#SAMSnippets: Native Art and Life Along the Northwest Coast

Introducing #SAMSnippets! We recently launched a new live series on our Instagram which gives followers an in-depth look at works from SAM’s permanent and semi-permanent installations virtually. Each month, we’ll choose a new gallery to walk viewers through, providing a taste of SAM from wherever you may be!

To kick off the series this November, we featured a diverse collection of artworks from “Native Art and Life Along the Northwest Coast” in celebration of National Native American Heritage Month. Watch the video now to get a peek at what’s on view at SAM now and read about the works shown in this video below. Visit SAM now to see all of the featured works and more in-person!

Masks Right to Left: Deer Mask, Owl Mask, Wolf Mask, Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Raccoon Mask, Cod Fish Mask, Mouse Woman Mask, Grizzly Bear Mask, Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Kingfisher Mask, Porcupine Mask, Otter Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Gifts of the Pacific Science Center. Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Masks of the Animal Kingdom Dance

As we enter the galleries on this short walkthrough you’ll see an installation of masks arranged on platform. Performances featuring masked dancers are birthright of particular families and derive from long-ago auspicious encounters between human ancestors and supernatural beings, in the guise of animals or unique spirits. The “Dance of the Animal Kingdom” represents a heroine ancestor’s adventures among the animal beings, who in turn bestow the dance and masks upon her for use by her family and subsequent generations.

According to Chief Bill Scow (1902–1984), the Animal Kingdom story took place at Shoal Harbor (Gilford Island, British Columbia) where in the distant past a girl went looking in the woods for her lost brother. She instead encountered a dance of animal beings inside a cave. The messenger of the animals, Mouse Woman, was sent to see if there was indeed an intruder. Because the girl was able to overcome the supernatural power present in the animal dance, she was allowed to witness it and to bring to her people the privilege of performing it. The masks shown here were carved by artist Sam Johnson (1930–2007) for the opening ceremonies of the Seamonster House at the Pacific Science Center in 1971.

Mouse Woman Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, cotton cloth, and leather, 11 x 9 1/2 x 9 in. (27.94 x 24.13 x 22.86 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.8.

As we pan across the arrangement, keep an eye out for Deer, the “curious one,” recognizable by its antlers. You’ll also see Owl, called the “Wise One” perhaps because its large eyes see deeply into the real and spirit worlds. Its distinctive markings, rotating head and binocular vision, put the owl in the pantheon of auspicious creatures. George Hunt (1854–1933), a knowledgeable First Nations consultant to anthropologist Franz Boas, recorded that some Kwakwaka’wakw believed that after death man becomes an owl.

According to Bill Scow, one of the heirs of the Animal Kingdom privilege, Wolf was the leader of the animals and would call them out one-by-one to pantomime the characteristics of each creature. After all the animals had danced in sequence, they would dance together as a group for the finale.

Raccoon, as keeper of the fire, would have been in charge of illuminating the sacred cave where the Animal Kingdom Dance first took place.

Because of her speed and sharp mind, Mouse Woman is sent out to make sure no one is watching the secret dance of the animals. In the story, she befriends the girl and tells the others that no one is watching. In time, the girl is allowed to observe and to take the supernatural treasure of the dance and masks back to her family.

Grizzly Bear is the “fierce one” and can be identified by his upright ears, large snout, and moveable jaw.

The presence of Bukwus in the Animal Kingdom Dance may be a reference to the lost brother that the girl was seeking. Bukwus are feared ghost-like creatures believed to represent humans who have become separated from their community and wander the woods. In the story, the brother loses his human identity and becomes a Bukwus.

Kingfisher is said to be the assistant to Wolf, the leader of the animals. In the wild, they are stocky birds with a shaggy blue crest who fly quickly over rivers and shorelines looking for fish. Their rattling cry and expert diving abilities make them special and mysterious creatures.

Seated Human Figure Bowl, pre-1800, Coast Salish, Soapstone, 14 3/4 x 4 5/16 x 7 5/16 in. (37.5 x 11 x 18.5 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.223.

Now we turn to historic and contemporary works created by Native peoples across the Northwest Coast. The first work in this collection, Seated Human Figure Bowl, portrays a skeletal humanoid figure cradling a bowl in its lap, with its arms and legs encircling the bowl. Three distinct snake images are carved downward from the head, resembling a headdress with two footprints on top. Bowls such as these, carved from stone, wood, and horn, are often used by Coast Salish peoples in rituals of healing and protection.

Next to the bowl sits a Sxwaixwe Carving. The unusual being depicted in this carving is used in Coast Salish communities to bless and protect people in life crisis events, such as sickness and death. Only the right person with the right to use the masks would know its deeper meanings. This small carving might have once been the finial of a rattle or the top of a staff.

Skull Rattles (Xawikw Yadan), ca. 1890, Kwakwaka’wakw, Alder wood, red cedar bark, paint, Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.86.1.

Also in this collection, we see two Skull Rattles. The imagery of these two works reveals the death-and-rebirth aspect of initiation into the t’seka or Winter Ceremonial whereby acolytes are temporarily imbued with supernatural power then restored by attendants who shake rattles to tame the wild behavior of the initiate. The subdued initiate is reborn with greater status and connection to spiritual power.

