Traditional Arts ... Contemporary Times
We didn't talk much about my ancestors when I was growing up, because my father thought I could have a better life if I wasn't so Indian. So when I was a new artist, I didn't really know all that much about the traditional arts of my people.
I wasn't even all that sure as to whether or not I wanted to be an "Indian" artist, or just an artist.
But then an elder took me to see the rock carvings and paintings created thousands of years ago by my ancestors, and I was hooked. I couldn't get over how interesting these rock images were.
So since then, I've spent a lot of time learning about my ancestors and studying the designs that they created ... their rock carvings, their baskets, beaded bags, dresses, the tools they used ... you name it, I've tried to learn about it all.
But there's so much ... I don't think I could ever learn about 10,000 years of art in just one lifetime.
Still, my goal is to incorporate as best I can, the traditional Native American arts of my ancestors into the contemporary art that I create for people living in these modern times.
Petroglyphs and Pictographs
Petroglyphs (rock engravings) and pictographs (rock paintings) are an important part of the rich cultural heritage of the the Columbia River people. Archeologists estimate that the oldest of them could be between 6,000 to 7,000 years old, but no one knows for sure.
Rock Art ... Probably Not
Many people today call the rock carvings and paintings "rock art" and think of them as a form of traditional Native American art. But are these rock engravings really "art?"
Most Native American people believe that the term "rock art" may not be quite right. They say that the images may have been made as part of religious ceremonies, hunting rituals, or for the purpose of communicating important messages to viewers.
Certainly these rock carvings and paintings are artistic, and to our way of thinking today they look like art. But there was no Native American word for art, so it's likely that they were made for reasons altogether different than art for art's sake.
As for what exactly do the various images mean? Except for the obvious images of animals and people, no one can know for sure what their meaning was.
A Large Number of Sites
What we do know is that at one time there were roughly 90 sites along the Columbia River, in the stretch of land between Pasco, Washington to the east, and The Dalles, Oregon, to the west. Unfortunately, many of these sites were either inundated or destroyed when The Dalles and the John Day dams were put into service, and are now lost to the world forever.
Here are some great books if you want to learn more ...
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Traditional "Arts" — Had a Purpose Other than Art
In these contemporary times we live in, we are perfectly comfortable with the idea of "fine art" — art that exists for art's sake; art that has no purpose other than its purpose as art.
This is not generally the case with traditional Native arts in North America. Typically, traditional arts served a purpose other than art — a purpose which could have been utilitarian, social, or spiritual.
Art was "applied" to just about everything ... to objects that were used in the course of everyday living and to objects that were reserved for ceremonial purposes. People incorporated art into the clothes they wore, to the bags and baskets they used to gather and store foods, to the tools they used, to the canoes they built, to the horses they rode, and to the weapons they made. Art in Native American, essentially, was everywhere.
Still, there was no such thing as art for art's sake. Art was always integrated into objects that served a useful purpose.
The Differences are Striking
The differences between traditional Native American arts of the Columbia River / Plateau region are unique in many ways from the arts of Native peoples elsewhere in North America.
Those distinctions include, among other things, the types of baskets that were made, the materials that were used, and the designs that were created.
Contemporary Native American art of the Columbia River / Plateau region, likewise, is strikingly different from the contemporary Native American art of other regions.