American Sabbatical 031: 10/13/96

First Peoples

10/13.. First Peoples.

Then it rained. I mean RAINED. They don’t call this rain forest for nothing. Which explains the waist-high bracken, the inches of moss on everything, the spongy bounce of the ground underfoot, and the saturated intensity of the greens. British Columbia is very British in its verdant lushness. Where else would alders grow a hundred feet tall (and make good firewood)? Where would arbutus stop being a climbing shrub and become trees four foot across the butt? Where else would maples have leaves a foot wide?

Our spirits weren’t dampened, though. We walked the shoreline and the high woods in the descending drip, and played with the donkeys. Much of the beach was solid white clamshells from old Indian middens, and the driftwood would break a log scavengers heart. The coves of the islands are filled with rafts of Doug fir, ready to be towed to the mill, and the beaches are littered with the remains of gypo logging gone adrift.


Kwagiulth woman 1897
(Benjamin Leeson photo)
Through the blowing mist, black mountains played hide-and-seek, and the white streamers of stormclouds hung on the peaks, or slid between the islands, reshaping the landscape. The big ferries winding between the islands blew their evocative tunes, and the donkeys honked in key.

We got so unwound our clocks stopped, and Kelly had to chivvy us up on Sunday morning to catch the predawn ferry. It was Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, and we had to decamp then, or stay through till Tuesday. And we didn’t want to butt into the family holiday, even though we were invited. We did visit Ruby, Kelly’s mom, who raises horses at 78, and had a big turkey dinner with Kelly and friends at the local bistro. But it was time to come ashore.

When we rolled onto the Princess of Nanaimo in the thin gray dawning it was still pouring intermittently. But by the time we nosed into the slip at Tsawassen the black mountains across the Strait of Georgia were humped up in line along the southwest horizon, and the drizzle came and went.

Call Home

We followed the flow into Vancouver, a beautiful city straddling inlets beneath a mountain backdrop. We only caught glimpses of the panorama, crossing the Oak Street Bridge from the west, as dense white cloudbanks dodged among the hulking orogenics to the east, but what we saw was impressive. We had been directed to Stanley Park as worth the looksee, so we crossed through the city and onto the park peninsula. Here was a bit of Mt. Desert and Acadia, in downtown. First-growth rain forest rising onto high bluffs, with serpentine walking and driving trails, in the heart of a major city.

We made the full loop, craning our necks to sight the tops of the big cedars and firs. Then we aimed Festiva for Granville Island, the city produce market and arcade on a separate islet in the stream. Contemporary northwest art, buskers singing blues and two-part ballads, exotic cheeses, mountains of fruit and veggies, the lure of tempting scents, delis, bakeries, and a Sunday crowd of Vancouverites bumping and ‘scusing. Yum.

Stone & Antler

Yacht Condos
What is it that defines a Canadian ambiance? There’s a bit-of-a lilt to the lingo, A? And a kind of well-washed wholesomeness, youknow. The Northerners we know are anything but bland, and yet, the culture borders on the soporific. Is it that Canadians don’t push their egos at you (unless they are headed south to fame and fortune)? When you bump into Americans (“Yankees”) in Canada they seem aggressive, loud, often overbearing. On the other hand, Canadians often need amplification to be heard.

In Vancouver the mix is a bit livelier. It’s a very oriental town. They say Hong Kong is resettling among the already numerous oriental population of the Banana belt. And the place looks like I’d imagined Hong Kong. The mountains and waters, the highrise housing. And most of the highrise in Vancouver is apartment buildings, with a thousand flying balconies to catch the views. This is a downtown that is lived-in, and the pedestrian liveliness makes it a very human town.

Inuit Carving

Water Taxi
It’s also a gardener’s delight. Anything and everything will grow, so every niche and crevice bulges with hedges and flowers and hanging greenery. Here are water-taxis dodging yachts alongside condos dripping grapevines. The Canadian affect may be flat, but the effect of Vancouver is enticing.

We slethered around to the Museum of Man at UBC, and caught a heavy dose of indigenous culture. This anthropology museum has a knockout collection of northwest coast carvings, from 60-foot totem poles to handheld fetishes, carved canoes to inlaid masks. Not only are the major displays a jaw-dropper, but the entire collection is available for inspection, in drawers and cases, so you can be overwhelmed in the minutest detail, at your will. The whole range is there, from the hilarious to the majestic, from pocket magic to the monumental. The undercurrent of violence in the cultures wasn’t suppressed. As Peggy said, “Reality isn’t romanticized here, only idealized.” We went outside and stood in the rain, now pouring again, next to the totempoles, and looked out onto the foggy mountains. It wasn’t romantic at all, but evocative as an owlcry.

Raven Dancer

And here we are. Turning a corner on the trail. Up among the totempoles in the rain forest, and looking for a roadsign. Maybe it’s time to make a symbolic gesture. When we set out we tied an owl mask Peggy had painted (on leather, in northwest coast style) to the rearview mirror of Festiva. There are three faces peering forward through our windshield. On Galiano, as far west as it gets, we were met by a big owl in the tall timber. Maybe our fourwheeled traveling companion has earned a magic name. Let’s call her RED OWL. oooHOO!


Now it’s time to get back on the American path, A? So we pointed Red Owl south. But it’s hard to find the road again. We have been going WEST, chasing history’s compass-heading. So what now? What new discoveries are waiting to the south? And will they let us back in to make them? We had to stand in line for an hour and a half at the border, just to get re-enthused about the old USofA. Ah INS.You don’t want to make it easy for northern aliens to get in, do you? They might make America boring. We fumed in the cue listening to moanful country on AM radio, watching the sun try and come out over the Olympic peninsula. When we finally got to the gate it was “Maine,eh?” and a jerk of the head. Great to be back. oooHoo.

