TURTLE ISLAND'S INDIGENOUS ART FORMS

WHO DECIDES WHAT CONSTITUTES ART AND ON WHAT BASIS IS THE DECISION MADE?

Throughout human history, it has been left to only a few to control and define what is art, what is craft, what is artifact, or whether the piece(s) being judged even belong in any of these categories.  

Sadly, it has always been the case that the opinions of a select few inform how the world views itself in terms of cultural standards and beliefs. T'was ever thus with political and social history when the population is told what is art, what is music, what is theatre, what is the political process, what is of historical significance.

For far too long paternalistic, racist opinions have relegated Indigenous Art and Artifact to breathing stale air and dying on dusty shelves in the bowels of museums and art galleries. "It seemed like a good idea at the time to loot Indigenous communities of their culture, but, then, what do we do with it now? It's not really art, but we just had to have it!"

Hence Turtle Island's dreamers and artistic visionaries who produced this sacred and wondrous work upon which much of modern Indigenous art is based were relegated to the background of the world's cultural histories. It is really only in the last 40+ years, that Native art has emerged from the shadows and into the light. 

Once great and vibrant Indigenous cultures are now being embraced through a rebirth of ancient art and music. They are being received by an appreciative world starved for peace, balance, harmony, mysticism, and true belief in what it is to be sharing and caring humans. 

This is what pride in Indigenous culture is all about, beautiful art works, music and dance produced in a sacred and respectful manner that celebrates the vibrancy and texture of an ancient civilization that still resonates today in the care and trust of those who have followed in the footsteps of their Ancestors and learned the old ways in order to produce works that speak top a contemporary world. All My Relations.

 

 

A THUNDERBIRD PERSONAL STORY 

Some years ago, I was invited to view the Indigenous collectables that were housed in the back of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (ROM).  Much like the old TV series, Get Smart (I am barely old enough to remember!), when I arrived at the appointed time, I was ushered into the back of the ROM, through banks of TV cameras, and doors that opened and shut surreptitiously behind me. I was half expecting a telephone booth to drop me down to my destination!  

Up I went to some obscure eerily silent floor, where hidden behind white parachute material tumbled together on wooden shelves in soundless despair lay many sacred items that had defined Indigenous cultures for thousands of years.  

I work with powerful Ancestors, and my hair literally stood up on end as my six ancestral Grandmothers arrived to accompany me through the eerie quiet of this desolate place while I looked, handled and listened to the cries of a number items; an abalone headdress worn by my distant relative, Chief Legaic. I heard the medicine bundles stacked on the floor in the corner of the room weep to be allowed to go home - "No good can come of this", one Grandmother whispered, "No good can come of this"; I felt the presence of Sitting Bull, as a narrow drawer was opened and the hide shirt he had worn at the Battle of Bull Run was proudly pointed out - Sitting Bull hiding in a drawer - it did not compute; I heard the cries of the children dying horribly as I looked at the blankets; they reminded me of the deliberate acts of germ warfare perpetrated on the innocent as soldiers reduced Indigenous population numbers by giving small pox-infected blankets to Native women and children - they died by the thousands.

I picked up beautifully carved spoons, bentwood boxes and bowls from the Northwest Coast - perhaps they were used at one of the great west coast Yaawks (Feasts), or given as gifts. I felt soft deerskin dresses and moccasins marveling at the exquisite beadwork of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee women, each bead lovingly stitched representing the soul of their cultures.

I heard myself singing an ancient chant, not knowing where it came from as I moved up and down the aisles looking and touching the spirits of a once proud people now shrouded behind white curtains; I saw the white curtains as a metaphor for her once rich and vibrant red heritage now hidden under a dominant white society and its biased views. Tears came to my eyes, but I fought them back, not wanting to show weakness in the presence of my Ancestors. "I will be strong for you, I will speak for you." I whispered to my Grandmothers. I spoke an ancient prayer of honour for my people finishing with, "nluk'aaga goot" (I will remember). Wilwilaaysk, All My Relations

 

 

INTRODUCTION

The creation of beautiful and practical objects (for all tribal communities) served as a means of transmitting stories, history, wisdom and property from generation to generation. Cultural images provided Indigenous people with a tie to the land by depicting their histories on cave walls; totem poles; the Big Houses of the Pacific Northwest coast, buffalo hides, long houses, tipis. The symbols depicted were a constant reminder of their birth places, lineages and nations.