Halibut—giant flatfish that can weigh one hundred pounds or more—were traditionally caught in Tlingit and Kaigani Haida communities from cedar canoes using special barbed hooks. Fishermen used imagery that referenced the help of a shaman. This Halibut Hook (Naxw) which is then panned to represents a human figure with animal-like feet biting an octopus tentacle. The octopus appears frequently on shaman charms and is considered to be a supernaturally powerful being.

The importance of shamans, called halait, as powerful spirits which aid in combatting sickness and soul loss in Native communities along the Northwest is reiterated in the next work featured in the video, Soul Catcher (Am’halait). This special amulet of bone, abalone shell, and buckskin is a container that was manipulated while the shaman was in a trance, in order to locate and retrieve the wandering or bewitched soul of a person, thus restoring their health.

Small carved shaman figures such as the one which is next panned to, represent spirit helpers and were part of the myriad curing paraphernalia employed to purge ill persons of evil spirits. Objects such as these would protect the shaman against supernatural enemies while completing his healing duties.

Xoots Kudás (Bear Shirt), ca. 1890, Tlingit, Tekweidí clan, Commercial wool cloth, cotton cloth, imported mother-of-pearl buttons, applique, synthetic indigo dye, 41.5 x 57 in. (101.6 x 144.78 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.80.

To the right of this shaman figure, we see a venerable ceremonial garment. Xoots Kudás displays a bear on one side and a stylized design of bull kelp on the other, both crests of the Tlingit clan. The crests are held communally and symbolize ancestral encounters with supernatural beings. Such regalia is considered to be at.óow (“an owned or purchased object acquired through an ancestor”), one of many traditional art works brought out on ceremonial occasions to signify the connection between the ancestors and the living.

Leaving the glass case of Northwest Native works, we pan to two pedestals with works highlighting the importance of Raven in Tlingit communities. The first, Raven at the Headwaters of Nass Hat (Naas shagi Yeil S’aaxw) was used in Alaska to comfort those in mourning. Clan hats are the ultimate expression of complex shared histories and are featured prominently in potlatches. When the song associated with the hat was sung, the host family and guests—ritually dressed in headgear and robes—would dance in remembrance of their loved ones.

The second work is a stunning combination of maple, mirror, abalone shell, bird skin, paint, sea lion whiskers, copper, leather, and Flicker feathers. According to myth, the distinguished natural features of Tlingit homelands can be attributed to Raven. Lkaayaak Yeil S’aaxw (Box of Daylight Raven Hat) depicts the wily Raven in the act of releasing the sun, moon, and stars from his grandfather’s box, which the legendary bird clutches in his human-like hands.

Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale), Preston Singletary, ca. 2003, American, Tlingit, born 1963, Fused and sand carved glass, 72 x 92 x 3/8 in. (182.9 x 233.7 x 1cm), Purchased in honor of John H. Hauberg with funds from the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, John and Joyce Price, the Native American Art Support Fund, Don W. Axworthy, Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Marshall Hatch, C. Calvert Knudsen, Christine and Assen Nicolov, Charles and Gayle Pancerzewski, Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, SAM Docents, SAMS Supporters, Frederick and Susan Titcomb, and Virginia and Bagley Wright, 2003.12.

Behind these pedestals, we see Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale) by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary. Growing up in west coast cities and trained in European glass techniques and practice, Singletary began incorporating Native Iconography into his work in 1987, explaining: “I found a source of strength and power [in Tlingit designs] that brought me back to my family, society, and cultural roots.” In this, his first monumental work, the artist studied the house screen in this gallery, fusing his clan Killer Whale crest into sixteen panels, thus recharging an ancient tradition and bringing the past forward. Learn more about this artwork featured in SAM’s Object of the Week series.

Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother, Robert Davidson, ca. 2010, Canadian, Haida, Masset Village, born 1946, Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6cm), Gift of The MacRae Foundation, the Native Arts of the Americas and Oceania Council, and Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2013.35.

The tour concludes with Robert Davidson’s Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother. According to Haida oral traditions, Canoe Breaker is one of ten brothers of Southeast Wind, who is responsible for the turbulent weather on Haida Gwaii. You can learn more about the story behind Canoe Breaker in this highlight as SAM’s Object of the Week.

“Southeast Wind is in the form of a killer whale. The [white] ovoid actually separates the lower teeth from the upper teeth in the mouth. And the top shape would be the tail and this U-shape could be the pectoral fin and dorsal fin. When you see the killer whale in their world we see them as killer whales but when…they go into their dwelling [below the sea] they will take off their skins and hang it near the door..so that’s why…human attributes [are] mixed in with what a killer whale looks like.”