(Memo #29)

Oct. 13 - Northwest Cultures Museum

Who? Native Americans/First People of Northwest Coast (Tsimshian, Bella Coola, Kwakiutl, Tlingit etcetera)

What? museum of their rich material culture

Where? overlooking Vancouver Harbor

When? today

How? University of British Columbia collection

Topics: Northwest coast cultures.

Questions: What is tradition?

Kwagiulth Wedding Party
(Edward Curtis 1914)

Chief's Daughter 1914
(Edward Curtis Photo)
The Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nootka, Bella Coola,and Haida are some of the Native American groups of the northwest coast of North America. What everyone knows of them is their totem poles, the huge elaborately carved wooden posts that were set up outside the houses. That is appropriate, since wood was their primary medium and carving the glory of their rich material culture. As a contemporary Haida artist puts it -“Art is our only written language.”

In Canada these groups are being called the “First Nations” or “First Peoples” (terms which seem more appropriate to me than “Indians” or the PC “Native Americans,” since many of us are native Americans - i.e. born in America). Although decimated in the nineteenth century by warfare and disease, these peoples have endured, and the population has grown recently to some 169,000 people who, like their Yankee counterparts, live in cities and towns, or on reserves created by the Canadian government (similar to reservations in the USA).

Bella Coola Big House 1898
(Edward Dossetter Photo)

Great Bird
The peoples of the Northwest coast are puzzles in some ways to Anthropologists. They do not fit the categories. They were sedentary village peoples, although they had no agriculture. They were technically “hunters and gatherers” relying on wild plants and wild animals. The foods of the northwest coast were so plentiful that these modern day hunter-gatherers were NOT nomadic. They lived in villages of huge planked post-and-beam wooden houses, lined up on the beaches, and ventured away to fish and hunt and gather plants, roots, and berries from the forests and the sea. They could and did accumulate great material wealth.

Their environment provided huge trees, and they became master carvers of poles and boats and boxes and trays and masks and jewelry. Copper was the key metal used before trade brought them gold and silver. The women wove baskets and robes. They developed a very distinctive artistic style - humans and animals and mythological creatures are rendered in bold curvilinear form, in vivid colors, with heavy black outlines.

Northwest Styling

(Carpenter Photo)
Their society had complex class and rank divisions, and an elaborate ceremonial system. A key ritual that puzzled Europeans was the potlatch, a giving away or destruction of huge quantities of goods which might beggar the host, at the same time it brought him greatly increased status. Europeans tend to GET goods when they marry or have children or celebrate rites of passage, and see material wealth as something to be hoarded.

The Museum of Anthropology of the University of British Columbia is a tribute to the Northwest coast peoples. It is on a fabulous site in a grove high over the harbor of Vancouver with dark mountains in the distance. The building was designed using elements of their art - heavy lintels and upright posts. Contemporary artists of the First Nations carved the wooden door panels. Inside huge carvings, boats, and totem poles are set up in the soaring glasswalled great hall.

Frog Clan Totem
Winter and Pond Photo)

Hands of Creation
(by Beau Dick)
A super feature of the museum is the illustrations found near every object that show where it was in a house or village. A panel of carved birds is identified as part of a house’s wall decor, and the illustration shows the house interior with the panel on the wall, and with people going about their everyday tasks. Smaller galleries hold jewelry, dress, masks.

Perhaps the most incredible feature of the museum is its open storage. The entire museum collection is housed in glassfronted cases and drawers. Any visitor can browse. You are not limited to the small number of objects on official display in the public galleries as you are in all other museums I know. In a great art museum such as the Metropolitan you may only see one of the ten oils they own by a particular artist. A curator puts together an exhibition that s/he chooses. The viewer is, by definition, limited to the curator’s choice. Moreover, objects may be out on loan to other museums or exhibitions.


Otter Rattle
(Haida 19th Century)
It is very frustrating to know that a museum has a dozen Monets when only two can be seen. At the Chicago Art Institute in September we were horrified to find that the ENTIRE American wing (over six small galleries) which we had so anticipated seeing was closed. Sorry. At this museum you can wander through the storage area and see case after case of ritual masks or drums. And the collections’ catalogs are available in heavy notebooks that anyone can browse. This really made it the first public museum in our journey.

The museum displays work by contemporary First Nations artists which combine old methods and materials and subjects with new ones. For example, the women of the Northwest Coast knit distinctive heavy wool sweaters whose designs have the distinctive northwest coast forms. First Nation jewelers are working in gold and silver and bronze. I saw one mask that had a section made out of cardboard. Many times native peoples are urged to produce only “traditional art”. Tourists come to expect a certain color range or shapes from a particular group. For example, tourists expect Navaho rugs to be made in a certain fairly limited set of colors and styles; Hopi pottery should be terracotta color with black designs.

Button Blanket
(Tlingit 19th Century)

Missionary Carving
Why should native artists be handcuffed to a particular style or motif? Why do we think that there was a single unchanging TRADITIONAL style. Natives peoples have always changed though the centuries, although modern contact certainly increased the pace of change. After all, the Navaho didn’t start weaving until the Spaniards brought in sheep, the Inuit (Eskimo) carvers prefer a stone brought in from Wisconsin. An artist or craftsmen draws from her/his personal and cultural background. This museum showed that First Nation artists are doing the same. And the gift shops and city galleries have new items using traditional forms - prints and belt buckles and sandwich bags.

“The only way tradition can be carried on is to keep inventing new things”- Robert Davidson, Haida artist

Museum of Man

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