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.
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.
For anyone who grew up on school field trips to this museum on the University of Washington campus, ``Spirit and Ancestor'' is a fine history of a venerable institution close to many a Northwestern heart. Beyond parochial concerns, however, the anniversary catalog of the fifth-largest collection of Northwest coast Indian art in the US makes a major contribution to the artistic disciplines inherent in history, ethnography, and anthropology. Most important, it provides an excellent introduction to a fascinating art form.
While the Seattle museum was evolving with relatively modest contributors and contributions, wealthy supporters of the American Museum of Natural History in New York were making possible enabling the rapid acquisition of what would become the most extensive collection of Northwest coast art in the world. In ``From the Land of the Totem Poles,'' Dr. Aldona Jonaitis, a research associate at the museum, has compiled the first book devoted solely to the institution's Northwest coast Indian Art.
Essentially an illustrated history, the book traces the origins of the museum, its Northwest coast collection, and the people most intimately involved in its acquisition.
A sociological commentary details the sad demise of customs, language, and art, intact when the Europeans first came to them, as Indian culture was subjected to disease and interference from government and missionaries. Jonaitas cheers us with the well-documented assurance that a new generation of Indian artists, abetted by equally dedicated white colleagues, is acting on the rediscovery of its heritage.
The author pays warm tribute to the work of Seattle's Bill Holm. The wider scope permitted by this book's historical approach complements Holm's references in ``Spirit and Ancestors'' to collectors and native artists, with engrossing details of their expeditions and activities.
Also interesting is the account of the museum politics that largely shaped the Natural History Museum's approach to collecting and exhibiting the Northwest coast artifacts: The chief determinant was whether anthropologists or evolutionists held sway.
While each book contains 100 superb color photographs, ``From the Land of the Totem Poles'' also includes nearly as many black and white photos, some of them quite remarkable. Endpaper panoramas of Haida and Kwakiutl villages draw the viewer up onto a beach littered with canoes in front of elaborately decorated houses, and through a forest of house, mortuary, and crest poles rising in front of wooden dwellings like so many starkly humanoid trees.
A number of the photographs were taken in 1881 by Edward Dossiter during a museum expedition to British Columbia. The amazing quality of the photographs and the variety of activities depicted attest to Dossiter's expertise in chronicling the disappearing culture. The Stephen Myers photographs of objects from the collection are excel-lent.
Both books are treasuries of resource material and visual delight. Owning one of them might be enough for most art lovers, but acquisition of both would provide a rare and comprehensive look at these unusual art forms.
Jo Ann Ridley is a free-lance book reviewer.