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Stories of cultural resilience in the art of Northwest coastal and Alaska Native people seen in new book

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: July 13, 2020
  • Published July 4, 2020

Northwest Coast and Alaska Native Art

By Christopher Patrello. University of Oklahoma Press. 100 pages 2020, $10.95

’Northwest Coast and Alaska Native Art ’ by Christopher Patrello

As a child growing up near Seattle, few things about my regional surroundings were as enchanting to me as the art of Northwest coastal Natives. It adorned buildings, filled museums, rested in parks and cluttered the shelves and walls of those wonderfully disorganized tourist shops found on the piers that line Seattle’s waterfront. The distinctive painting and carving styles are shared among tribes ranging from Puget Sound to the northern terminus of Alaska’s Inside Passage, and exhibit a connection to the sea and the land that is unlike anything found elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. It seemed to me as a child to be as much an organic and timeless part of the damp temperate climate as the trees and fish themselves.

The Denver Art Museum has an extensive collection of Indigenous art from the Northwest coast and Alaska, and has recently reopened galleries exhibiting it. In conjunction with this, the guidebook “Northwest Coast and Alaska Native Art” authored by Christopher Patrello, a postdoctoral fellow at the museum, has just been published. For those unfamiliar with the styles and diversity of this art, as well as for anyone drawn to it, it’s a handy introduction that provides cultural contexts and makes room for the voices of contemporary practitioners to discuss the art from both historic and present day perspectives.

“Although each culture in this region has its own origin story and traditions,” Patrello writes, explaining how the regional artistic styles developed, “similarities among cultures have developed over time through trade, intermarriage, and the forced consolidation of communities by colonial authorities.”

The artwork of the Northwest coast is reflective of cultures with expansive cosmologies and complex social structures. Photographs in this book show a broad range of items, from the utilitarian to the symbolic, all of them infused with imagery that offers not just adornment, but ideas. Baskets, knives, and clothing serve practical purposes, while puppets, masks and the iconic poles tell stories. Hats and headdresses convey rank, clan, and moiety. The examples of all these items seen here contain sometimes dizzying details.

As Patrello explains, “Artists encode their work with cultural knowledge. In addition to the technical skills required to make artworks, artists incorporate their knowledge of clan histories, the supernatural origins of the cosmos, and intimate knowledge of the ecosystem into their art.”

Totem poles are the most universally recognized symbol of the region, but here they are incorporated into a much broader examination. Sometimes their meanings are not immediately obvious to an outside observer. A wooden welcome figure carved in 1914 bears a strong resemblance to South Pacific island carvings and seems friendly. But its meaning refers to the theft of lands from the Kwakwaka’wakw by the Canadian government, and to the then-forced suppression of cultural practices, especially the potlatch.

Kwakwaka’wakw artist Marianne Nicolson further explains: “it is not a gesture of supplication to colonial encroachment but an assertion against it. The original pole held an image of Johnny Scow’s broken copper in its raised arms. The breaking of a copper represents dispute resolution and the placement on the pole on contested lands is relevant to the testimony of Sisaxolas against the illegal annexation that had taken place there.”

The breaking of ceremonial copper is an act that was recently revived. Historically, high-ranking chiefs would break off a piece of copper and give it to a rival, with the expectation that the gesture would be returned. In February 2013, we learn, artist, activist and hereditary chief Beau Dick broke copper on the steps of the British Columbia Parliament Buildings to protest commercial fishing operations in areas used by First Nations peoples for subsistence.

The brief essays by contemporary practitioners contribute significantly to this book, helping readers understand both the historic significance of things they might merely consider works of art, and also to view contemporary Native art not as a break from supposed tradition, but as a continuation of what has been.

Sonya Kelliher-Combs, raised in Nome, explains this point, telling us, “I personally don’t believe in a line between contemporary and traditional. Who defines what is “traditional”? It is a Western construct to label others, to stereotype and put them in a box. The cultures I come from, Inupiaq and Athabascan, and all cultures, are living and dynamic, growing and evolving through generations.”

Thus when Preston Singletary, a Tlingit artist, takes designs for hats, rattles, boxes and more and recreates them with blown glass, he isn’t breaking with cultural tradition, he’s extending it.

In the pieces shown on these pages, one can see the impact of contact with Europeans. Textiles including cotton and wool were adopted. Silver coins were beaten into bracelets. On the Bering Sea coast, which is given its own section toward the end of this book, basketry appears to have only arisen with the arrival of Russians, yet it became an expression and tool for Inuit and Yup’ik peoples. George Aden “Twok” Ahgupuk, an Inupiaq artist of the early 20th century, took up drawing to support his family after suffering a leg injury. His depictions of everyday life on Alaska’s far western coast show Western influence, but were created on animal hides bleached with a procedure he kept to himself.

The impacts of colonialism and the suppression of cultural practices and languages inflicted by American and Canadian authorities are topics of frequent discussion in this book, but so too are the ways these practices have been revived. Contemporary Northwest and Alaska Native artists are drawing from the past and developing these skills for the future. The art that drew me so strongly as a child is merely a snapshot of a larger universe of creativity that continues to thrive.

As Haida artist Gwaai Edenshaw states, “We are all the recipients of the knowledge collected and stored in the great works of our people that came before us. They are some of our greatest teachers. It is a gift that we need to recognize and acknowledge.”

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