– Robert Davidson

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Video Artworks: Deer Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, antler, paint, cloth, 14 1/2 x 9 1/2 x 9 3/4 in. (36.83 x 24.13 x 24.77 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.7. Owl Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Wood with enamel paint, 12 x 9 1/2 x 10 in. (30.48 x 24.13 x 25.4 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.5. Wolf Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, and cloth, 8 x 8 1/8 in. (20.32 x 20.64 cm) L.: 20 3/4 in., Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.10. Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, Overall: 12 x 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (30.5 x 29.2 x 21.6cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.12. Raccoon Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, and cotton cloth, 12 1/2 x 9 x 9 13/16 in. (31.75 x 22.86 x 24.96 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.9. Cod Fish Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 12 3/4 x 9 1/8 x 9 1/2 in. (32.39 x 23.18 x 24.13 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.1. Mouse Woman Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, enamel paint, cotton cloth, and leather, 11 x 9 1/2 x 9 in. (27.94 x 24.13 x 22.86 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.8. Grizzly Bear Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 9 1/8 x 8 in. (23.18 x 20.32 cm) L.: 15 3/4 in., Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.6. Bukwus Mask (Wild Man of the Woods), Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 12 x 9 1/4 in. (30.48 x 23.5 cm) , Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.2. Kingfisher Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, 8 1/4 x 9 in. (20.96 x 22.86 cm) L.: 11 in., Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.4. Porcupine Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, 11 1/4 x 9 11/16 x 10 in. (28.58 x 24.57 x 25.4 cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.3. Otter Mask, Sam Johnson, ca. 1970, Kwakwaka’wakw, Musgama, Dzawada’enuxw Nation, 1930–2007, Red cedar, paint, cloth, Overall: 6 1/2 x 8in. (16.5 x 20.3cm) Length: 16in. (40.6cm), Gift of the Pacific Science Center, SC2006.11. Seated Human Figure Bowl, pre-1800, Coast Salish, Soapstone, 14 3/4 x 4 5/16 x 7 5/16 in. (37.5 x 11 x 18.5 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.223. Stone Mortar, pre-1800, Salish, Granite, 10 x 5 3/4 x 4 3/4 in. (25.4 x 14.61 x 12.07 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.136. Eagle and Salmon, Manuel Salazar, 2007, Canadian, Cowichan, born 1966, Deer hide, acrylic paint, Diam.: 20in. (50.8cm), Gift of Doug and Thelma McTavish, 2008.49. Sxwaixwe Carving, ca. 1880, Coast Salish, Wood, Mountain goat horn, mountain sheep horn, cow horn, copper, 5 1/2 x 2 in. (13.97 x 5.08 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.140. Drum with Skull Painting, Susan Point, 1991, Musqueam, Canadian, Born 1951, Animal hide, acrylic, wood, bone, 17 x 3 in. (43.2 x 7.6 cm), Gift of Simon Ottenberg, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, SC2005.13. Halibut Hook (Naxw), ca. 1890, Tlingit or Kaigani Haida, Yew wood, yellow cedar, iron, cedar bark twine, and commercial cotton twine, 4 5/8 x 1 3/8 in. (11.75 x 3.49 cm) L.: 9 1/2 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.105. Soul Catcher (Am’halait), ca. 1860, Tsimshian, Bone, abalone shell, and buckskin, 1 5/8 x 1 1/8 in. (4.13 x 2.86 cm) L.: 7 3/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.83. Shaman Figure, ca. 1860, Tlingit, collected in Sitka in 1869, Yellow cedar wood, human hair, and paint, 14 5/8 x 4 x 3 in. (37.15 x 10.16 x 7.62 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.119. Xoots Kudás (Bear Shirt), ca. 1890, Tlingit, Tekweidí clan, Commercial wool cloth, cotton cloth, imported mother-of-pearl buttons, applique, synthetic indigo dye, 41.5 x 57 in. (101.6 x 144.78 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.80. Raven at the Headwaters of Nass Hat (Naas shagi Yeil S’aaxw), ca. 1810, Tlingit, Taku village, Alaska, Gaanax.ádi clan, Maple, paint, shell, hair, baleen, 8 1/2 x 7 x 12 in. (21.59 x 17.78 x 30.48 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.125. Lkaayaak Yeil S’aaxw (Box of Daylight Raven Hat), ca. 1850, Tlingit, Taku village, Alaska, Gaanax.ádi clan, Maple, mirror, abalone shell, bird skin, paint, sea lion whiskers, copper, leather, Flicker feathers, 11 7/8 x 7 3/4 x 12 1/4 in. (30.2 x 19.7 x 31.1 cm), Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.124. Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale), Preston Singletary, ca. 2003, American, Tlingit, born 1963, Fused and sand carved glass, 72 x 92 x 3/8 in. (182.9 x 233.7 x 1cm), Purchased in honor of John H. Hauberg with funds from the Mark Tobey Estate Fund, John and Joyce Price, the Native American Art Support Fund, Don W. Axworthy, Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Marshall Hatch, C. Calvert Knudsen, Christine and Assen Nicolov, Charles and Gayle Pancerzewski, Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, SAM Docents, SAMS Supporters, Frederick and Susan Titcomb, and Virginia and Bagley Wright, 2003.12. Canoe Breaker: Southeast Wind’s Brother, Robert Davidson, ca. 2010, Canadian, Haida, Masset Village, born 1946, Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6cm), Gift of The MacRae Foundation, the Native Arts of the Americas and Oceania Council, and Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2013.35.

