Susan Point's wall sculpture "the First People" is one of the highlights of the new exhibition at the Royal B.C. Museum. (Below) A bone carving, dated from 450 to 1700, was recovered from a potlatch site on Orcas island. Photographs by Deddeda Stemler.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 19, 2009
The items are crafted from bone and antler, yew and cedar, dried grass and mountain goat hair.
They include bowls and baskets and blankets.
Some are tools. Some are household goods. Some are intended for ceremonial purposes.
All are artworks.
The world is coming to British Columbia for a two-week party in February. The athletic competitions will take place on territory home to the Coast Salish peoples, whose traditional lands take in all Olympic venues.
Across the Strait of Georgia, perhaps soon to be officially known as part of the Salish Sea, the Royal B.C. Museum is showcasing the rich culture of the Coast Salish in an exhibition timed to introduce Olympic visitors to the history of this land.
The exhibition is called S’abadeb, pronounced sa-BAH-deb, a Coast Salish word meaning “gifts” but implying so much more.
“The concept may not be translatable,” said Martha Black, the museum’s curator of ethnology. “It is tied into a larger concept of giving your time and your resources.”
The show was originally organized by the Seattle Art Museum in consultation with Coast Salish groups on both sides of the border, including a dozen bands on Vancouver Island.
To walk through the exhibition, which opens tomorrow (Friday), is to stroll through the millennia from a kitchen midden along the Fraser River to a contemporary art gallery.
Simon Charlie’s “Welcoming Figure,” a large wooden figure with open arms, has been moved to the entrance of the second floor Exhibition Gallery, beckoning visitors to enter what is billed as the first comprehensive exhibition of Coast Salish art and culture.
Inside, a map shows territorial lands stretching almost as far south as the Columbia River and north to take in all the southern British Columbia coast, as well as a swath of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
Among the oldest artifacts on display is a miniature pestle, carved from antler to portray a great blue heron. Recovered at the Great Marpole Midden, it is estimated to be as old as 1100 BC.
Some other pieces managed to survive despite long exposure to the elements.
An atlatl carved from yew was discovered in the Skagit River in 1936. A tool aiding in providing leverage in the throwing of a spear, the piece includes two finger holes to provide a secure grip. The carved figure likely depicts a sea monster with plume-like crests atop a human head. It was preserved over the centuries in river mud.
In 1976, a fragment of a hat made from red cedar bark was found in Wapato Creek at Tacoma, Wash. The rot-resistant bark preserved part of the hat in a site saturated by water, which delayed decomposition. It was found at the remnants of a weir.
Several years later, the weaver Karen Reed was commissioned to create a complete basketry hat based on the fragment’s design. As it turned out, her grandmother had lived on the creek, part of the ancestral home of the Puyallup people. The two hats — one hinting at its origins, the other a magnificent artwork — are welcome companions.
More whimsical is an entire tea set weaved from cedar root, bear grass and cherry bark. The basketry includes a pot, cups, a spouted creamer, a lidded sugar bowl, and a tray with handles, made by hand by Josephine George around 1925.
A model canoe of wood and leather depicts two sturgeon fishermen, one paddling, the other wielding a three-pronged spear. They appear to be singing and, if so, it would likely have been a “power song” to aid in capturing one of the large fish found at the bottom of the Fraser.
Among the 165 artifacts are combs, paddles, fish clubs, spindle whorls, and a whalebone adze. A dish is carved with a bowl in which dried salmon can be dipped into seal oil.
The exhibition brings together pieces scattered around the globe, including the British Museum in London and the Perth Museum in Scotland. Some of the items date from George Vancouver’s expedition in 1792, returning to these lands more than two centuries after being removed.
Included among them are four horn bracelets collected by surgeon’s mate George Hewett. Only 20 are known to exist.
There are carved houseposts near the entrance, modern works of art in the last room of the exhibit. The most striking of these is a wall sculpture of red and yellow cedar depicting eight faces amid a flowing form similar to river grass. The piece, titled "The First People," is by Susan Point, an artist born in Alert Bay who now lives in Vancouver. Over the years, the Vancouver International Airport has commissioned several pieces from her, including the 16-foot carved red cedar spindle whorl titled, “Flight.,” which undoubtedly will be admired by visitors arriving for the Winter Olympics.
The museum’s S’abadeb show, which closes March 8, also includes robes and blankets. A showcase of Coast Salish knitting is, of course, the Cowichan sweater, a familiar and comforting object. Forget the Olympic knockoffs for sale by a major retailer. This is the real thing, a work of art that keeps you warm.