So Much More Than Art: Indigenous Miniatures of the Pacific Northwest
Review By Emily L. Moore
March 21, 2023
Jack Davyʼs rich study of miniatures on the Northwest Coast is the first book to consider the diverse practices of miniaturization that have been underway in this region since at least the sixteenth century–long before the advent of the European tourist trade that one might assume catalyzed miniature art. Drawing on Alfred Gellʼs theory of art as an agent that mediates social relations, Davy establishes the miniature as a significant social actor on the Northwest Coast, part of a “hitherto unexamined program of material communication, resistance and survival in the face of colonialism, colonization, and revitalization” (14).
One of the many strengths of the book is that it does not treat the Northwest Coast as a homogenous region. The first four chapters are case studies of “localized practices” of miniaturization from different communities: the Makah of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state; the Tlingit and Haida in Alaska and British Columbia; the Kwakwakaʼwakw of the central coast; and the Tulalip of northern Puget Sound. The Makah have the earliest extant miniatures on the Northwest Coast, with tiny hats, looms, whalebone clubs, and canoes all uncovered from the village of Ozette, buried by a mudslide c. 1560. Davy argues that the 16th century miniature canoes–as well as 20th century miniature canoes carved by Makah artists between 1920 and 1990, when the community was forced to stop hunting the grey whales that had always been a source of subsistence and cultural pride–helped record deep cultural ideologies of whaling.
On the northern Northwest Coast, where the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian began carving miniatures for outsiders in the eighteenth century, Davy claims that miniatures served a more nostalgic role, yet one that also served to preserve knowledge for future generations. Thus the miniature canoes carved in the 19th century to remember head canoes popular in the 18th century became important to Bill Reid in the 20th century as he worked to carve the first full-sized Haida canoe made in decades. The miniature houses of the Haida village of Skidegate, made for the Chicago Worldʼs Fair in 1893 when many Haida people had transitioned to new housing, were not built as scale models of their prototypes but as “remembered houses” that included proud miniature figures hidden in full regalia inside.
Amongst the Kwakwakaʼwakw, Davy focuses on the use of miniatures as a form of cultural resistance and resilience to the Indian Act that criminalized the potlatch in Canada from 1884 to 1951. At the beginning of the ban, Charlie James carved miniature totem poles for tourists that featured his ancestral crests “as a way of affirming the crests and lineage he was forbidden to display through potlatch” (74). In the 1960s, just as potlatch ban was lifted and the Kwakwakaʼwakw were cautiously returning to their dances, Gordon Scow gifted miniature hamatʼsa figurines to children to encourage them study the dance.
The last case study concerns the “future-looking” miniature practices on the Tulalip reservation in Washington state. Here, income from the tribe’s casino fuels the Tulalip Tribes Art Manufacturing Center, where artists produce art for the casino, as well as for local schools, canoe journeys, and diplomatic events. In July 2010, for example, in recognition of an international agreement to refer to the “Salish Sea” rather than use colonial names, Salish artist Joe Gobin carved a miniature replica of a Tulalip Westcoast canoe to “send to Obama” as a pointed diplomatic gift asserting Salish claims to the waterway. As Davy notes, “Using art to make public statements of ownership and identity is a traditional Northwest Coast practice, but the systematized commercial manner in which the Tulalip have pursued this program reflects a determination to build on the past and explore new realities–an ambition within which miniaturization is a vital component” (119).
The final three chapters work to synthesize the case studies into a more general theory of the miniature. Davy identifies three elements of miniaturization: resemblance of the miniature to its prototypes, which is not necessarily achieved through calculated scale or photocopied detail but by an “an imaginative activity” wherein the artist makes choices that ensure the miniature resembles–and becomes symbolic of–its prototype (121). Scaling is another element: a miniature necessarily scales down in size from its prototype, but it does not have to be built “to scale” and is not limited by any proportions except the artist and medium’s ability to work small. Simplification is the third element; the choices an artist makes to simplify the prototype on a mechanical and conceptual level reveals the artist’s intentions for the miniature and his intended audience. Davy includes a data-heavy chapter on the sizes, techniques, and materiality of the 1,022 Northwest Coast miniatures that he identified for this study; he also proposes several chaîne opératoires as models of miniaturization practice. These diagrams were not particularly useful for this reviewer, but they underscore Davyʼs efforts to theorize the process of miniaturization as one that “relies on an imaginative combination of elements to become a medium of non-verbal ideological communication” (169).
Davy has published articles on miniatures before (2015, 2018), but this is his first book, apparently based on his dissertation from University College London. The imprint of UCLʼs renowned material culture program is clear, particularly in the earnest and repeated references to Gell and other British anthropologists. Ultimately, however, Gell gets less airtime than the Indigenous artists whom Davy interviews; their ideas and practices involving miniaturization are rich and clear in the direct quotes that Davy incorporates into every chapter. If only we could have seen more of the miniatures the book referenced: with several chapters allotted only two black-and white images, there were countless examples that the reader could only view by researching the museum catalogue numbers that Davy referenced in lieu of an illustration. These critiques aside, however, the book is well-written, carefully researched, and an important contribution to Northwest Coast art scholarship and material culture studies more broadly.
Davy, Jack. So Much More Than Art: Indigenous Miniatures of the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2022. 224 pp. $32.95 paper.