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People of the River: Native Arts of the Oregon Territory

January 22 - May 29, 2005



(above: Anthropomorphic figure, pre-contact, c. 1000-1700 C.E. basalt. 55 1/2 inches high x 17 inches long x 6 1/2 inches wide, 1999.58. Portland Art Museum, Auction Proceeds Fund Purchase. Photo by Paul Foster)

This January, the Portland Art Museum is welcoming home over 200 artifacts from the Pacific Northwest region through the mounting of a major exhibition People of the River: Native Arts of the Oregon Territory. On view from January 22 through May 29, 2005, this is the first major museum exhibition to focus specifically on the art created by the Native Americans who have lived for over 10,000 years along the shores of the Columbia River. (right: Cornhusk Bag, late 19th century. Attributed to the Totus family (Yakama/Wasco), cornhusk, string, and leather, 17 x 13 inches. Collection of Lee and Lois Miner)

By studying an area that stretches over 3,000 miles from the Snake River to the Pacific Ocean, this exhibition explores-through decorative and functional artifacts-a region brimming with the cultural heritage and expression of the tribal groups that today live in the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs, Grand Ronde, and Chinook communities. The exhibition is organized by Bill Mercer, Curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum, in close consultation with cultural leaders from these communities. The exhibition has been carefully assembled to present a comprehensive overview of the artistic traditions that emerged over thousands of years and countless generations along the Columbia River.

People of the River consists of approximately 204 objects dating from the pre-contact era to the middle of the 20th century. There has never been a major museum exhibition that has examined the arts and culture of the Columbia River before and this will be the most extensive collection of these art works ever assembled. Many of these objects were collected more than 100 years ago and have been stored away in museums and private collections, and have never been on public display before.

This presentation discusses the uniqueness of local tribal communities, their traditions, and how each community developed independently from any other cultural region in North America. People of the River will also identify and trace specific stylistic characteristics that through time, and from one medium to another, further emphasize the unique nature of Columbia River art.

The first section of the exhibition focuses on sculptural works made from stone, wood, horn, bone, and antler, including some that pre-date European contact. Highlighting this section of the exhibition is a four and one-half-foot tall anthropomorphic figure carved from basalt that is the largest pre-contact Native American stone sculpture ever found in North America. The second section of the exhibition will feature the various basketry forms and techniques used by the People of the Columbia River. Included in this portion of the exhibition are rare 19th-century Chinook baskets, as well as finely woven cylinder baskets created by the Wasco and Wishram. The final section of the exhibition consists of beadwork-a major form of artistic expression used after the introduction of similar beads by European and American traders. Additional focus will be placed on the art of a rare type of woven beadwork made only on the Columbia River and nowhere else in North America. (right: Cornhusk Bag, late 19th century. Attributed to the Totus family (Yakama/Wasco), cornhusk, string, and leather, 17 x 13 inches. Collection of Lee and Lois Miner)

People of the River: Native Arts of the Oregon Territory also offers a unique educational opportunity to Museum visitors, especially the children of Oregon, to learn about the magnificent art and cultural traditions of the tribes along the Columbia River who interacted with Lewis and Clark during the Pacific Northwest segment of their journey. An illustrated catalogue, written by Mr. Mercer, as well as a variety of programs that will survey Native American art of the region, will accompany the exhibition.


Wall text from the exhibition:


People of the River: Native Arts of the Oregon Territory

Native Americans have lived along the Columbia River, from the mouth of the Snake River all the way to the Pacific Ocean, for thousands of years and countless generations. It is an area rich in natural resources. Game was plentiful and wild plant foods, such as camas and wapato, were harvested in season. But it was the river itself, and its tributaries, that yielded the greatest bounty. Sturgeon and trout were available year-round, and annual migrations of salmon and eels were especially prolific. This rich environment enabled the local population to settle in permanent villages, which consisted of wooden plank houses occupied by extended families. Each village was politically independent but had extensive ties to neighboring villages through trade and intermarriage. The People of the River are the ancestors of the Native Americans who today comprise the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs, Grand Ronde, and Chinook communities.

People of the River: Native Arts of the Oregon Territory is the first major museum exhibition ever to focus on the wealth of art forms created by the Columbia River people. The objects are drawn from museums and private collections throughout the United States, and many of them are on public display for the very first time. They range in date from the pre-contact era (before 1800) to approximately 1940, and are grouped in three sections: sculptural forms, basketry, and beadwork.


The Columbia River Art Style

Over the course of many years, the people living along the Columbia River developed an art style that is distinct from any other in Native North America. In addition to particular types of objects that were made only in this region, there are unique characteristics that distinguish the Columbia River art style.