It is important to note, however, that generally speaking art was not produced for aesthetic reasons. Time was always an issue, as there was much to do to keep tribal communities healthy and safe for another day. Therefore, the emphasis was placed on practical uses of items, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, and shelter. 

However, because spiritualism, the supernatural and the importance of the environment played such integral roles in the day-to-day life of Indigenous people, it was not unusual for their worldly goods to be adorned with symbols, crests and totems that represented some important figure(s) from the seen and unseen worlds. The artifacts may have been practically motivated but that did not meant they couldn't be beautiful at the same time.

 Often different tribes would adorn their possessions with symbols that represented a tribe as a collective; this would often be a signal of differentiation among tribal groups. Such symbols could be compared to a coat of arms, or running up the flag of a country on a sailing ship, as it approached a harbour.

After the arrival of the Europeans, Indigenous artifacts suddenly became a hot commodity to be collected and placed in museums and other institutions, and many tribal groups were looted of their precious items by over-zealous collectors. The Dundas Collection of Tsimshian artifacts is one such situation. 

It is only in recent years that many Native organizations have been calling for a return of some of their sacred items, such as medicine bundles, that symbolize their cultural heritage.


LEST WE FORGET.....

It is important to re-emphasize the point that the renaissance of Native art was not to attract the tourist trade, although in recent times it has become an important consideration; much of the monies goes to support individual artists, carvers and Indigenous communities. 

As Native Nations slowly began to emerge from the devastation of their recent history, art and music began to re-emerge as well. It has once again became an important activity for Native people struggling to heal. It is produced to depict and represent the souls of proud cultures almost lost to the avarice and brutality of European power-brokers seeking to conquer and settle Turtle Island to satisfy their exhaustive and insatiable appetites.

 

 

MAINSTREAM RECOGNITION

The McMichael Canadian Art Collection located in Kleinberg, ON has always been a strong proponent of Indigenous Art and Culture. Thunderbird has had a long association with the Gallery as a Storyteller/Performer/Educator. A few years ago, Down From the Shimmering Sky, a wondrous exhibition of Pacific Northwest Coast Art was a sell-out for its run; Emily Carr and Norval Morrisseau have also been on Display.

                                                      
                                                      
"Shaman's Ride"         
                                     "Above the Gravel Pit"
(Norval Morrisseau)                                                  (Emily Carr)

          
 "Transformation Mask"  (Northwest Coast)       

The creation of beautiful and practical objects (for all tribal communities) also served as a means of transmitting stories, history, wisdom and property from generation to generation. Art provided Indigenous people with a tie to the land by depicting their histories on cave walls; totem poles; the Big Houses of the Pacific Northwest coast; buffalo hides; long houses; tipis the symbols depicted were a constant reminder of their birth places, lineages and nations.

It is important to note, however, that generally speaking art was not produced for aesthetic reasons. Time was always an issue, as there was much to do to keep tribal communities healthy and safe for another day. Therefore, the emphasis was placed on practical uses of items, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, and shelter. 

The Art Gallery of Ontario has finally recognized to a very limited degree that Native art belongs in the context of fine art and not just craft or artifact.  A new exhibit entitled "Meeting Ground" was presented at the SGO. The AGO's very conservative nature has been pricked a bit, but not so much that this new show is going to be a huge eye-opener.  It consists mainly of small, ceremonial pipes, and combs.  But, at least, it is a start.  Perhaps the whopping financial windfall at the recent Dundas Collection auction in New York might change their arrogant view.

The Art Gallery of Hamilton has created a show entitled, "Isumavut: The Artistic Expression of Nine Cape Dorset Women.  

Most importantly the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec has permanently expanded its First Nations gallery that includes more artifacts, and most importantly the accomplishments of Native people in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries; there is a booth where people can sit and listen to stories. Thunderbird had the fun of recording a Tsimshian story for the exhibit.

 Pundits of the Art World, welcome to the World of Indigenous Art! May it open your eyes and profoundly change the way you look at creative expression hopefully in a manner that pleases our Ancestors!

