Gathering materials for this post, I ran into a personally recurring dilemma. Looking at the image I had just inserted, I realized I had seen similar stone pilings on other trips and the thought struck – “How many cultures used balanced/stacked stones as 1) markers 2)symbolic images 3)ceremonial stages?” This almost made my brain explode, thinking of the no doubt countless examples I have already seen and even more that I hadn’t yet discovered. And on top of that – what of the global commonality this represents? Can this even be discussed briefly in a blog? In any event, I promise to keep this post strictly limited to my original goal of discussing examples of the art of the autochthonous tribes of Canada, or as they are more commonly called, “The First Nations.”
There are over 30 First Nations groups, each with its own language and culture, producing a vast amount of stunning and unusual artifacts. I first came upon the above pictured stacked stone piece on my visit to Vancouver, Canada in 2010 as part of a wonderful Winter Olympic experience. It is called an “Inukshuk.”
Inukshuk – Roughly translated, this word means “stone man who points the way.” These structures were built by the First Nations tribes that lived in the North, some as far as the Arctic Circle. Their original purpose may have been, as mentioned above, as guides for navigation, markers for graves, ceremonial locations, travel routes or food caches. There is some confusion, however, for inukshuks do not represent an actual human figure – that is reserved for structures called “Inunnguag.” More often than not, an Inukshuk is a single stone positioned upright, or a grouping of balanced stones as seen here at the Inuksuglait (“where there are many Inukshuk”) Foxe Peninsula on Baffin Island, in Canada:
In fact, there was some controversy over the choice for the 2010 Olympic Games emblem, as some First Nations’ protesters claimed that Inukshuks were NEVER built with a head, arms and legs, so the figure chosen for the Games should not be labelled as such. Tribal leaders complained that an Inukshuk had very specific meanings based on where it was built and what it was meant to denote and it was never meant to represent a human form such as this:
Guess someone should have delved deeper into this to avoid the ensuing kerfluffle.
So lets move onto another spirit artform where there are no grey areas- masks. Now in general, whether we are speaking of the First Nations or any other autochthonous peoples, masks serve as potent manifestations of ancestral spirits and supernatural beings . In performance, these masks allow the wearer to manifest the characters of these beings and by doing so, undergo a spiritual renewal. Again, among the many tribes, the spirits and the stories they convey differ, so the masks’ usage varies.
Bukwas – The fascinating mask I chose to bring back was the Bukwas Mask of the Kwaguith Nation (one of the advantages of a written blog is neither the author or reader has to actually pronounce these names). Bukwas is linked with the underworld of the dead and with ghosts. This is an illusive and mysterious wild man of the forest who, by offering food to lost people. lures them into the underworld.
Now don’t go thinking I have dark intent – I chose this mask because the colors fit into the decor of my home and I liked his smiling, if devious face:
Rupert Scow, the carver of this mask, is a member of the Kwaguilth Nation, and a double-headed sea serpent, or Sisiutl and Bear are on his family crest. He is considered one of the most gifted carvers in British Columbia so I am honored to have one of his creations.
Totem Poles of Brockton Point, Stanley Park, Vancouver – Once again, I must harness my resolve to discuss only the pillars of the First Nations, as these monuments are also found all over the world. Carved from trees, mostly Red Cedar, these sculptures take their name from the Algonquian (or Ojibwe) word “odoodem” [oˈtuːtɛm] = “his kinship group.” There are many meanings of the totem pole designs: spirits, shamans, legends, clan lineage, events, spiritual beliefs – and some not surprisingly are constructed for their beauty alone. They were NOT, however ever objects of worship.
“Low Man on the Totem Pole” – yes, this is where this phrase gets its meaning – referring to a specific hierarchy of the figures on the pole; the higher up the more important (kind of like “above and below the salt,” but I digress). In reality, though, Totem Poles are constructed with reverse hierarchy just as often, and some consist solely of a lone figure atop an undecorated column. Sometimes a prestigious family crest is place at the bottom of the pole where the column is the widest, thus giving it more prominence.
In Stanley Park, on Brockton Point there are eight poles which were carved in the latter half of the 20th Century. They represent a cross-section of First Nations groups, including the Kwakwaka’wakw (just love that name) Haida and Nisga’a tribes. The combination of carved animals, fish, birds as well as mythological creatures represent clan history. Here is a sampling of the photos I took:
I had a transformative chance to delve deeper into the history of the Autochthonous People of Canada during a trip to Manitoba. More about them next week.