Happy Eater in the form of a Northwest Coast Art Introduction

We recently just had our soft-launch of NATIVEX.com and are quite excited to start selling and marketing Todd Baker’s beautiful prints and our other Native designed items. We will be in soft-launch mode until I settle down in New York City after graduation. Soft-launch basically means the site is visible and functional, but between now and our hard-launch on July 20th, I’ll be perfecting the site, adding content, doing photo shoots, and getting press releases ready.

I wanted to give you run down on Northwest Coast art which is the Native American art style currently seen on NATIVEX.com. Being from the Pacific Northwest myself, I have a strong affinity toward the Northwest Coast art aesthetic. This distinct style of art comes from Native American artists who belong to tribes located in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. The artwork often features creatures such as ravens, bears, orcas and even mythical creatures like the thunderbird. These creatures are most commonly depicted using ovoids, U forms and S forms. These art forms often relate to traditional creation stories and mythology, such as the Thunderbird, who creates lightning bolts with the blink of an eye and thunder with the flap of its wings.

Cheryl Shearar’s introduction to Understanding Northwest Coast Art-A Guide to Crests, Beings and Symbols will give you a better understanding for Northwest Coast Art’s history and origins.

Today, Northwest Coast First Nations art is experiencing a phenomenal period of renewed growth. More than a dozen First Nations, each with distinctive cultural characteristics, inhabit the Pacific Northwest Coast between Alaska and Oregon. Within these nations, smaller sub groups exist, also with distinct cultures.

Among all these nations, however, art and the creation of artifacts are intimately connected with religious and social ceremony, with personal and familial status, with history and myth, legal and political systems, and shamanism. Due in part to a hospitable climate and environment, many communities were wealthy enough for some members to devote their time to artistry. Their mastery of art ranks high among the great human collective achievements.

Two institutions central to the culture are the potlatch and various elaborate dance ceremonies, which traditionally occurred during the winter months, after people had finished the bulk of their food gathering and preserving. Artists and performers spent many hours preparing for and rehearsing a wide variety of presentations, ceremonies, and entertainments.

The potlatch is the most significant social, cultural, legal, and political ceremony, held to mark important occasions; birth, marriage, death, the transfer or inheritance of property such as titles, names, resources, masks songs, and dances. These where all proclaimed in speeches to the guests, who were expected to witness and remember, and were paid with gifts and feasts of food. The more lavish the food and gifts, the more respect earned for the hosts.

The dance ceremonies (many of which are still intact) initiated young people in elaborate rites of passage that introduced them to their responsibilities in the community. Both the potlatch and Winter Ceremony events also offered the opportunity for people to honour their crest and ancestor being, retell myths and legends, perform songs and dances, and assert or reassert their status. The ceremonies involved the use of regalia such as masks, costumes, props, and other paraphernalia.

During the early years after Europeans began arriving in the late eighteenth century art production saw an increase. Trade with foreigners stimulated the culture and the economy in a number of ways. The trade in sea otter pelts resulted in chiefs and individuals becoming far richer than in pre-contact times. In some areas, the “new market” was recognized and explored: the Haida, for example, began trading argillite carvings with sailors. Within the cultures themselves, patronage of artists grew, along with the new surge of wealth, and by the 1860s, some villages could boast of as many as seventy totem poles.

These heady times were followed by low, and in this case the lows were devastating. Diseases introduced by newcomers decimated a large percentage of the indigenous population.

The new governing society of white people found the potlatch ceremony particularly incompressible, and in 1885, the Canadian government banned the potlatch. The art suffered a terrible blow with this decision, as the need for ceremonial regalia and props dropped off dramatically.

The now infamous residential school system weakened the culture further, as the government attempted to assimilate Native children by removing them from their families, relocating them to faraway institutions, and forbidding them to speak their own tongues. The residential school system made transference of traditional skills and knowledge very difficult.

The spirit of a people is strong, however, and resistance was inevitable. Potlatching continued underground, though many songs, dances, legends and histories were irretrievably lost.

Ironically, during this period of cultural oppression, the outside world began to recognize the beauty and power of Northwest Coast art. A number of European artists, including Picasso and Matisse, found inspiration in so-called “primitive art,” and helped to bring recognition to Northwest Coast art. Famous European anthropologist, likewise, were publishing works and bringing home items that stimulated interest in and appreciation for Northwest Cost cultures.

A major revival of Northwest Coast art began in the 1950s. A result of the demands of artists working within the highly formalized traditional conventions, the art revival inspired a concurrent cultural revival. Myths, songs, dances, ceremonies, and histories were rediscovered along with art traditions.

Historically, artists were expected to adhere to the rules of composition and property rights. The rights to depict and display beings and legends, as to perform certain songs and dances, were, and in some cases still are, jealously guarded by the owners. Such rights might be inherited, stolen in war, traded, purchased or endowed as rewards or gifts.

The rules today are less strict and extensive borrowing, adaptation and innovation exists. However, many artists choose to research and pursue the artistic styles and images of their own cultural heritage and some prefer to depict only those crests that are rightfully theirs or belong to people who commission works. Disputes surrounding these rights and privileges may arise, but in general, the cultural climate is one of support for artists who work outside of their particular tribal affiliation.

Today, the art continues to evolve as artist respond to the demands of the art world while they strive to honour the dignity and integrity of both their cultural and personal visions.

Cheryl Shearer is a graduate of the University of British Columbia. She has worked at the Spirit Gallery in West Vancouver and at the Whistler Inuit Gallery, and now is the owner of the Salmonberry Gallery in Toronto.

I will periodically feature short excerpts from her book on the blog, but if you are a beginner and serious about understanding Norwest Coast Art her book is must.


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