Art of Columbia River Indians Gets Its First Real Museum Exhibit
Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard
PORTLAND - With all the interest in Native American art over the past generation, it may come as a surprise to hear that the art of the Columbia River people has never - until now - been the subject of a major museum exhibition.
``This area just didn't get a lot of attention,'' said Bill Mercer, curator of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum, who has been working for the past four years to rectify the oversight.
``When people did look at it, they usually said it's just derivative of the Northwest coast. Or it's derivative of the Plains Indians. Not only is this not derivative, it's absolutely distinctive.''
``People of the River,'' a new exhibition at the museum, is the result of Mercer's labors. Combing through warehouses at anthropology museums, visiting local historical societies and cajoling private collectors of American Indian art, he has pulled together more than 200 objects. Viewed together, they make a convincing case that a unique artistic culture flourished along the Columbia River between the Snake River and the Pacific Ocean in the centuries before Europeans arrived.
The exhibit was put together with sponsorship from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Spirit Mountain Community Fund.
``Many of the tribal members are as interested to see these things as we are,'' Mercer said. ``They've never seen them before. And they've even lost the collective memory of them.''
In the exhibit, Mercer makes his strongest case for a distinctive art tradition right up front, with an eye-grabbing collection of basalt statues as eerie as anything from Easter Island (the largest, at more than four feet tall, was found near Sauvie Island, west of Portland, which had a greater human population in pre-contact days than it has today).
That first statue in the exhibit is simple, stark and gripping. A baleful face, a scored rib cage - this stylized rib cage is a common feature of Columbia River art - a navel and prominent genitals define a strange and haunting figure.
``What we found here is the most intensive stone sculptural tradition anywhere in North America prior to contact,'' Mercer said.
Mercer is too good a scholar to embellish the little information we have about these objects, few of which were found in place by trained archaeologists. The catalog describes the stone man simply as "anthropomorphic figure"; pushed for a bit of speculation, Mercer imagined the statue may have been set upright in the ground, which would mean burying it up to the tip of the penis.
"That could mean fertility. Renewal. Seasonal changes," he said. "But that's just my crazy speculation."
This caution is both admirable and frustrating. All the sculptures - many of which were uncovered in excavations for the great dams along the river or washed up in floods - are dated, simply, "pre-contact," which encompasses a great many years. …