Totems, masks, and a carved bird that soars. Northwest Indian heritage
Spirit and Ancestor: A Century of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum, by Bill Holm. Photographs by Eduardo Calder'on. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press. 256 pp. $50 cloth, $24.95 paper. From the Land of the Totem Poles - The Northwest Coast Indian Art Collection at the American Museum of Natural History, by Aldona Jonaitis. Photographs by Stephen S. Meyers. New York and Seattle: American Museum of Natural History, University of Washington Press. 269 pp. Cloth only, $35.Skip to next paragraph
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TWO of the United States' most significant collections of native North American art repose in museums on opposite coasts, the largest collection being 3,000 miles from where its works were created. But the collections do not exist in isolation from each other.
Nothing could make that more clear than the virtually simultaneous publication of two books by the University of Washington Press celebrating the art and the collectors. Both volumes are stunning visual evocations of the unique art forms developed by Indians of the coastal regions of the Northwest United States, Canada, and southeast Alaska.
Serious institutional collecting began in the 1880s. Ceremonial objects, tools, weapons, and trade items had attained their highest form in the mid-19th century as white contact introduced new materials with which to make them and a concomitant source of wealth. Cross references to artworks, collectors, artists, and ethnologists in the two volumes are fascinating and result in sourcebooks that are more educational than might be expected.
``Spirit and Ancestor,'' fourth in a series of monographs from the Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum and published to honor its centennial observance, is a catalog of 100 fine Northwest Indian pieces collected for that institution since 1885. Bill Holm, whose landmark 1965 book ``Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form'' is the definitive treatise on the subject, admits that choosing only 100 works from the 8,000 owned by the museum of which he is curator emeritus was not easy.
Not only did the choices have to symbolize a century of collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting but they also needed to represent the diversity of cultures in a collection richer in artifacts from one region (the Tlingit) than from others. The result is a tribute to Holm's sensitivity, born of a half century's devotion to the people and their art, and to Calder'on's magnificent photographs, which lend an almost mystical immediacy to the implications of every piece.
Geographically organized, the catalog begins into southeastern Alaska. Most of the whites who denigrated Indian culture well into the present century overlooked the extraordinary artistic merit of even the most utilitarian objects: Unconfined to the polished plane of a Columbia River net gauge, a carved bird soars from the richly hued piece of polished antler, fish grasped in talon; a fat blue wooden duck is fashioned to crease the cattail mats of the Cowichan of British Columbia; a ceremonial trumpet made from spruce root, although never to be seen by any but the player, is exquisitely decorated by a Tsimshian artist of northern British Columbia.
The color plates exhibit decorated chests and boxes, blankets, clothing, bowls and spoons, rattles, war clubs, whaling floats, halibut hooks, and amulets, but most spectacular of all are the ceremonial masks and headdresses of the northern Kwakiutl, Bella Bella, Haida, and Klingits. Because this art flourished even after the advent of photography, we are treated also to contemporary photos of the objects in actual use.