Object of the Week: Feast Dish

Crafted out of wood, paint, and opercula shells, Calvin Hunt’s monster Feast Dish, is a testament to the importance of food, community, and potlatch culture to the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of British Columbia. Born in 1956, Calvin Hunt is known for his monumental sculptures and is a well-respected artist from the Kwagu’l band located in Fort Rupert. Hunt’s feast dish provides a remarkable contrast to the typical Kwakwaka’wakw dishes.

As many partake in Thanksgiving celebrations, it is pertinent to recognize the cultural significance of the potlatch for the First Nations, along with the impact of the Canadian potlatch ban that restricted Indigenous peoples from practicing their traditions for over sixty years, only officially ending in 1951. The word potlatch, in Kwak’wala means “to give.” Potlatching for the Kwakwaka’wakw continues to this day and has been practiced for as long as spoken and written history can remember.

Feast bowls are carefully carved and ornamented by their creators, specifically designed for their use at potlatches that will hold delicious foods such as eulachon fish oil, seal meat, cranberries, and cinquefoil roots. Hunt’s bowl, however, was crafted specifically for SAM to coincide with the Chiefly Feasts exhibition in 1994. The feast bowl is modeled after Sisiutl, a three-headed sea serpent from Kwakwaka’wakw mythology, who can change between human and animal, along with morphing into a self-propelling canoe whose owner must feed with seals. Operculum shells encircle the mouth of the bowl. In nature, these shells protect marine gastropods (snails) from predators along with preventing the gastropod from drying up if they are exposed to air. With these operculum shells adorning the mouth of Hunt’s bowl where feast food is placed, along with this piece having been created shortly after the potlatch ban was lifted, it can be inferred that these shells are protecting the sacred tradition of potlatching from predatory laws.

Today, and every day, is an occasion to give thanks to Indigenous communities.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Lukwalil (feast dish), 1994, Calvin Hunt (Tlasutiwalis), Wood, paint, opercula shells, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 94.63 © Calvin Hunt.

Muse/News: Imogen’s Influence, Painting Last Meals, and Finding a Dürer

SAM News

Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective is now on view at SAM! Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Associate Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, spoke with KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about Cunningham’s life and work. And Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel on “how Seattle’s Imogen Cunningham changed photography forever.” She spoke with six local artists about Cunningham’s influence and legacy.

“Cunningham’s headstrong nature would come to define her long career as a fine arts photographer: She never hesitated to experiment, even if it meant sailing against the wind as a female photographer in a male-dominated industry.”

Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud for Variable West on “the boundless light of Black children” shining in Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence. Also: Check out the show’s accompanying book, featuring an essay by the artist.

“I want everybody to be a little bit off their rocker, a little bit shocked, a little bit dazzled, a little bit held. That’s what I get to do.” – Barbara Earl Thomas

Local News

“Why they give.” In the spirit of holiday giving, 425 Business checks in with local philanthropists about their charity practice. The Banks family is featured; Dr. Cherry A. Banks is a SAM trustee.

For Thanksgiving, Crosscut once again highlights the bounty of Native art on view in the area, including Duane Linklater: mymothersside at the Frye Art Museum, new public art at Climate Pledge Arena, film screenings, holiday markets, and much more.

“A painterly catalog of the death penalty in America”: The Seattle Times’ David Gutman on Julie Green’s The Last Supper, now on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum.

“You think you’re looking at something that’s very blasé and very familiar and comforting and then it’s something that really jolts you once you actually understand what you’re looking at,” said Lane Eagles, associate curator at the museum. “I think the idea is to sort of lull you into this sense of comfort so that you’re sort of disarmed and that that’s when the reality that every single plate is a dead person hits you.”

Inter/National News

From NPR: “Frida Kahlo’s Diego y yo, a painting of herself with her husband’s image on her forehead, sold for $34.9 million in a Sotheby’s auction… It’s the most money ever paid at auction for a work by a Latin American artist.” Speaking of: Don’t miss Imogen Cunningham’s portrait of Kahlo on view at SAM!

The New York Times reviews The Loft Generation, a memoir by artist Edith Schloss discovered after her death; she brings to life the mid-century New York scene, including Frisson artists such as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.

One of Muse/News’ favorite genres: A man purchased a drawing at an estate sale for $30; it may be a Albrecht Dürer worth $50 million.

“On a lark, he bought it for $30. At the very least, it was ‘a wonderfully rendered piece of old art, which justified purchasing it,’ he recalled.

And Finally

The shaggy appeal of Kurt Vonnegut.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: L. Fried.

Object of the Week: Raven Releasing the Sun

The Warmth of the Sun
Recently, we have really been feeling the heat of the sun! This wonderful and mysterious celestial body is a life-giving force and, without its presence, we would be in darkness with our companion species and without food resources. For millennium, Indigenous Peoples have understood the connectedness of humans to the forces of the land, water, and sky.

Raven, a wily trickster and culture hero, is credited with bringing humankind many important gifts to aid in their survival, like water, light (in the form of the sun, moon, and stars), and ceremony. His questionable deeds and adventures—and especially his voracious appetite—are well documented in orally transmitted stories (later written down by anthropologists) that form a corpus of oral traditions that demonstrate important teachings about Indigenous values and wisdom. These “legends” formed part of the “encyclopedia knowledge,” called hečusəda in the Lushootseed language of our region, whose teachings reveal the knowledge that humans need to live respectfully in the world, and which would be passed down through the generations.

