Icons of Meaning and Imagination Ritual Masks, Totem Poles, House Posts, Rattles, and Ceremonial Blankets Produced by the Peoples of the Northwest Coast Are Visible Signs of Religious Tradition and Social Organization. They Must Not Be Explained Simply as Art for Art's Sake

By Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marien teaches Fine Arts Department . | The Christian Science Monitor, May 18, 1990 | Go to article overview

Icons of Meaning and Imagination Ritual Masks, Totem Poles, House Posts, Rattles, and Ceremonial Blankets Produced by the Peoples of the Northwest Coast Are Visible Signs of Religious Tradition and Social Organization. They Must Not Be Explained Simply as Art for Art's Sake


Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marien teaches Fine Arts Department ., The Christian Science Monitor


THE first Europeans to reach the Pacific Northwest Coast sent back stories of a land so rich that one could walk across its rivers on the backs of salmon. The mild, rainy climate nourished an evergreen jungle cut by fiords and rimmed with myriad islands. The sea teemed with fish, sea mammals, and shellfish; the shore provided limitless wildlife. Fur - "soft-gold" in the Russian metaphor - was there for the taking.

The region's natural abundance led to its being framed in the language of Western utopian thought. Like Tahiti, Bali, and Bougainville, the Northwest seemed to approximate Arcadia, the mythic land of no want, no work, and no class distinctions.

Nature, culture, and the spiritual blended in harmonic interplay. Spectacular art flourished. The residents appeared to labor only during the summer salmon runs. For the rest of the time, they enjoyed their leisure in a breathtaking sylvan setting, or planned elaborate communal feasts based on beatific gift-giving.

Of course, this earthly paradise never existed. Only in the Western imagination does natural plenty automatically produce an egalitarian society. Moreover, the potlatch, or gift-giving feast, probably originated in the village practice of donating surplus food to other communities on the verge of starvation after a hard winter or a lean fish harvest.

Later fur traders, gold miners, settlers, missionaries, and government agents did not share the early explorers' benign vision. They exploited the native Americans and altered their traditional culture. Oppression fed on social Darwinism, which portrayed peoples who showed little concern for white, Western accomplishments as physically and culturally inferior.

Despite this attitude, a variety of late 19th-century businessmen and ethnographers appreciated the art of the Northwest Coast-dwellers, and began significant collections.

Franz Boas, one of the originators of modern anthropology, made several important trips to the area beginning in the late 19th century. In his subsequent books, articles, and research notes he bore witness to the inherent equality of all peoples and to the complexity of so-called primitive cultures.

Boas's intellectual successor, Claude Levi-Strauss, favorably compared the elaborate masks employed in Northwest Coast rituals with the antiquities of Egypt, Persia, and medieval Europe.

Most collectors and anthropologists saw the native peoples of the Northwest as a vanishing culture, whose heritage was in the process of being destroyed by civilization. By viewing adaptations made by the native Americans as capitulations, rather than accommodations, the collectors and anthropologists tended to re-romanticize these cultures, or at least their pre-contact state.

Similarly, the avid aesthetic appreciation of Northwest Coast art by the Surrealists was woven into a faulty understanding of native Americans as simple, pre-rational, and childlike. The paternalistic attitude that evolved on the part of the art's proponents continues to steer public policy. Just a few years ago, the Canadian government moved to prevent the Kwakiutl from allowing certain artifacts to decay, as required in Kwakiutl traditional religion.

It is much to the credit of Peter Gerber, acting director of the Ethnology Museum at the University of Zurich, that his book, "Indians of the Northwest Coast," does not become an elegiac remembrance of things past. Instead, Gerber incorporates the history of the peoples of the Northwest Coast and their extraordinary artifacts into a portrait of the present. …

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Icons of Meaning and Imagination Ritual Masks, Totem Poles, House Posts, Rattles, and Ceremonial Blankets Produced by the Peoples of the Northwest Coast Are Visible Signs of Religious Tradition and Social Organization. They Must Not Be Explained Simply as Art for Art's Sake
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