Victoria, BC – S’abadeb, Coast Salish Art

“S’abadeb – The Gifts”, an exhibition of Coast Salish Native American Art opened for its third show, this time in Victoria, BC after being hailed as a landmark experience in Seattle and in Vancouver, BC.

When visitors come to Vancouver for the winter Olympic Games in a couple of months, this will be an opportunity to see the largest exhibition of artwork ever mounted from the indigenous tribes who still inhabit the areas in and around Seattle to Vancouver, BC’s environs and Vancouver Island.

Art from collections hundreds of years old, now residing in many countries, as well as a tiny core from tribal families, was used for the exhibition. Most of the Art in the exhibition comes from when Sir Francis Drake (in 1579) and Captain James Cook (in 1778) collected or stole these tribes’ art when they visited the area so long ago. Spanish explorers also had made European contact with one Salish tribe, the Quinault on the Olympic Peninsula, in 1775.

Some of that artwork has been brought from European museums, royal and private collections for this show, as well as the artists from these same indigenous tribes being chosen to make contemporary pieces.

The Interior Salish, residents of what is now known as the Salish Sea, in and around Seattle, made Art a personal, daily activity based in the desire for the beauty of their everyday objects and of service to each other with their skills.

There’s a great deal we can learn from their life perspective; they are the only other modern people besides the Japanese whom I know who “live” their Art.

The scholars are just now coming to see the Coast Salish’s deep contribution to world culture.

Previously, “As the contributors to the handsome catalog point out, Coast Salish art has been ignored, dismissed or downgraded over the decades for a variety of reasons, many of them based on faulty scholarship, inaccurate anthropological interpretations, racism and another simple fact: They never created totem poles.”

Totem poles were an integral part of more northern First Nation’s cultural tribal story; they were not made as art objects, but the Europeans literally stole a family’s only historical genealogical object when they raided totem poles, as booty.

Totem poles became stereotypes for all NW tribal art, but the Coast Salish never made huge exterior totem poles. They recorded their genealogy in more private, smaller versions inside their homes, and their art would have been more secure if the racist acts* you can read about in Part 1 had not happened.

But, as it turned out, the Captains who collected the first Art, were enabling it to be kept safe for posterity. It gives a trail for modern tribal artists to follow, but the Art should be returned now that the tribes can keep it safely themselves. We already have an example of such repatriation.

The late John H. Hauberg, former Seattle Art Museum President and long-time trustee/employee of Weyerhaeuser, a logging company, traveled many times to inspect timber holdings throughout British Columbia where he acquired vast numbers of examples of Salish art.

These included a rare “pre-contact” soapstone bowl in the form of a human figure. Mr. Hauberg’s entire collection was given to SAM in 1993, and before his death, many of the pieces were returned to the Native Americans, in formal ceremonies, recognizing his contribution in having preserved them.

“The Gifts” suggests, quieter art forms predominated in Coast Salish societies. Their Art consists of everyday objects made beautiful: sleek cedar canoes, lustrous stone bowls, striking patterned woven clothing from mountain goats and dogs, tiny antler-bone bracelets, wooden tools as well as clothing and baskets woven of cedar bark and other natural materials. They were mostly weavers rather than carvers, and the Salish artists were overlooked for another reason – they were to become the object of cultural genocide.*

The earliest works in the exhibition, include a 13th century. CE carved-bone figure found in the San Juan Islands and a 4″ high bird-shaped “pestle” from the 2nd century. BCE, and these are among the most interesting and mysterious in the entire show.

They give us a window onto an era when Coast Salish tribal communities flourished from Oregon to central Vancouver Island, which they have inhabited for 10,000 years or more. The peoples spoke complicated languages and had their own oral literature. Their Art and society endlessly retold stories of creation myths, origins of nature and animals, and stresses the central necessity of giving gifts.

“The Gifts” is a way to understand how their gifts were often passed to friends and family members, often as wedding gifts, or even to potential enemies (in potlatch ceremonies, huge dinner parties staged to entertain and intimidate neighboring tribes or families).

The objects definitely acted as disarmament-talk presents, and these diplomatic (and also the wedding presents), often took years to plan and execute daily.

In a way, they were living meditations and certainly they were labors of love and hope. In the process, cultural wisdom was thus imparted from elder to youth in stories and then embodied in objects handed down through the generations, in these tribes which had no alphabet.

So, the loss of such heirlooms to white traders and raiders was especially grievous.

Their Art is tremendously labor intensive and requires great patience, as well as skill. Using giant cedars for canoes, waiting for just the right time to carve them and to get the engineering right, required enviable skill.

Salish basket materials, like cedar bark, had to be dried for weeks before they could be used. Women were considered closest to the earth and also were regarded as the smartest at handling the complicated, symbolically loaded patterns required for even the simplest container.

Family identities and extended forms of knowledge (like where to find the materials, when to harvest them, how to process them, how to preserve them) were tied up in the making of any basket.

Their culture was rich and varied. Where did the Salish peoples come from? Historians now finally admit they simply do not know for sure, nor why they have so many different languages. And of course, with such a forced cultural interruption or loss of their cultural oral tradition, we may never now, except for possible haploid genetic tests.

You can attend the exhibition “S’abadeb – The Gifts” at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, British Columbia until March 8, 2010.

* An additional heinous policy which nearly decimated the Native American Coast Salish First Nations happened in Canada and in the United States. Both in Washington Territory (later in Washington State) and in British Columbia, Salish children were “kidnapped” from their families, forcibly deposited in boarding schools, and forbidden from speaking their native languages. (Canadians have finally made apologies and reparation payments for these crimes; why haven’t Americans?). As the families were separated this way for several generations, in tribes with no written language, and with their homes burned, they were just left to wander with a subsistence living.

“As a result, even with strong oral history customs, many cultural traditions of teaching and transmission disappeared or were irretrievably lost.” This is why re-convening such a large treasure trove of Coast Salish is SO important for the revival and continuation of the living tribe members.

S’abadeb – The Gifts, Part 1

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