Saturday, January 28, 2012

Artists of the First Nations

While my daughter and her boyfriend were visiting from Australia this week, we spent a few days in Vancouver, BC. One afternoon we went to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Containing more than 38,000 objects, the museum is more than a bit overwhelming, so I decided to focus on the First Nations collection, totaling just 6700 objects (!). First Nations are the indigenous peoples of North America who have lived here for about 10,000 years. In the Pacific Northwest much of their tradition and culture has managed to survive* in spite of the concerted and ongoing efforts of European settlers, arriving in the 18th century, to eradicate it. Over the last decade or so, First Nations culture has finally attained a degree of respect.

Upon entering the museum we found ourselves in a lofty vestibule full of First Nation objects ranging from totem poles to canoes to wooden cooking boxes, all carved from Pacific Coast Cedar. After several minutes of walking around in rapt appreciation, I realized my mouth was wide open. I closed it, but it soon opened again for yet another, "Wow!"

Liz inspecting interior house posts

Left - woven rug, back right - wall decoration, front right - funeral box for a  chief.

Carved poles were always painted, but most of them have long since lost their paint. This is a happy exception.

Ancestor figure.

Haisla canoe
Traditionally, First Nations people lived along the coast and next to waterways, as the inland forests were (and mostly still are) too dense for easy travel on foot. Their art and craft included no pottery, but rather relied on the wood and bark of the abundant cedar tree for nearly everything, even cooking pots and clothing. For weaving, they also used marsh grasses, in addition to bark.
Totem poles
Looking at this collection I was struck by the integration of art into the everyday things used by these people. Each item in the collection was beautifully formed, carved, and/or painted.

I finally tore myself away from the larger carvings and entered a series of smaller rooms filled with glass-enclosed shelves laden with myriad smaller, but equally artful, objects.

Cedar bark basket

I don't know what this carving might have been used for. Perhaps it was simply decorative.

This was worn about the neck, probably for ceremonial purposes.

Wouldn't this be a fabulous masquerade mask?

I can only try to imagine what these represented. Any ideas?

Beautifully carved ladles for trade.

Haida hat.
* The art of carving totem poles has been passed down and continues to this day. For examples, see John Joseph, Norman Tate, Harold Alfred, and Robert Davidson

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