The Steven Michaan Collection The importance of the objects in this collection is enormous. Wood, walrus ivory, and abalone shell have always been abundant on the Northwest coast of North America. From the eighteenth century on they were the primary materials from which indigenous artists produced some of the greatest and most timeless art in the Indian Americas north of Mexico. There is no word for “art” in the Western sense in indigenous languages, and no such concept in their world view. To quote art historian Allen Wardwell, a leading scholar of this great tradition, former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago of what is thankfully no longer called “primitive art,” and author of, among other works, the authoritative Intangible Visions: Northwest Coast Indian Shamanism and Its Art (1996), these works can be considered true art: "The images most often brought to mind are those of objects associated with prestige and the display of important family crests in the form of zoomorphic images. Totem poles, large painted seagoing canoes, Chilkat blankets, painted house fronts, storage boxes, and the masks, rattles, and other paraphernalia made for long feasts and ceremonial cycles, become the hallmarks of the art. Less well known but at least as important, are the art objects that were made to accompany the performances of the shamans, those individuals responsible for controlling events caused by supernaturals. These objects inspired respect, awe, and sometimes even dread. By acting to connect the shaman with his spirit helpers, they were articles of great power that could not be looked upon casually or even exposed unless under the proper controlled conditions. Contact with these objects by those who did not know how to handle them was dangerous and to be avoided. When not in use, they were kept in boxes either in parts of the shaman’s house that were sealed off from visitors or in caches in the forest so that the uninitiated would not encounter them." Of course, not all Northwest Coast art was shamanic, though much of it, including the grandest, the “totem poles,” would not have been possible without the shamanic concept of transformation, and religions that invested not only animals and people with sentience and a soul, but even the man-made environment. In the absence of documentation, it is often difficult to tell whether an art object is shamanic, or a symbol of noble ancestry, social position, and wealth. But perhaps it does not matter, because it can be both at the same time. Totem poles, so named, or misnamed, because whites, especially missionaries, assumed them to be objects of worship as tribal icons or “totems,” rather than memorials to mythic ancestors that usually had the form of animals. They need not have been of large size and predatory life-ways, but could be of any size from small, like the frog, mouse or squirrel, whale or grizzly bear. Curiously, animal ancestors were never depicted with characteristics that, like fangs or claws, would mark them visually as carnivorous predators and therefore dangerous to hunters, such as grizzlies, black and brown bears, mountain lions, wolverines, or killer whales. In fact, especially the last were honored as “shaman makers,” meaning one who facilitates passage in ecstatic-visionary dream states into the vocation of specialists in the sacred. These were most often “called by the spirits” by means of an illness whose cure depended on their willingness to take up the onerous duties of the shaman. Totem poles and other oversized art, such as the great zoomorphic feast dishes of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia (pronounced Kwagool), are testimony to what could be called a Northwest Coast version of “megalithic thinking,” even the artists here worked with wood not stone, as had the Olmecs, the founders of ancient Mesoamerica’s first civilization. To all appearances, what seems to have impelled their artists three thousand years ago to laboriously transform raw basalt with what was essentially a Stone Age tool kit into memorials to illustrious rulers, or and what might have been alter-like replicas of sacred mountains with gods emerging into the light from gaping caves. While the raw multi-ton raw material for this art had to be floated fifty or more miles downriver from their closest sources in the Tuxtla Mountains in southern Veracruz, giants of Northwest Coast art like the totem poles could be worked close to home. Some well-preserved poles still tower over old indigenous villages inhabited by Native people who, though like the Haida, Tsimshians or Tlingit, have long been Christianized, (sometimes to undesirable ends), remember the ancestral myths depicted on them, and honor the animals with songs that celebrate long-ago deeds from myth time. Thus, people living in the old village of Kitwang’gool on the Upper Skeena River in southern Alaska, know the stories of the poles so well these can still be heard even on non-ceremonial occasions being chanted or sung to the rhythmic sounds of empty beer and soft drink cans filled with pebbles to serve as substitute drums. The carvers of totem poles know their subject matter so well they carved them freehand, employing only an axe, adze, and curved knife without prior drawings or photographs. Towering cedars are stripped of bark and branches and carved from memories more than a century old. Northwest Coast Indian art can be divided into two categories: Heraldic, proclaiming social status, clan and family history, and wealth, of which the host of a festive occasion is expected to distribute some as gifts to the guests; and Shamanic, including amulets, animal masks; zoomorphic war helmets; headdresses, storage boxes for food and the “water of life,” actually urine, preferably that of women, and tangible treasures like staff and bentwood containers for the "water of life” (actually urine, especially women’s), to which therapeutic and life-restoring properties were, and in some traditional households, still ascribed, and, of course, masks and ornaments that helped with or depicted and reinforced transformation. In the absence of documentation, it is not always easy to determine whether the object was used exclusively by a shaman, such as his grave house containing his remains and magical paraphernalia, or only occasionally. The boundaries between the two