Northwest Coast Indian Art
The North Pacific Coast Indian Art represented in this exhibition reached its highest peak along the narrow strip of coastline in British Columbia and Southeastern Alaska, although the culture extends, in a simpler form, southward to the Columbia River. The Indians throughout this region were a people who faced, and which furnished their highway for visits and slave raids. Close behind the beached dense green forests of spruce, fir, hemlock and cedar formed a confining boundary and supplied the woodcarvers with their fine materials. On the basis of a fishing and gathering economy, usually regarded by theorists as a very primitive, these Indians developed a complex culture, a striking part of which was their wall-executed art.
Wealth was measured before the days of trade goods, in extra food, canoes and slaves. The person who would establish social prestige used his surplus in giving great feasts, “potlatches,” at which goods which were not immediately consumed were lavishly distributed as gifts. A tradition was established that these potlatch gifts had to be reciprocated with interest, so that in this way goods were exchanged between members of distant groups.
At these great gatherings, involving several hundred people, there was occasion for every kind of social and cultural display. The tribes lived in great wooden houses with walls of cedar planks. The front of such a house provided a surface perhaps forty feet long and twelve to twenty feet high, crowned with a gabled roof- a perfect span for a great wall painting. The massive posts supporting the roof from the inside gave dramatic space for sculptured single or human figures. The rear wall within the house where the guests of honor were seated was also often decorated.
In the mythology of many Indian groups the transition from human to animal and the reverse is treated in a casual manner which indicates the cleavage between animals and humans is not so sharp in their thinking as in ours. The legends of the origin of villages and individual families frequently go back to an animal ancestor. These animals were portrayed in their dances and became the subject for their art.
The animal motives became greatly stylized, and were sufficiently flexible to allow their adaptation to small, simple carvings or to huge totem poles. The same element, representing a raven, for instance, can be found on small bone amulets, masks, or across the front if a great communal house.
The Northwestern culture reached its height about the time of the first contact with the whites, just before white settlements brought an end to their native poor imitations of a once dramatic, forceful culture that produced one of the great Native American arts.