In this famous story, the world is in darkness and humans are suffering. A great chief is the only one with light, which he keeps in his treasure box. Raven disguises himself as a hemlock needle so that the chief’s daughter would drink it and become pregnant, thereby giving the chief a beloved grandson, Raven himself, in the form of a human child. The raven-child is unrelenting in his desire for his grandfather’s treasure box and will not stop crying until he is given it. With the box safely in hand, he reverts to his raven form, flies through the house’s smoke hole, and releases the sun, moon, and stars, thus illuminating the world for all of its creatures.

In this print by George Hunt, Jr., Raven Releasing the Sun, the artist shows the crafty protagonist in the moment after he has opened the chief’s treasure box and released the first of its precious items—the sun—which the artist has depicted as a mask-like face. The rays of the sun are so formidable as to reveal themselves as bold, red tapering lines embedded with formline ovoids, U-shapes, and three-pointed “trigons”—the building block of Northwest Coast design.

George Hunt, Jr. is a part of the renowned Hunt family of artists that goes back generations to the village of Fort Rupert (Tsaxis), British Columbia.1 Descendants of the Kwaguł people, who still live there, trace their occupancy to at least 6,000 years. In 1849 the Hudson’s Bay Company opened a fort there and drew an active exchange between Indigenous People of the coast and the traders.

In the early twentieth century, famed anthropologist Franz Boas collaborated with George Hunt (1854-1933), who provided invaluable cultural material (art objects and cultural information) to Boas’s expanding exhibitions at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and to the many volumes Boas published on the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl). George Hunt was half Tlingit, the son of a high-ranking chief’s daughter, Mary Ebbetts Hunt (Anislaga) from Klukwan, Alaska, and an English fur trader. He was born in Fort Rupert in 1854 and deeply enmeshed in Kwaguł art, culture, and ceremony. George Hunt, Jr, the artist of this print, is a directly connected to this lineage. He is a well-known carver and painter, like his relatives Mungo Martin, Henry Hunt, and Tony Hunt. Interestingly, his native name Nas-u-niz means “Light Beyond the World.” This story of Raven was likely brought to the Hunt family by George’s great-great-grandmother, Mary Ebbetts Hunt, herself an accomplished weaver.2

The Newest United States Forever Postage Stamp

Rico Lanáat’ Worl (Tlingit/Athabascan), Raven Story, Forever Stamp Series 2021

“Many depictions of this story show Raven with the Sun in his mouth representing the stealing of the Sun. I was trying to showcase a bit of drama . . . The climax of the story is after Raven has released the sun and the moon and has opened his grandfather’s final precious box, which contained the stars. In this design I am imagining Raven in a panicked state of escape—transforming from human form to raven form and holding on to as many stars as he can while trying to escape the clan house.”  – Rico Worl

– Barbara Brotherton, SAM Curator of Native American Art


1 For more information about Fort Rupert, see www.sfu.ca/brc/virtual_village/Kwakwaka_wakw/tsaxis–fort-rupert-.html.

2 See a Chilkat Robe woven by Mary Ebbetts Hunt (1823-1919) in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art: blog.honoluluacademy.org/verifying-the-artist-of-a-very-special-chilkat-robe/

Image: Raven Releasing the Sun, 1985, George Hunt Jr.. silkscreen on Arches buff paper, 20 x 15 in., Gift of R. Bruce and Mary-Louise Colwell, 2018.29.191. © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Haida Meets Manga with Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

We are sharing selections from SAM’s Conversations with Curators member-only series online with everyone! This talk took place live between the artist behind “Carpe Fin,” SAM’s most recent and largest, commission, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, and SAM’s Curator of Native American Art, Barbara Brotherton.

Due to some technical difficulties, SAM members got a little tour of the artist’s quarantine studio at the beginning of the talk. We hope you enjoy this happy outcome of the challenges of moving our programs online!

Far away, past the point of no return, sits Lord’s Rock, an indistinct protuberance in an archipelago of windswept islands. It is from this auspicious place of hardship and wonder that Yahgulanaas’ large-scale Haida manga refreshes an ancient Haida tale. Several artistic and cultural influences form this innovative, hybrid style. Using Pop Art, Japanese manga, and Northwest Coast Indigenous formline art, the artist calls for action to save our one small planet. Hear about Yahgulanaas’ journey from politician and environmental activist to a leader in contemporary Haida art.

Find out more about the Conversations with Curators series and join SAM as a member today for upcoming events!