Columbia River sculptural forms depict both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures. In this style, anthropomorphic figures are frequently represented with broad round faces, horizontal almond-shaped eyes, a single nose/brow ridge, and exposed ribs. They are often shown wearing a headdress and sometimes an apron or skirt. Animal figures are usually recognizable and are also frequently depicted with a single nose/brow ridge and exposed ribs. These sculptural figures, whether anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, often come in the shape of bowls. Certain basketry forms that are unique to the Columbia River region include cylinder baskets and flat twined pouches called cornhusk bags. In some instances, these twined baskets have similar imagery to sculptural works, such as geometricized figures of humans and animals, including condors, elk, fish, and water striders. This continuity of imagery and distinctiveness of form are also apparent in beadwork. Some mid-nineteenth-century beadwork includes the same type of geometricized figures found on basketry. In addition, the loose warp technique that is characteristic of Columbia River woven beadwork is essentially the same as that used in twined basketry to make cornhusk bags, and is a technique utilized exclusively along the Columbia River.



Sculpture represents a significant body of artwork created by the people of the Columbia River. They used stone, particularly basalt, extensively and with it developed the greatest stone sculptural tradition in all of Native North America prior to European contact. Although this tradition encompassed a wide range of utilitarian items and aesthetic forms, the overwhelming majority of worked-stone objects were bowls, pestles, mauls, and fishing-net weights. In some instances, these useful objects were embellished with figurative elements, while other sculptural forms seem to have been created with primarily aesthetic considerations in mind. Often the figurative elements are depicted in a highly stylized but realistic manner, with great care taken to emphasize certain details. On other examples, however, the figurative elements are much more abstracted and the image is extremely subtle, as if emerging from the essence of the stone. Columbia River artists also worked expertly in bone, horn, antler, and wood to create bowls, ladles, spoons, and other exquisitely detailed objects. Although the majority of sculptural works were created in the pre-contact era, there are a number of pieces that were made in the first half of the nineteenth century; unfortunately, this remarkable sculptural tradition ultimately died out around 1850.



Basketry is an art form that reached great heights of expression in the Columbia River region. Although baskets served primarily functional purposes, they were nevertheless constructed with great care and decorated with sophisticated designs. There are several distinctive types of basketry forms that were traditionally created in the region. In the area at the mouth of the river, people wove finely twined baskets, often in the shape of a small bowl or a flat pouch, decorated in horizontal bands. They also frequently produced a type of basketry made from cattails and decorated with strips of maidenhair fern. Upriver, in the vicinity of the Gorge, coiled baskets made from cedar root and decorated with imbricated designs were common. Twined basketry techniques were also employed farther upriver, using a variety of materials to create a range of objects, including cornhusk bags, cylinder baskets, and hats. These materials and techniques were also sometimes used to adorn such items as horse trappings and even articles of clothing.



The people who lived along the Columbia River were among the most creative and proficient beadwork artists in all of Native North America. Glass beads, manufactured in Europe, first became available to the tribes of the region in the early part of the nineteenth century, shorty after Lewis and Clark completed their epic journey, thus opening the area up to trappers, traders, and setters. The earliest beads were called "pony beads." These are approximately one-half centimeter in diameter and, at first, were available in a limited range of colors -- white, black, red, and blue. In addition to glass beads, common trade items included fine woolen cloth in red, green, and dark blue, as well as needles and thread, all of which led to the sewing of beads onto clothing and other accessories. However, because of the size and limited palette of colors of pony beads, most designs were generally confined to alternating bands or blocks of color. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a smaller type of glass bead was introduced. Not only were these "seed beads" more readily available, but they were produced in a much wider spectrum of colors. This resulted in an artistic explosion as women began to bead complex designs in a rainbow of colors on virtually every item imaginable, from clothing made for use within their own families to objects made specifically for selling outside the community to anthropologists, museums, and collectors.



Cradles were important objects handed down as family heirlooms from one generation to the next. Most full-size cradles consisted of a flat wooden board, with a fully beaded rounded top, that was covered with a leather or cloth bag into which the child was laced. Smaller cradles, such as those shown here, were used for dolls. In some instances, the smaller versions were fully beaded on both the bag and the top, while on the full-size cradles only the top portion was beaded. Another type of cradle used among the people of the Columbia River features a top that is carved into a triangular shape with the wood left exposed. Attached to the top is a wooden hoop that is often covered with beadwork and incorporates a beaded visor to shade the doll's face. It is interesting to note that although there are numerous doll size cradles of this type, no full-size examples have been found.