 

 

PACIFIC NORTHWEST COAST

There is a basic humanness of the universe which is confirmed in the artwork. Much of the early work, for example, was explicitly sexual, either phallic or vulvic in meaning and intent. Later it evolved into the now familiar and intricate two-dimensional art form that is now so popular.


Soul Catcher

The elaborate two-dimensional decorations, painting, carvings, coppers, totems, of the Pacific Northwest coast were a direct reflection of an elaborate and intricate social and political hierarchical culture. In fact, so refined and sophisticated is the art and the fact that it has survived the ravages of post-European contact suggests great longevity and stability.

Haida Rattle

The totem pole, although not originally an art form as its practical use was to indicate a family's history, enjoyed a rebirth as an easily recognized and powerful art form after European contact; it was during this period that carving poles became much easier with the acquisition of knives, chisels and other useful trade items.

It wasn't until the 1960s when a renaissance in Pacific Northwest coast Art became a reality.  It is usually credited to one man, Bill Reid (1920-1998, a much lauded, hugely talented Haida artist who got his start carving totem pole images in gold. In 1948 he followed in his Dad's footsteps by becoming a silver and gold smith. He spent endless amounts of time studying the work of the old carvers so that he could eventually emulate them. From there he went on to create stunning pieces of his own design that grace many landmark places (Canadian Embassy in Washington) before in the recent past succumbing to Parkinson's Disease at the age of 72. He was the link that tied the past to the present-day great Haida Artists, such as the Davidson family.


ENTER THE WORLD OF
PACIFIC NORTH WEST COAST CULTURE

 

HAUDENOSAUNEE

Haudenosaunee Art finds its origins among the prehistoric Eastern Woodlands on both sides of the Canada-United States border (Ontario, New York State). Early forms of art included finding clan symbols carved or painted on gables of longhouses. Images on trees, grave posts, and war posts also recorded exploits in visual symbols. Tattoos and body painting were another common expression of the visual dimension. Still later, clan symbols were used to sign treaties and land deeds. The evidence for Iroquois use of bark, hide, powder horns, and other surfaces for painting is less convincing, and easel painting or sketching does not develop as a new art until the 19th century. The possible first known easel artists was a man named Dennis Cusick who may have been the song of a Tuscarora chief by the name of Nicholas Cusick. He started painting in this fashion somewhere around 1821.

Beautiful soapstone carvings now proliferate in shops around the world. Again this is a relatively new art medium for Haudenosaunee artists (1969 - Tuscarora artist, Duffy Wilson). Mr. Wilson was looking for a way to show his pride in his culture by carving totems and sacred symbols into the stone. He would allow the stone to tell him what to carve. 

Bone and antler carvings saw a revival in the 1970s, eagles, moose, deer quickly found a home in these intricate carvings. Again, this art form was a representation of the Haudenosaunne pride in their six nations confederacy and the great law.

False Face Masks are now considered Art even though they come from a spiritual and supernatural belief. It is said that the masks contain supernatural power to cure disease which will be conferred on the human beings who make the masks, when they feed the masks (honouring with tobacco), invoke the beings' help while burning tobacco and singing a curing song. The Medicine People of the False Face Society performed an important function because they attempted to protect the Haudenosaunee people by warding off evil spirits responsible for disease and by promoting fertility in their crops. 

Basketmaking and cornhusk dolls have also enjoyed a new energy.  Cornhusk dolls continue to be made without faces, because the Haudenosaunee believe that the Great Mystery is the only one with the power to create humans and their individual personalities.

Clay pottery is also being re-introduced although much of the knowledge surrounding itwas lost when trade items such as copper, brass and iron kettles and pots quickly replaced the clay ones.

Much like the artists and carvers on the Pacific Northwest coast, the artist's tools of the trade were often handed down from generation to generation, providing continuity and pride in a culture.

 

 

ANISHINAABE

Following the tradition of most other Native Nations, the Anishinaabe produced beauty and practicality in the items they created.  All things were made to honour the Great Mystery and incorporated the landscape of the natural world into many of their designs.