Object of the Week: Model Totem Pole

The black stone used for this carving by Haida artist Charles Edensaw is argillite, a carbonaceous kaolinite shale. Truly unique, this sedimentary rock is found in only one place in the world: Haida Gwaii. Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, the archipelago in British Columbia is home to this very special material and the similarly distinct Haida artistic traditions that have arisen from it. More specifically, argillite comes from the Slatechuck Mountain. And while Haida peoples have accessed the Slatechuck quarry and produced such argillite carvings for centuries, it was not until 1941 that the quarry site (measuring approximately 18 hectares) was officially designated as land belonging to the Skidegate band, assuring that access would remain theirs in perpetuity.[1]

For those who might not identify as geologists, or even amateur geologists, the slate’s black color comes from its high levels of carbon. A kaolinite shale, it is composed of clay material that has been subjected to heat and pressure over geologic time, resulting in a highly uniform and workable rock.[2] For example, it ranks at two and a half on the Moh’s scale of mineral hardness (on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being diamond-hard).[3]

Measuring 19 inches tall, this model totem pole (qwa.a gyaa.angaa) was expertly carved out of one piece of argillite. Perhaps it goes without saying, but the larger the carving, the more difficult it is to do successfully, as natural imperfections in the shale grain can result in fine fractures. Further, argillite is sensitive to its environmental surroundings, and can absorb and desorb moisture quickly; it is essential that freshly quarried argillite is slowly and carefully dried, otherwise it is prone to cracking.

Currently on view in the third floor Native Art of the Americas galleries, this piece makes clear just how skilled and masterful Edensaw was as a Haida carver. The figures on the pole from top to bottom are: a bear holding five stacked cylinders—representing a ringed basketry hat—above an eagle’s head; two human heads on either side, also wearing ringed hats; a bear, holding its tongue; and another bear, holding a seal-like figure with a fish-like tail. Though quite a lot to fit into 19 inches, compositionally, each animal and human figure bears exquisite incising and detail.

Such model poles were primarily made for commercial sale as Haida contact with Americans and Europeans increased during the 1800s. In fact, around the time that this piece was made (circa 1885), argillite carving experienced a surge in output corresponding with an exploration of new forms. As traditional Haida ceremonial objects and practices were increasingly banned by the Canadian government, new forms of creative expression thus emerged.[4] Edensaw was an important figure during this period, whose personal style influenced many other Haida artists living in Skidegate and Masset. With a deeper understanding of argillite’s geological properties, rarity, and cultural significance, this carving by Edensaw is all the more impressive.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Model totem pole (qwa.a gyaa.angaa), ca. 1885, Haida, argillite, 19 x 3 x 2 3/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.129
[1] “Haida Argillite,” Simon Fraser University, Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, accessed July 11, 2018, https://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/museum/exhibits/virtual-exhibits/haida-argillite.html.
[2] “Care of Argillite,” Government of Canada, accessed July 10, 2018, https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/conservation-preservation-publications/canadian-conservation-institute-notes/care-argillite.html.
[3] Peter L. Macnair and Alan L. Hoover, The Magic Leaves: A History of Argillite Carving (Victoria, B.C.: British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1984), 17.
[4] Macnair and Hoover, 113.

Object of the Week: Eagle Shawl Collar Coat

Wandering through the museum’s Native Art of the Americas galleries on the third floor, you see cloth, basketry, metal works, carved furnishings and more—a variety of objects from the history and life of the Northwest Coast people. Around the corner, it’s hard to miss Preston Singletary’s large work, but look to the left for an understated piece: the Eagle Shawl Collar Coat by Haida designer Dorothy Grant.

In earlier walks through the gallery, I admired the well-structured coat with its contrasting-red appliqué collar and feminine bishop sleeve. I even imagined how wearing the haute couture garment might transform my style and mood on a rainy day.

Eagle Shawl Collar Coat by Dorothy Grant at Seattle Art Museum

But recently, considering pieces in our collection from a lens of social justice, I found new meaning in this coat. Fashion has incredible power (remember this year’s Golden Globes?), and Grant’s work is no exception. The Eagle Shawl Collar Coat links a rich history of innovation with a contemporary mode of expression, capable of transforming and inspiring conversation.

The design of the coat, can be traced to button blankets, the original ceremonial dress of the Haida people1, which Dorothy learned to sew as a young teen. She studied closely with Haida Gwaii elder and knowledge-keeper Florence Davidson, and eventually innovated the traditional garment, altering the neckline so it would hang more comfortably. Grant continued to innovate after her graduation from Helen Lefeaux School of Fashion Design in Vancouver, British Columbia: she launched her haute couture Feastwear line and became the first designer to combine Haida art and fashion.

With the eagle coat in our galleries, Grant gives us opportunity to admire skillful design and innovation. It might also challenge the stereotype that Native American art exists only as commercial art or mute museum pieces. For herself, Grant considers the transformational effect of her work to be her greatest achievement. “I would like to know that I made a difference for First Nations youth, that any idea is possible. That my artwork can make someone wearing one of my garments feel pride in themselves. That through my achievements as an artist and entrepreneur I feel I have broken down stereotypes and changed the perception of a successful native woman.”

– Jenae Williams, Associate for the Curatorial Division

Image: Eagle Shawl Collar Coat, 1990 – 91, Dorothy Grant, wool, cashmere, silk, mother of pearl buttons, 46 × 21 1/2in., Ancient and Native American Art Acquisition Fund, 2014.13 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.
1 Button blankets were introduced as early as the 1840s, after early missionaries denounced the totem poles of the Northwest Coast people. The Haida placed crests of their histories onto cloth instead—elder Florence Davidson referred to button blankets as “totem poles on cloth”—and created a new form of storytelling from the act of oppression.