Cornhusk Bags

The same basic twining technique associated with cylinder baskets was also used to create distinctive flat, wallet-shaped cornhusk bags. Although often automatically identified with the Nez Perce, all the cultural groups along the Columbia River and throughout the Plateau region made this type of bag. Cornhusk bags, despite their name, were actually constructed with a variety of materials, including dogbane, string, and yarn. They were traditionally used to store roots and later became heirlooms and markers of cultural identity, carried by women on special occasions. The designs on cornhusk bags are always different on each side. Frequently, the motifs vary in size and are placed irregularly, giving the composition a lively, organic feel. There are numerous examples of cornhusk bags that in addition to bold geometric designs have realistic pictorial designs featuring humans, plants, insects, birds, and other animals. Many of these bags were made as prestige items and they constitute lively examples of folk art, effectively combining traditional techniques with a rapidly evolving aesthetic


Flat Beaded Bags

Flat rectangular bags, typically beaded on one side only, are among the most ubiquitous beaded objects created by the people of the Columbia River. These bags were first developed after 1850. Women traditionally carried them, as an accessory, in a manner similar to a purse, though their function was primarily decorative rather than utilitarian. The earliest bags of this type were usually made from red or dark blue woolen cloth with designs composed of outlined abstract curvilinear shapes. By the 1860s, floral designs had become the most common type of imagery used to decorate beaded bags. These highly stylized floral designs were clearly meant to represent living plants -- leaves, stalks, and flowers all radiate from a single point as if the plant were growing. The background is fully beaded in a technique known as contour beadwork, in which the design elements are completed first and then the background is filled in following the contours of the design. After 1880 a wider range of beaded designs were used to decorate these bags. Geometric designs as well as realistic images of people and animals were common, as were genre scenes of everyday Native American life. Other examples incorporate views of Mount Hood and the Columbia River, taking on the larger theme of landscape for the overall design. Commercial art and subjects from popular culture, such as cowboys, also provided a ready source of imagery. By the 1930s, beaded bags had become elaborate works of both technical expertise and aesthetic expression, illustrating the continuing development of Columbia River art.


Painted Rawhide

Rawhide containers, often made in pairs, were constructed in a range of shapes and used to hold food, clothing, and other items. Containers folded into an envelope shape are called parfleches. These were usually painted with bold geometric designs. The two parfleches on display are rare examples with floral and curvilinear designs reminiscent of those found on beadwork. Related to parfleches are painted rawhide cylinders that were often used as saddlebags, whose long leather fringe would sway gracefully as the horse moved.


Horse Trappings

Horses were introduced to the Columbia River region in the middle of the eighteenth century and the tribes quickly became expert horsemen. This enabled them to travel great distances, including annual trips over the Rocky Mountains and onto the plains to hunt buffalo. Horses were considered valuable property, and important occasions were often commemorated with parades on horseback through the camp. On these special occasions, horses would be dressed in highly decorated gear -- beaded saddles, saddle blankets, collars, forehead stalls, cruppers, and even masks -- and such bold visual statements reflected the significant status afforded to horses within the culture.


Coiled Baskets

Among the people living in the vicinity of the Columbia River Gorge, the most common type of basketry was the coiled cedar root basket. These are often referred to as Klickitat baskets, though all the tribal groups of the region, not just the Klickitat, made them. These baskets are also frequently called berry baskets as they were traditionally used for gathering huckleberries. Coiled baskets were woven in a variety of sizes, but the basic shape is relatively consistent. They have a circular base and slightly flaring sides, and there is usually a series of loops around the rim. The designs on coiled baskets were created using a false embroidery technique, called imbrication, in which strips of beargrass were sewn together. The imbricated designs on most baskets are continuous geometric compositions that create an overall zigzag pattern. Floral designs, however, are quite rare.

Another form of coiled basketry is a moderately sized, rectangular shape with a lid that is sometimes called a treasure basket. It is believed that these small trunks were meant to hold personal items or perhaps served as protective containers for feathers. On view are rare examples of this type of basketry, created before the end of the nineteenth century; by the early 1900s, these baskets were no longer made.


Cylinder Baskets

Twined cylinder baskets are unique to the people of the Columbia River. They are often identified as Wasco or Wishram, but it is likely that all the tribal groups living between the Columbia River Gorge and the mouth of the Snake River made such baskets. Cylinder baskets are often called "Sally bags," a term that dates from the turn of the twentieth century when dealers and collectors falsely claimed that such distinctive baskets were a traditional form on the verge of extinction and that a weaver named "Old Sally" was the only person who still knew how to make them. Cylinder baskets were twined using a loose-warp technique with a variety of materials that included dogbane, cornhusk, raffia, cotton string, and even horsehair. The baskets, which are flexible, were often tied to a woman's belt and used to hold roots, such as camas and wild onions, dug for food or medicinal purposes.

Many cylinder baskets are decorated with a variety of figurative elements in the Columbia River art style. Anthropomorphic figures are usually depicted frontally with diamond-shaped heads, a single nose/brow ridge, and a small mouth. The torsos are frequently shown with ribs. On some baskets the diamond-shaped head is used as an abstract motif repeated across the entire surface. Animal motifs include deer, horses, fish, and frogs or water striders. Perhaps the most distinctive creature portrayed on cylinder baskets is the condor. They are characteristically shown with triangular, outstretched wings, a small head, and rakelike feet. Condors were indigenous to the region before becoming locally extinct in the nineteenth century, and considering their impressive size and presence, it is not surprising to find representations of them in Columbia River art.


rev. 1/31/05


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