Northwest Coast Indian Painting: House Fronts and Interior Screens


The fascinating but nearly extinct native tradition of monumental house art in Alaska is richly documented in this sumptuous book. Through rare historical photographs and his own stunning renderings in vivid color, pioneering anthropologist Edward Malin captures the vanishing riches of Northwest Coast house front paintings and interior screen partitions. With abiding respect and wonder, Malin considers every aspect of the works and explores the ways of the Tlingit, Coast Tsimshian, Haida, Northern Kwakiutl, ...

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The fascinating but nearly extinct native tradition of monumental house art in Alaska is richly documented in this sumptuous book. Through rare historical photographs and his own stunning renderings in vivid color, pioneering anthropologist Edward Malin captures the vanishing riches of Northwest Coast house front paintings and interior screen partitions. With abiding respect and wonder, Malin considers every aspect of the works and explores the ways of the Tlingit, Coast Tsimshian, Haida, Northern Kwakiutl, Southern Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw), Bella Coola (Nuxalk), Nuu chaa nulth, and the communities that nurtured them. For all admirers of native art, this book is an essential reference and thoughtful, in-depth guide.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780881927702
  • Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/3/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 8.36 (w) x 11.00 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Malin is an anthropologist whose professional life has been dedicated to the study of Northwest Coast Indians. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees in cultural anthropology and East Asian studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Before retiring from the Japanese studies program at the University of Portland, he served as chairman of the humanities department at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon; chairman and associate professor in social sciences at Marylhurst College; teacher of folklore and cultural anthropology at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon; and a consultant with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts & Crafts Board. Malin has also been a lecturer for the Seattle Art Museum and the Ethnic Arts Council. He resides in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

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Read an Excerpt

The Extraordinary Place of the Tongue

The portrayal of the tongue is surprisingly common in Northwest Coast painting. This repeated depiction of such an obscure anatomical part forces the sense that the tongue was of considerable symbolic significance to all the Northwest Coast native tribes from north to south. Tongues are to be found in both profile and frontal faces in the paintings. Most are associated with the predominant figures, or occasionally they are portrayed simply as decorative elements in the painting. By contrast a very elaborate tongue is given a central importance in a number of configurations.

Tongues appear more frequently on interior screen paintings than on house front paintings, except among the Tsimshian. The wolves positioned at the base of the Wolf Bath House screen ... , for example, possess long, slender, realistically drawn tongues. Extremely ornate tongue configurations are in the killer whales' mouths in Figures 1.1 (see right image). The central dominating figure in the Rain Wall Screen, the ocean-dwelling monster, was also provided with an elaborate tongue. The marvelous rendering of the four ravens in the Raven Screen (Figure 15, see left image below) is enhanced by the inclusion of the symbolic tongues ... [R]avens and thunderbirds , respectively, [often bear] ornate tongue configurations. The figure in the Southern Kwakiutl example ... likewise displays an intricate tongue.
There has been a good deal of speculation as to what all these elaborate tongues portray, whether in secondary or primary figures, or symbolize. To Aldona Jonaitis, writing about the Tlingit, the protruding tongue generally represents the immense power associated with the utterance of words that originate from supernatural mythological creatures (1986:135.) Tongues symbolize special kinds of communication as, for example, between a shaman and the beings in the spirit realm with whom the shaman associates. The imparting of special knowledge through mystic visions may be associated with tongue symbolism. Certainly the numerous ritual paraphernalia associated with chiefly rank and shamanism reveal countless examples of tongue connections between animal, bird, and other creatures of the supernatural realm; however, these renderings are seen on carvings rather than on flat paintings.

When these treasures are advanced to explain the symbolism of tongues in house front and screen paintings they fail, because the raising of flat paintings has never been shown to have anything to do with the workings of shamanism. The crests employed in flat painting may have indeed in the first instance been derived from ancestor exploits or at some point in the past been received as gifts in a spiritual quest. However, so many crests were, in contrast, derived not from such mythic undertakings but rather from the transfer of crest prerogatives amassed out of negotiated marriage dowries between the powerful and influential lineages and clans.

Stanley Walens, writing on the Southern Kwakiutl, advanced the alternative hypothesis that tongues symbolize the priorities the people gave to eating and feasting (1981:12). The central role of these activities in the lives of the native, particularly of feasting, seems to me to offer the most compelling explanation for the common portrayal of tongues. My own impression, garnered from periodic field work in the region, confirms this association of tongues with the act of eating with supernatural beings and with the concomitant ceremonialism such ritual feasts implied. The ostentatious display of food in quantities far beyond the amount that could be consumed by those attending a feast or potlatch and the subsequent abandonment of that food was a display of great wealth designed to impress and humble the guests. Such feast displays were in line with the principle values driving Northwest Coast Indian culture. Representing this practice in their art, native painters showed mythical creatures with large extended tongues and gaping maws to dramatize a gluttonous appetite, which in turn represented inordinate power and wealth.

Depictions of whales with mouths slightly open are commonplace in house front art but do not relate to tongue symbolism. They display teeth, not tongues, and appear to be hungry or poised to ravenously swallow victims. These designs were more likely intended to intimidate rivals.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 9
Introduction 11
Ch. I Native Culture and the Painting Tradition 17
The Explorers' Observations 22
The Geographic Distribution of the Paintings 27
Ch. II The Foundations of the Painting Tradition 31
The Village 32
The House Group 35
House Names 37
The Crest System 38
Mythology and Two-Dimensional Painting 41
Ch. III The Northern Style 49
House Front and Facade Paintings 50
Interior Screens 52
Tlingit Screens and Emblems 54
Tlingit House Front Paintings 66
Tsimshian Background to Painting 69
Tsimshian Paintings 71
Haida Paintings 77
Ch. IV The Central and Southern Traditions 81
Northern Kwakiutl Paintings 82
Bella Coola Paintings 84
Southern Kwakiutl Paintings 87
Southern Kwakiutl Variations in Painting 98
Nuu chaa nulth Paintings 104
Coast Salish Painting 107
Ch. V Characteristics of Northwest Coast Native Flat
Painting 109
Content of the Paintings 111
The Question of Provenance 112
Color 113
Wood 115
The Arrangement of Figures 116
Bilateral Symmetry 118
Horror Vacui 119
The X-Ray Motif 120
The Anatomy of the Face 121
Eye and Face Designs 123
The Extraordinary Place of the Tongue 125
Appendages 127
Ch. VI The Native Artist and His World 129
A Few Known Artists 131
Apprenticeship of Young Artists 133
The Transitional Artists 136
The Commissioning of a Painting 141
The Artist at Work 142
Further Questions 145
The Remarkable Case of the Rain Wall Screen 147
Ch. VII A New Life 151
The Great Surge Forward 154
Resurrecting the House Front Painting 155
The Return of the Interior Screen 158
Drawings (figures) 161
Photographs (plates) 225
Bibliography 281
Index 284
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