categories tend to be indistinct, or movable from one to the other. Three thousand years after the Olmecs, their distant cousins in northwestern North America left their mark on history with monumental art no less impressive, but destined for a much briefer lifespan. Everyday and ceremonial activities were centered on communal houses strung along the narrow coasts. These cedar wood dwellings were rouhly square and often of enormous size, with gable or shed-roofs resting on massive posts of cedar and other woods from three to fifteen feet in height and two or more across. The houses were sheathed in cedar planks several inches thick and two or three feet wide. The largest house known in the south was a communal dwelling five hundred feet long and seventy feet across. Built by communal labor, and sheltering several families in their own private spaces along the walls, these houses were considered alive and sentient, called by the names of the clans, family lineages, crest animals, or hereditary nobles that had commissioned them (e.g. Whale House, Grizzly Bear House) and sheltering several related families. The main hearth fire was located directly below the smoke hole in the roof that allowed the smoke to escape. The hole also served as cosmic passage between this world and the home of the celestial spirits in a universe that was conceived, as it invariably is in the Indian Americas, as multi-level, with the earth between an underworld and the heavens. Shamans alone had the capacity to travel up or down through the roof hole in ecstatic-visionary out-of-body travel of the soul. For the nobles were reserved the privileges and prestige of sponsoring public performances of ritual reenactments of the founding of the lineage, and the commissioning of masks and outfits for these ceremonies, and for the totem poles bearing crests and three-dimensional images of ancestors in animal form. Northwest Coast societies were chieftainships headed by the highest-ranking member of the most prestigious family in a village, but he or she was less a decision-maker than the spokesman for the family and repository of its accumulated tangible and intangible wealth and supernatural power, His power was thus largely nominal, status having been a function of his generosity in holding feasts (potlatches) and distributing property, sometimes to the point of at least temporary personal impoverishment. There could also be a blending of the offices of chief and shaman. The latter was most often the most important member of his kin group, to the point where among the Kwakiutl (pronounced Karol) of British Columbia, they were addressed by the same honorific, papaxa. However, there was this difference: shamans, as experts in the medicinal flora, intermediaries with the spirit world, and practitioners of the ecstatic-visionary trance, and more prosaically, prognosticators of the weather and future events, like the migrations of game animals were curers, and chieftains were not. All Northwest Coast nations shared the same basic religious ideology, according to which animals were repositories of souls equal to those of humans. Finally, the offices or vocations of shaman and chief, though hereditary, were open to both men and women. Of the art forms most common on the Northwest Coast, amulets and animal masks were the most widely distributed, although some groups were more specialized in one than the other. The Arctic Inuit, for example, were renowned for the variety and artistic quality of their amulets. Perhaps their skill arose from necessity, as thy required protection from one of the planet’s most inhospitable climates. They also made and employed masks with multiple personalities and associations. Their climate-conditioned skills may have helped inspire a similar reliance on the protective power of the amulet and transformative power of masks among the Tlingit. The right to demonstrate transformation was a hereditary part of the intangible treasures owned by noble families. Having noble parents did not, however, automatically confer noble status. That was attained by inheriting the name and physical identity of an ancestor in animal form. Thus, if parents had four noble names, their first four children, be they male or female, had the status of nobility, while from the fifth on their offspring had the status of commoners. Still, that "commoner" class included master carvers of masks, totem poles, rattles, house posts and the large seagoing canoes, qualities that were both lucrative and held in high esteem. Finally, all noble families marked their descent from a supernatural being, or an animal whose own heritable quality did not depend on its cunning, physical strength or position on the food chain, but because of a role it was a protagonist in an origin myth. Thus, a field mouse or squirrel might as easily be found among the mythical ancestors as might an animal that to us would carry greater prestige. Nor did a transformation mask or war helmet representing an animal donor of nobility necessarily exhibit characteristics a Tlingit or Haida would instantly recognize as belonging to a specific animal. The origin myth being recited on a festive occasion did that. For the missionary, or other uninitiated foreigner, of course, they would all have been “demons.” That would have been especially true when, in 1804, hundreds of Tlingit wearing the masks and wooden helmets of their tutelary animals, and armed with spears, bows, war clubs and firearms, burst out of the forest and attacked the palisade Russian fort of Sitka. No one knows the history of the bear War Helmet (opposite) that is the pride and joy of this collection. It's age and damage suggest that it was worn and lost by its owner in the armed rebellion for independence that by only a few years almost coincided with the young American nation’s War of Independence. Its original owner must have been a member of the noble family of Kitwanga Wolves of the Chilkat Tlingit, because they were the only ones entitled to wear the bear as their crest. By its style and wear it probably was carved in the 1740s. It disappeared after the 1804 Battle of Sitka and resurfaced in 2012 at a country auction consigned by a private American owner, who fortunately preserved it until it could rejoin the company of the other, similarily pedigreed Native American works of art in this collection.