Many of you are now introduced to the idea of totem poles through the Grade 3 book of Art1st. You have learnt about its symbolic functions, its aesthetics and also asked students to make their own totem poles. Most of these works were also displayed in the annual exhibitions in the schools curated with the help of Art1st mentors.
Today we will feature an interview with Dr. Tracy J. Prince who is a Scholar in Residence (Research Professor) at Portland State University in the United States. Tracy is also an accomplished writer and has done extensive research on the history of Blacks and Native americans. She was part of the Chateau de La Napoule art residency along with me and I had a chance to interact with her about her writings and research. She also did a wonderful art workshop with the kids who were visiting the museum at the Chateau on Native American art and patterns. In this interview she will talk about the Native American art, the relevance of totem poles and contemporary artists who are using totem poles and the aesthetics of Native American art in their works.
Premjish: How was your experience with the students in La Napoule teaching Native American Art? What were your objectives?
Tracy: I wanted to show the children images of Native American art from over 100 years ago to today, so that students could see that Native Americans have been an important part of American history and that thousands of Native artists are active today. I enjoyed teaching them via an interpreter. They were intrigued that I am a descendant of Pocahontas. They seemed very excited to learn about Native Americans.
Premjish: What is your experience with the Native American Art? (In terms of academics and research and outreach)
Tracy: I’ve taught Native American Art for over a decade. I’ve published about Native art in several of my books on Portland, Oregon’s history. I’m working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon, based upon my research and teaching. In outreach, I’ve advocated with the Portland Art Museum to promote the work of contemporary Native artists (though they still tend to focus on historical Native art), and I’ve given hundreds of talks to civic groups in the US on Native American art.
Premjish: In the Art1st grade books we have a chapter dealing with Totem poles. You have researched a lot on totem poles. Could you give our teachers a brief overview about its functions, visual appearance and relevance.
Tracy: The most important thing to remember is that totem poles are traditional only for tribes in part of the Pacific Northwest. In the US, totem poles were made only in parts of Alaska and a small part of Washington state, and in Canada, totem poles were made only in the province of British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest areas where carving was/is most intense is a rain forest where enormous evergreen trees grow that are excellent for making totem poles—most are made from western red cedar. There are over 500 Native tribes in the US. Less than a dozen of those tribes have totem poles as a tradition. Throughout the world, totem poles have captured the imagination and have come to stand for all Native people of the US and Canada. But in reality, totem poles represent only a small part of a few western tribes in Canada and the US. They capture the imagination for good reason. Totem poles are carved of wood. They are beautiful, grand, and visually striking. They are usually enormous poles carved from a single tree. Totem poles can be found in many museums around the world. Their function was/is to celebrate a person’s achievements, to honor someone still living, to praise a great miracle, to serve as a funeral marker, to tell a tribal legend, and for many other functions. The icons carved onto the pole differ from tribe to tribe. Common imagery includes: a raven (a trickster figure—tricky, greedy, mischievous), eagle, bear, salmon, whale, wolf, frog, and mythical creatures such as the thunderbird and Dzunukwa. Dzunukwa is often depicted with pursed lips. The legend is that when children hear “who, who” calling in the forest, they should run so that Dzunukwa doesn’t capture them. This legend helped keep children from wandering into the vast wilderness of thick forests that these tribes were surrounded by.
Premjish: Do communities still make totem poles and believe in its symbolic quality?
Tracy: All tribal communities that made totem poles historically are still making totem poles today. Many Native people (in Canada the preferred terms are: aboriginal, indigenous, or First Nations) were Christianized and many of their traditional beliefs and practices were forbidden until even as recently as the 1950s. However, even with attempts to decimate cultures, many Native people still place great value on the symbolism of the imagery on totem poles. All tribes place great value on the cultural importance of the tree, taken from Native land, representing stories that have been handed down in that tribe.
Premjish: Could you tell us more about the contemporary artists who are working in this visual idiom? Especially abstract, geometric patterns, etc.
Tracy: Wendy Red Star (Crow tribe) satirizes and critiques stereotypical ideas about Native Americans. Sometimes using pop art style, with an underlying critique, she grapples with American history and the present story of Native Americans. She wants viewers to see that Native people are not just people of the past.
And she plays with traditional Native American geometric shapes to explore contemporary art.
I like the work of Marcus Cadman (Navajo and Kickapoo tribes). He has strong regional recognition and growing national recognition. I’m especially intrigued by his paintings that use discarded bingo cards from the Navajo reservation as the background. Bingo games are pervasive throughout Native American tribes. So, he is anchoring the viewer to contemporary life on the Navajo reservation by using bingo cards.
(To see Cadman’s works, see his website http://www.marcuscadman.com/carousel.php?galleryID=109931)
I wrote about Pat Courtney Gold (Wasco Chinook) who does basketry. Her designs are quite traditional and are meant to honor the past rather than critique it.
(See the book online https://books.google.co.in/books?id=dCYnDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA95&dq=%22lillian+pitt%22+notable+women&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22lillian%20pitt%22%20&f=false)
Pat Courtney Gold
Premjish: Is it always necessary that Native American artists always work in their own native visual style?
Tracy: In the 1960s and 1970s, Fritz Scholder and T. C. Cannon famously exploded the idea that Native American art must reverentially harken back to the past artistic language.
They used abstraction (Scholder) and pop art (Cannon) to play with, deconstruct, and analyze Native American art. Many contemporary artists, such as James Lavadour (Umatilla), don’t feel obliged to paint typical Native American subjects. He paints abstractions of the landscapes near his home on the Umatilla Reservation.
(Read the article on these by clicking here)
Premjish: Could you tell us what are the new interventions happening in the art of totem pole creation?
Tracy: Being able to carve in the totem pole style and with particular figures is considered the privilege of certain tribes. These privileges are passed down through generations. It is considered cultural appropriation when a Native American person carves a totem pole but is not a member of a tribe where totem poles were carved. Rick Bartow (Wiyot and Yurok) has a fantastic piece at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC that shows a modern interpretation of the totem pole but is not trying to replicate traditional styles. He lives in Oregon with ancestry from California tribes. So he is not from a tribe where totem pole carving is traditional. Bartow’s spectacular sculpture, “We Were Always Here,” was erected in 2012 at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum.
Bartow says that they aren’t totem poles, but “pole sculptures.” “We didn’t want a totem pole. There is a predetermined idea of what that is going to look like, a built-in iconography. There are traditions. It reflects family stories, lineages. I have no lineage right to that … and it would be stupid of me, who is not Haida or Tlingit … to pretend like I was all of the sudden just for this job. It would look like hell, frankly.”
Bartow’s work explores a new sculptural form and iconography to delve into contemporary interpretations of Native American art.
Tracy J. Prince, Ph.D. is a Scholar in Residence (research professor) at Portland State University in the United States. She is the author of four books: Culture Wars in British Literature: Multiculturalism and National Identity, Notable Women of Portland, two other histories of Oregon, and is currently working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon. She has taught for two decades, published about, and given hundreds of public lectures on Native American art and literature. Read more about her: https://works.bepress.com/tracy-prince/