Object of the Week: Sdláagwaal (horn ladle)

Sometimes, when I’m writing about remarkable artworks we have at SAM, I feel a bit like Levar Burton. SAM’s Sdláagwaal (horn ladle) is an incredible thing . . .

Sdláagwaal is displayed adjacent to a bold piece by living Native artist Robert Davidson. Standing in the galleries and seeing these pieces next to one another is like watching the traditional conversing with the new, visually. We can also imagine Davidson speaking his comments about the Sdláagwaal, recorded in a 1995 SAM catalogue:

This person had a sure understanding of space. Not just the graphics, but even beyond, the whole aesthetics of spoon. It’s almost like a swan. My first reaction was raven, but then you look at the long neck.

It is almost like a mandala, it becomes a concentration object. When I go fishing, the net is like that, a meditation point. We’re watching that net. We can watch for three, four, five hours, waiting for that fish to strike. Same with carving. You could work three, four, five days to get that line right, that undercut right. It’s almost like a meditation.1

Has anybody ever applied the term “aesthetics of spoon” with such awesome and apt grace (or been brilliant enough to apply it at all)? Davidson’s phrasing would never have come to me, but I understand immediately the qualities to which he refers. Every aspect of the Sdláagwaal bespeaks perfection. It has been carved with adze and knife from a mountain sheep horn, steamed so that the wide bowl of the ladle might be formed, and fashioned by someone with a clear mastery of the technique. With the precise lines that cover the ladle, the artist shows awe-inspiring precision. The formline designs on the bottom of the ladle fill the pictorial space with perfect balance and symmetry.

Another authority whose voice we should listen to regarding the Sdláagwaal is Bill Holm, a recognized scholar, longtime curator, and prolific author on Native American art in the Pacific Northwest. The gallery bracketed by the museum’s four great Arthur Shaughnessy house posts, also has a monitor playing several videos where we can learn from Bill Holm about the history and making of the posts. Back to the Sdláagwaal, of which Holm writes:

Among the artists of the Northwest Coast there were some who had complete mastery of the materials, techniques, and design system with which they worked. The maker of this horn ladle was one of those artists . . . . The formlines comprising the design are broad and simple, without extraneous elaboration. Their execution is flawless.2

To have people like Davidson and Holm, who really know their stuff, compliment the Sdláagwaal with such glowing words brings heaps of praises on its maker—who must have been quite an impressive individual, indeed.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Robert Davidson, quoted in The Spirit Within: Northwest Coast Native Art from the John H. Hauberg Collection, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, and New York: Rizzoli, 1995; 118.
2 Bill Holm, Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1983; 84.
Image: Sdláagwaal (horn ladle), ca. 1860, Haida, mountain sheep horn, 14 ½ x 6 ¾ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of John H. Hauberg, 85.356.

 

Object of the Week: Sea Bear Crest hat

An encounter with a sea bear would not be easily forgotten. Among the Haida people, oral histories sustain the memory of this imposing, magical spirit, with its origins at the beginning of the world. A hybrid animal with features of the whale and bear, the sea bear had all the subtle swiftness of the whale and the predatory power of the bear, carrying the mass and presence of both. Traversing land and sea freely, it commanded respect in all domains. Rows of intimidating teeth, set in powerful jaws, made it so. On the back of its neck, a dorsal fin gave him stability and agility in the water, and when he emerged from its surface, as we see him do here, whomever he encountered would take notice.

Before I learned a little bit about this Haida Sea Bear Crest hat, I might have called it (adjective) animated, pointing out that I see a quality of life and energy reflected in it. Turns out that its maker also intended it to be actively (verb) animated, or even danced. It’s a hat, after all, and it was worn as part of a ceremonial costume. The sea bear marked the crest of a particular family or lineage, so displaying it was a show of family pride. Carved wooden hats—for me, even worse to think about wearing something wooden on your head than wearing something wooden on your feet, so gimme clogs—were common in the art of the Northwest Coast Native peoples. In literature, they’re sometimes called “helmets,” and that is maybe a term we would have an easier time connecting to the sea bear.

Sea Bear Crest Hat (detail)

Over 150 years, wear to the paint and wood has made the hat’s features much more quiet than they would have been. Both carving and painted design were meant to contribute to a striking figure. Today, the red pigment that once animated the lips, tongue, and ears of the sea bear is only barely visible. Without looking closely, one might even miss his serious front claws.

Many people have played a part in the life of this piece, from its maker to its performers, and later, collectors. Two figures from this last category are especially significant to us. John H. Hauberg, who donated the piece in December of 1983, has been a hugely influential contributor to SAM. His foundational gifts established the Native art collection as a strength of the museum and placed it on a level of national regard. Interestingly, Hauberg actually acquired the piece from another well-known figure in this corner of the art world: Northwest Modern painter Mark Tobey.

Sea Bear Crest Hat (detail)

The Sea Bear Crest hat features in the display Pacific Currents, on view now in our third floor galleries. If you find him, peer under the brim of the “hat” to get a better sense for how this artwork would have been worn and performed (and to see the fine work of our world-class mount-makers).

