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Totem Pole by James Bender at Pike Place Market (#72: 15046 bytes)

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Indian Art of the Northwest Coast:

A Dialogue on Craftsmanship and Aesthetics

by Bill Holm and Bill Reid

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Of all the great spindle whorls I’ve seen, this is the best. I suppose it’s a female flanked by two birds. I assume these are joint marks on the wings, made of human faces—a Northern characteristic, except that it certainly isn’t any Northern form. There’s a creature looking vaguely fish-like, Or it may just be viscera in the abdomen of the woman and may have some significance there. Perhaps it’s the fetus—I hesitate to guess. A beautiful thing. Makes you wonder why the Salish didn’t do more things like that.

HOLM: They did do quite a few things like this, although numerically far fewer than Northern artists. I think this has something to do with their whole way of life.

Some interesting things are happening here. All three mouths are pierced right through. There’re also two little holes in the ears, but I’m not sure they’re original. Maybe they were made to hang the spindle whorl up.

You mentioned faces in the birds’ wings. I don’t read these as wings. I think each is the body of a bird. You spoke of this as a Northern characteristic, but we might see it another way. I see Georgia Strait Salish art as related to other southern coastal arts—Nootka art, things from the Columbia River, etc. I see them all as a development, an extension, of a widespread, basic art expression which ultimately lay behind both this art and Northern art. This art may actually be closer—this is really conjecture, there’re lots of missing links—but this may be closer to that earlier, widespread tradition.

The interesting thing to me, after having studied how the Northern formline system works on two-dimensional art, is to become suddenly aware that these things also have basic formline-like characteristics. Some show this more clearly than others. Not superficial similarities and not watered-down Northern characteristics—which is the way a lot of people have seen this, as being a backwoods imitation of Northern formline work—not that at all, but the same basic concept of representation and the same use of line and form widely used in the Northwest.

When you begin to read the patterns on the pommels of Nootka whalebone clubs or Shwaikhwey masks or this spindle whorl in terms of the doughnut-hole relationship—where you ignore holes and concentrate on spaces between holes, which is the basis of Northern formline art—then you find they all work like formline designs.

In pieces from the Columbia River and in certain Nootka things, we see little rows of triangles interlocking with other rows of triangles. If we can quit looking at the triangles and look at the spaces between, we find neat little wavy lines and zigzags. With Shwaikhwey masks, if—instead of seeing bunches of little, long triangles below the central face, along the sides and at the top—we look at the spaces between the triangles, suddenly the whole bird hops right out at us with tail feathers, wing feathers, and feet, all connected to the central nose.

The same thing is happening here. Because the long triangles are larger in scale, compared to the positive forms between them, they’re more difficult to see. But actually all these crescent and T-shaped things seem to be reliefs, slots between feathers. They read clearly that way. There’s no problem on this piece, compared with some others. This really isn’t far from the Northern system—just another direction that must have been taken. This little foot of the bird—you could carry that out and have a nice little formline foot. This leg with the relief and this conjectural thing in the abdomen of the human figure—I’m not sure I see it as female—are almost straight formline seen that way.

Another thing going on, not found in the North, is the repetition of both a series of little reliefs and a series of parallel lines. So we end up with a more geometric handling of the whole space, but also the kind of naturalism seen in some of the Northern things. A higher percentage of Salish figures have naturalistic proportions—straightforward representation, rather than the stylization more noticeable in the North.

This is a great combination of this very patterned, very geometrical handling of the birds and the naturalistic figure. And we have this thing which repeats the bird forms and whatever this central motif is meant to be—to me it’s really successful. I share your feeling that this is certainly among the greatest known spindle whorls. There’re some nice ones and the nice ones look like this. But they can’t be seen in the same way as Northern pieces. They’re different. I think it’s wrong to compare Salish pieces with Northern pieces, except to see how they’re related.

Round faces like this and bodies in unlikely places are typical of the Salish. I think they’re part of the same tradition of extraneous faces we’ve been seeing all day. I don’t know how to explain it.

Another thing the Salish often did, and this artist did beautifully, was to incorporate the spindle hole into the design so well that the guy is holding the shaft—which is just neat! Or the woman, if it’s a woman.

REID: I suppose you’re right. The bird wings are these thin things on the sides here, while this would be the tail.

HOLM: And here are the feet coming in from the body. Some of these Salish spindle whorls have great punning going on—parts coming together to form extra faces, which aren’t really parts of a face at all—just arranged in such a way they make a face. I’m sure this artist had that in mind. This also occurs in Salish horn rattles. The one in the "Far North" show was full of great punning.

Very often one creature merges with another in a very surprising way—you don’t see it here, at least I haven’t seen it—but you get some suggestion of it. This whole body, with arms coming out here, can be read that way and maybe that’s an example. It often can’t be justified when you look closely. You first say, "Oh, that’s a double face!" and then, when you look closely, you see it really isn’t, but the impression is that way.

That’s what we have here with the bird’s feet coming into the lower part of the body. It also can be read as arms coming out of an extra little figure. You can say the claws are in the wrong place for that to happen, but they also look like little shoulders. I don’t know whether to make anything out of that, but it happens so often in the carving of this region, I think it’s part of the play going on there.

REID: I’d like to know what that’s all about—in the center, in the womb—in the womb of the man.

HOLM: If it is. Unfortunately, that carver wasn’t too anatomy-minded. He didn’t give us many clues. Some Salish figures are pretty specific. Gender is generally clear.

REID: This one is interesting because there’s no head—just features.

HOLM: That’s what happens. These two parts overlap and merge. That’s one of the exciting things about it—it’s illogical, like some of the other things we’ve been looking at. You think you see something—then you don’t.

REID: And these are mythical birds, you think?

HOLM: I don’t know. Probably. Some have features like birds in nature, but I think they’re mythical. One problem with Salish art is that so much symbolism is personal, concerned with individual guardian spirits and private experiences with supernatural powers, unrelated to tribal mythology. This makes it almost impossible to read or decipher design meanings. But someone really familiar with the mythology of the Georgia Strait people could come up with some pretty good guesses. But they would only be that—just educated guesses.

I liked this spindle whorl real well when I first saw it. I like it better now—after I’ve had a chance to look at it and really think it through.

The concave side is where the wool goes—when it’s on the spindle, In the old days, the spinner held the spindle in both hands and faced the carving. Nowadays, Salish spinners use a shorter spindle held with one hand and don’t face the spindle. Some modern spindles have simple, geometric stars, but I’ve never seen one with elaborate decoration.

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2009 Chief Seattle Arts
Last modified: November 09, 2014