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In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum

By Robin K. Wright, Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse

Review By Alan Hoover

June 23, 2016

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017  | p. 216-217

In the Spirit of the Ancestors celebrates the Burke Museum’s contemporary Northwest Coast art collection. The writers, four academics and four artists, all have strong ties to this Seattle museum, and the artists featured here discuss their own creations in the museum’s collection. A consistent theme that runs through the publication is the large and positive influence of Bill Holm, curator emeritus at the Burke, on the course of contemporary Northwest Coast artistic production. Holm also contributes a useful foreword to this volume.

These artists and academics examine a variety of genres, collections, and material remains from much of the Northwest Coast area. Shaun Peterson, a Puyallap Coast Salish artist, analyzes traditional Coast Salish two-dimensional design to demonstrate that unlike northern formline art, it is built on negative design elements rather than positive formlines. He provides explanations for the presence in Washington State of the very non-Salish style story poles and why many Salish artists continue to use “variations of the northern formline system” (18). Margaret Blackman of the State University of New York considers the Blackman-Hall Collection of 1,168 silkscreen prints that forms the bulk of the contemporary art collection at the Burke. Evelyn Vanderhoop, a Haida weaver from Masset, explores the making of dance robes, so-called Chilkat blankets, now renamed naaxin, the Haida and Tlingit name for this type of textile. She also discusses the rebirth of the geometrically designed Ravenstail robes that pre-dated naaxin weavings. Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse of the Burke Museum compares the use of personal adornment in non-ceremonial contexts with the use of regalia in ceremonies such as feasts, potlatches, and funerals among northern and central coast peoples. She includes a discussion of tattoos and piercings and how attitudes toward these practices have changed over time.

In The Spirit of the Ancestors also contains an essay by the Haida artist Lisa Telford, who learned how to weave from her aunt, the Masset-born Haida weaver Delores Churchill. Like Vanderhoop, Telford is very positive about the role of the Burke and its collections in her re-discovery of Northwest Coast bark and root weaving. Tla-o-qui-aht (Nuu-chah-nulth) artist Joe David provides a personal and spiritual discussion on what mask-making means to him. Robin Wright, curator emeritus at the Burke, provides a survey of wooden box drums and their reappearance among northern and central groups as a prime Northwest Coast bass instrument. Emily Moore of Colorado State University discusses the theft of artifacts, including two house posts, from a Tlingit village in 1899 and their subsequent return by the Burke in 2001. She introduces the concept of “propatriation,” a clever play on “repatriation,” in which the Tlingit initiated the creation of two sculptures for the Burke to acknowledge the belated but appropriate action by this settler institution.

The essays are replete with colour illustrations of the objects discussed and studied, and the last fifty pages is a portfolio of near full-page images of additional pieces. The editors are to be congratulated for including the voices of the Indigenous creators and giving the same coverage to textiles and basketry that historically has been given to sculpture, engraving, and graphic work.

In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum
Robin K. Wright and Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, editors
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014. 168 Pages. $34.95 Paperback.