Much like Bill Reid on the Pacific Northwest coast it only took one person to revitalize Anishinaabe art. Norval Morrisseau (1932-2007), on the Sand Point Reserve in northern Ontario, with the traditional name Miskwaabik Animiiki, or Copper Thunderbird. He is the founder of the Legend or Medicine Painting style. His works are sold worldwide.

A revitalization of "legend" painting has taken root in Anishinaabe and Cree art.  It stems from the oral traditions that have been passed down by the Elders from generation to generation and embedded in the souls of the Anishinaabe people. Paintings such as the one shown above, tell an ancient story. It really is quite marvellous as the paintings remind all Indigenous people that they are part of a living chain of connections to both the physical and unseen worlds.

It all began with the thousands of petroglyphs, or paintings on stone,  scattered on cliffs surrounding the Great Lakes. They provide a continuity for the Anishinaabe people by telling stories of the relations between humans, the spirits, the supernatural, and animals. The petroglyphs are very sacred as they are the 'hand' and 'soul-prints' of a very proud people.

Birch bark scrolls (wiigwaasabakoon) are also a uniquely post-European art form used specifically for Midewiwin ceremonies. Information was recorded through the use of images depicting songs, stores, ceremonies among a myriad of other record-keeping items.

No words can adequately describe the magnificant beading and porcupine quillwork talents of Anishinaabe women - intricate patterns adorn regalia, clothing, household items that are truly breathtaking.

And of course, the Dreamcatcher originated with the Anishinaabe.

 

 

 

 

PLAINS NATIVE ART

Known especially for their beadwork on hide and leather, tribes such as the Lakota, Blackfeet, Crow, Arapaho and Ute used similar materials and techniques in different ways to produce unique tribal styles of decoration.

Women were a powerful presence in the creation of beautiful and artful practical objects. There was a serious economic importance in women's art. As well, their innovative techniques helped with cultural preservation, and teaching of artistic traditions.

 The Plains women made Parfleche cases from folded rawhide. It is untanned animal hide soaked in lye and water to remove the hair and then dried on a stretcher.  Buffalo hide was most commonly used, but as Tatanka (Buffalo) grew scarce, women used elk, horse, moose and later cattle hides.  Holes were burned in the hide for rawhide strings to be threaded through that were used to open and close it. Painted for decoration was obtained from European traders. Parfleche is a French word meaning "turn arrows" - they were general purpose containers used to carry food and other personal possessions.

Carved Catlinite Pipe Bowl

 

 

ATLANTIC ART - MIKMAQ
(Also, Abenaki, the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet) 

Porcupine Quill Chest

Mi'Kmaq are famed for their split-ash basketmaking and porcupine-quill art and sometimes called the Porcupine Indians. They are also known for their snowshoes and birch bark canoes in which they traveled up and down the Atlantic coast.

Gorgeous Basket

A number of years ago, Thunderbird was gifted with a gorgeous basket; she treasures her beautiful, deep, hand-made basket in which she keeps all her sacred ceremonial items and medicines. 

 

Totally awesome quill work. Words simply fail....

 

 

 

ART by SHANNON THUNDERBIRD

I am a self-taught artist primarily in the Pacific Northwest Coast tradition. Although my time commitments to this peaceful pursuit is very limited, over the years, I have been able to produce a body of work, some of which hang in homes and galleries as far away as Finland. Not all my work is represented here; this page just gives you an idea of what happens when I retreat to my art studio to recharge my batteries.

 

 

Mother Earth
30" circle
Twin Eagles
16x20 (framed)
Beaver
16x20
Mother Earth
36 Circle
Buffalo and Sun
30x24
Salmon
16x20

Hummingbird Table
Thunderbird Wolves
16x20
Swan
20x30 (framed)
Orca
16x20 unframed
Wolves and Sun
24x24 (unframed)
Grandmother Raven
30" Circle
Raven 
(Not for Sale-TBird's very first painting)
Spirit Shakers
16x20 (framed)
Salmon.jpg (835352 bytes)
Salmon
16x20 (framed)
Navaho Yeii Spirit 
20 x 24 (framed)
Kokopelli
20x24 (framed)
     
  Wolf
16x20 (unframed)
Wolves
16x20 (framed)
     

       

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