Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas
March 17, 2014
Review By Maria Tippett
The essays and the many previously published texts gathered together in this weighty tome demonstrate the extent to which, over the course of the past 250 years, “the idea of Northwest Coast Native art has been historically constructed through texts as much as through the global diaspora of the objects themselves” (1). Thus we have Ira Jacknis’s learned essay on the writings of explorers and ethnographers during the early years of European exploration on the Northwest Coast (1770-1870). Andrea Laforet puts into context the way that ethnographers like Franz Boas and amateur collectors like Charles F. Newcombe — all active on the Northwest Coast between 1880 and 1930 — gave accounts of the culture they observed and the objects they collected. In “Going by the Book: Missionary Perspectives,” John Barker shows how some missionaries, by recording languages and collecting Native art, were paradoxically preserving what they were themselves were seeking to destroy.
What is so fascinating about these essays and the appended documents is the evidence they provide to show that Aboriginal people were, in Barker’s words, not only “active players in their own histories” but, he continues, “they put their new religious identity to creative as well as destructive uses” (235). During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, William Beynon and George Hunt, among many other Aboriginal persons, contributed enormously to the work of ethnologists and collectors. Conversely, the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples at Fort Rupert (Tsaxis), in resisting conversion by the Order of Oblate missionaries, thereby fostered carving, painting, and winter ceremonies. Martha Black takes the discussion to the end of the twentieth century by showing how collaborative exhibitions curated by non-Native and First Nations people have become the norm and, in her words, “are no longer the new museology” (795).
Indeed, a good example of this long overdue collaboration is right here, in the production of Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas. Two of the book’s editors, Jennifer Kramer and Ki-ke-in, are Aboriginal persons, as are other contributing writers, curators, and artists like Gloria Cranmer Webster, Marianne Nicolson, Douglas White, and Daisy Sewid-Smith. Nicholson demonstrates the ways in which the relationships between the ethnographers (as observers) and Native people (as subjects) have recently been reversed. In writing about the Nuu-chah-nulth artist and writer, George Clutesi, White supplies the obvious reason why his great-uncle prudently did not oppose the potlatch in his public writings: “In 1947, participating in — or even merely encouraging someone to participate in — a potlatch was criminalized and prohibited as a statutory offence under Canada’s federal Indian Act and had been since 1885” (633-4). In one of the most erudite essays in this volume, Jennifer Kramer explores the relationship between laws governing Indigenous property and the arts, be it the display and ownership of crest designs, the performance of songs and dances, or even the use and types of artistic techniques.
There are, however, some failures of perspective. Largely a product of social scientists and museum curators, and of artists and gallery curators, Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas lacks historical underpinning. Thus several writers exaggerate the novelty of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 1967 display of contemporary and historic Aboriginal art in the Arts of the Raven: Masterworks by the Northwest Coast Indian. Yet they might have been noted that, as early as 1941, the Vancouver Art Gallery showed contemporary and Native Art, borrowing works from the Provincial Museum in Victoria. Furthermore, acknowledging a second previous exhibition at the same gallery would have strengthened the essays concerning the involvement of Native artists in the production and display of their work. For in 1953, Tsimshian Hatti Fergusson and Haida Ella Gladstone had organized — with the assistance of Bill Reid and Ellen Neel — the Arts and Handicrafts Show, comprised entirely of the work of contemporary Native artists. Admittedly, the exhibition was a flop in the view of its Native organizers — attendance was low, there was no catalogue, and the sales were insignificant. Lamenting the lack of newspaper reviews, Hatti Fergusson pointedly told a gallery official: “Contrary to what most people think, Indians appreciate practical criticism.”
There are not only omissions here. Despite the authors’ attempts to avoid making anachronistic value judgments, these nevertheless creep into the essays of even the best writers in this volume. Ronald Hawker assures us that the United Church Minister George Raley’s writings were shaped by the “unfortunate paternalism of the time” (380). Ira Jacknis, rather surprisingly in view of his own erudition, writes that “the first century of Euro-American contact with Northwest Coast art was partial and shallow” (54). In curator Scott Watson’s view, Emily Carr’s Native productions were simply “faux,” and Alice Ravenhill, who ran the BC Indian Arts ad Welfare Society in the late 1930s and early 1940s, belonged to “a group of ‘do-gooders’” (351). All of these and other claims brashly reflect twenty-first century politically correct thinking, rather than showing sensitivity to historical context.
One of the book’s editors, Ki-Ke-in (Ron Hamilton), perhaps deserves the last word. In his poem, Box of Darkness, the Nuu-chah-nulth artist tells non-Native museum and art gallery curators, anthropologists, photographers, and art historians, that “You live and work in our graveyard/ Picking the last remnants of flesh and blood/ From my mother’s bones” (517). First published in BC Studies in 1991, this “barbed critique” warned non-Native people associated with the production, display, and interpretation of Northwest Coast art to “Take your sweaty palm from my face” (515, 517). The essays and appended documents in Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas mark a beginning, a start. But the “sweaty palm” has not yet entirely disappeared.
 Maria Tippett, Bill Reid: The Making of an Indian (Toronto: Random House, 2003), 80-85.
 Vancouver Art Gallery Archives, Box 107, Hattie Fergusson to J.A. Morris, 7 July 1954.
Native Art of the Northwest Coast: A History of Changing Ideas
Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Jennifer Kramer and Ki-ke-in, editors
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. 1120 pp. $195.00 cloth