Totems and Trees: A Tour of the Native American Art Galleries

Hello SAM fans! My name is Lindsay Baldwin and, I am a (very) recent graduate of Western Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication as well as in French. My number one passion is traveling. I was lucky enough to have lived in Edinburgh for six months. During breaks, I traveled extensively through Europe. I have visited many museums around the world and if I had to choose one of my favorites (besides SAM, of course!) it would have to be the Van Gogh Museum. I am very excited to be a part of this great museum for the next three months and cannot wait for the challenges that lie ahead.

If you have not yet checked out the Native American art that SAM has to offer, then I suggest that you put a tour of the galleries on your to-do list.

I had the opportunity to take a SAM staff tour of the collection after a recent gallery changeover, and I was certainly impressed. Barbara Brotherton, the museum’s curator of Native American Art, did a great job of balancing rare, original artifacts with contemporary pieces and showing the influence that the gallery has on contemporary artists today.

As you move through the rooms, you seem to be moving up and down the coast–seeing the different, important aspects of each coastal tribe. In one room, woven baskets, toys and clothes showcase the cedar, considered to be the tree of life to the Coast Salish. In the next, the importance of potlatches is the center. Near the end (or the beginning depending on how you approach the galleries) you are greeted with historical prints telling the story of Joseph Hillaire.

The son of a Lummi chief, Hillaire is known for his carving of totem poles – specifically the totem that was carved in honor of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and its sister in Kobe, Japan. The progression of prints shows the impressive “road trip” he took while carving this iconic totem for the fair as well as photos of the totem as it is today. As someone who lived for four years in Bellingham, I am familiar with the Lummi. It was fascinating to see the art that this tribe has been creating for centuries up close.

I have been to many museums over the world and for me, SAM is the only one that has truly captured the complexity and influences of Native American art. This collection is forever going through changes as pieces from the permanent collection are rotated, loaned, or being conserved so it’s worth visiting again and again.

Here’s a short video of Barbara Brotherton talking about Joseph Hillaire:

-Lindsay Baldwin, Public Relations Intern