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Sea Bear Crest hat (Tsa.an Xuu.ujee Dajangee), ca. 1870, Haida, red cedar and paint, 10 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.228. Photos by Natali Wiseman.

SAM Art: New, old masks

Identified as “Giant” by the collector, we can only imagine how the dancer would have revealed the nature of the formidable being—part man, part bird—portrayed in this mask. Naxnox masked dance performances dramatize prestigious names of supernatural beings, including “Giant,” that make up the pantheon of powerful spirits.

Masks exhibit the greatest range of sculptural variation of all Northwest Coast art forms. The diversity of mask types and their uses reflects the unique cultural beliefs and ceremonial traditions of each group. Five new masks, including this Naxnox mask, were recently added to the Native American art galleries.

Naxnox Mask, ca. 1900, Git’ksan, Kitwancool Village, British Columbia, red cedar, paint, 15 3/8 x 12 3/16 x 12 3/16 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.49. Now on view in the Native American art galleries, third floor, SAM Downtown.

Joseph Hillaire: Carver of the Kobe-Seattle Sister City Friendship Pole

Hillaire carving the pole for Kobe, Japan, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, 1961. Photograph by Harvey Davis. Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry.

Joe Hillaire Kwul-kwul-tu, (meaning “spirit of the war club”) was a man of indomitable spirit, grace, intelligence, and talent. For his Lummi people, he perpetuated song and dance traditions through the Setting Sun Dance group, was instrumental in reviving the Lummi Stommish water festival (and Chief Seattle Days at Suquamish), taught totem carving and canoe-making, and was a voice for social and political causes. Of parallel importance were his actions as a liaison between Native and non-Native people. He imparted knowledge of Lummi heritage to anthropologists Bernhard J. Stern and Erna Gunther (curator of the Northwest Coast Native exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair) and ethnomusicologist Willard Rhodes, as well as to the Boy Scouts of America and various school groups in the Seattle region. Hillaire also provided guidance to business and civic leaders, and traveled throughout the U.S. and to Japan with the objective of fostering inter-cultural friendships and bringing attention to Native culture.

Totem pole carved by Joe Hillaire, Kobe, Japan, 1961. Photograph by Lawrence Denny Lindsley, 1967. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.

The 35-foot-tall pole depicted in the image to the right was carved by Hillaire in 1961 as a part of a two-pole project to call attention to the upcoming 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Kobe is Seattle’s sister city and the story pole was a goodwill gift meant to point out commonalties between the two cities, ease the memories of WWII, and promote trade between the U.S. and Japan. Hillaire’s approach is richly symbolic: two sisters grow closer as they acknowledge the things they share, like the salmon, mountains and sea, and the rising sun (Japan) and setting sun (Seattle). The monster blowing a dark cloud symbolizes the darkness of war, while the sun alludes to the hope of peace.

Images from Joseph Hillaire’s Trip to Kobe, Japan (1961)

 

 

 

Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems

Lummi artist Joseph Hillaire was commissioned to carve two story poles in connection with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, we are remembering Hillaire’s contributions to the Century 21 Exposition in a series of weekly posts. Please check back each week or subscribe to our RSS to learn more about Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems. 

Top Photo: Hillaire carving the pole for Kobe, Japan, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, 1961. Photograph by Harvey Davis. Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry.

Joseph Hillaire: Carver of the Century 21 Exposition Totem Pole

Joseph Raymond Kwul-kwul’tu Hillaire (1894–1967) was an artist, storyteller, performer, Native activist, and diplomat. When Joe Hillaire was born, lingering distrust permeated Native-White relations. Many of Joe’s totem poles were created as civic monuments and served to bridge cross-cultural understanding, as well as to project the rich Lummi oral traditions.

Hillaire’s monumental carvings are “story poles”—the deeds of ancestral heroes and their encounters with supernatural beings appearing on both sides of the pole. When Hillaire learned carving from his father at sixteen, Coast Salish totem pole carving was a recent practice. While this art form was adopted in shape and size from northern Native groups, it displayed more naturalistic figures (adapted from traditional interior house posts) and arranged them in narrative fashion.

In 1961, Hillaire was commissioned to create two totem poles for the Seattle World’s Fair celebration, one to tour the United States to promote the Fair (and the unique heritage of the Northwest) and one for Seattle’s sister city, Kobe, Japan. The Land in the Sky Pole—which tells the story of the adventures of two brothers who enter the sky worldtraveled to 300 cities and towns before it was returned to Seattle for the April 21, 1962 opening of the Exposition. By the time it was completed the sixty-six year-old Hillaire having carved on it in twenty-five states! The Land in the Sky Pole was never erected at the Seattle Center but stood near Chief Seattle’s grave on the Suquamish reservation from 1963 until 2005, when it was deemed unsafe and taken down, and returned to his ancestral home, the Lummi reservation near Bellingham, WA.

Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems

Lummi artist Joseph Hillaire was commissioned to carve two story poles in connection with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, we are remembering Hillaire’s contributions to the Century 21 Exposition in a series of weekly posts, starting this week! Please check back each week or subscribe to our RSS to learn more about Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems.

Hillaire and grandson, Ernie Lewis, 1950s. Photograph courtesy of Pauline Hillaire.

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.

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