Indigenous North American Portal With Arctic Landscape

Wendi Proctor, designer

The Indigenous North American Portal represents the entrance to a large cedar plank house like those used by entire villages for shelter, feasts and celebration. The beams of this portal are decorated with images of artifacts from the indigenous cultures of Western Canada, Alaska, and the Northwest Coast of the United States of America. Their ancestors arrived in North America 4,000 to 12,000 years ago from Siberia by crossing the Bering Straits (Berlo, 143). The Artic tribes represented in this portal design are the Inuit and Yup'ik Eskimo. Tribes from the Northwest Coast area are Kwakiutl, Makah, and Tsimshian. Some of the artifacts used in this portal design are from unknown tribes within these two regions. The indifference of early collectors has made it difficult to accurately ascribe and acknowledge the tribal affiliations of many Native American artifacts.

Agriculture efforts were insufficient to support the needs of the population due to the short growing season. The forests, lakes and seas were rich in wildlife. The lives of these Natives depended upon their skills of hunting and fishing and every part of the animal was used with respect. Protective clothing and shelters were made from animal hides. Walrus and seal gut was stitched together to make waterproof outer clothing and kayaks. Bone, antlers and ivory were used for tools and weapons. The body fats were used for ointments, waterproofing, heat and light (Berlo, 144-148).

The shaman or spiritual leaders wore animal effigy masks at celebrations to communicate with animal spirits in preparation for the hunt and to ask the animal spirits to give of themselves during the hunt. Animals were revered and it was hoped that the powers of the animal would be transferred upon the hunter and wearer of its pelts (Berlo, 138-141). Clothing was decorated in order to please the animal donor.

Northwest Coast clans used animal effigies in visual art to express their group identity and tell their family history. Common family signs were the raven, whale, bear, eagle, frog, seal and salmon. Family crests were used to show ownership and wealth. Elaborate masks were made for the potlatch or ceremonial gathering. Paint, feathers, porcupine quills, antlers and teeth decorated the carved wooden masks (Burch, 107-107). Mask wearers re-enacted family origin stories and myths. Some masks opened to show a transformation into another animal. Masks were usually stored for the next use, but were sometimes destroyed after a special occasion. Others were sold or traded for essential goods. Dealers and collectors sometimes stole masks and other sacred objects when the Natives left the village for fishing and hunting trips (Berlo, 144-148,173-177, 191-195).

On the top beam of the doorway is an image of Sisiutl, a supernatural creature from Kwakiutl legends. The sisiutl is a two headed Sea Serpent whose shape-shifting powers are indicated by the central from of a human head flanked by two serpent head profiles. Its power protects and provides strength to warriors. However it can also kill with a glance ( The original sisiutl mask that inspired this design has retractable tongues and the serpent sections move back and forth (Jonaits, 148). Hanging beneath the sisiutl is a woman's ceremonial belt made of beads, caribou incisors and bear tusks indicating the power of her husband as a hunter (Burch, 113). A painted drumhead from the Tsimshian tribe is suspended in the doorway; this is typical of Northwest Coast designs and may be a family crest. The central design is a thunderbird with human figures surrounding it (Boas, 234)(Kennedy, 13).

Artist's Sketch

Representations of ceremonial masks decorate each side of the portal. Masks on the left side, top to bottom, are as follows:

  1. Raven mask, tribal origin unknown. The raven figure is found in all Eskimo tribal lore as a trickster or a venerated mythological being. (Burch, 98), carved and painted wood.

  2. Western subarctic mask, tribal origin unknown. Worn by a shaman (Walker, 228). From Ingalik, Alaska (Coe, 118) (Collins, II, 133-134).

  3. Seal dance mask, tribal origin unknown.

  4. "Spirit of the seal" mask, Inuit. Worn by a shaman to request a successful seal hunt (Younkin, 48)(Dockstader, Fig. 79).

Masks on the right side, top to bottom, are as follows:

  1. Eagle transformation dance mask, Kwakiutl. The original mask opens in the center to reveal a human face (Walker, 238) (Gardner, 955).

  2. Bird and fish mask, Inuit. From Kuskokwin, Alaska. (Younkin, 54) (Feder, 60).

  3. Raven mask, Northern Eskimo tribal origin unknown. (Ray, Plate 19, 193).

  4. Transformation sun mask, Makah. On the original mask, the suns rays fan out from behind the human figure when a string is pulled. (Walker, 238).

All animals along the Artic Coast are in danger every time oil and petroleum products are spilled into the ocean and waterways. For many years, hunters clubbed seal pups for their white fur. The whaling industry significantly reduced the numbers of whales in their quest for whale oil. Law protects seals and whales but poaching still exists. Bears of all types are killed out of fear by ranchers and lumbermen as well as for sport and fur (Stuart, 11,12,33,34,46, 47, and 64).

Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the children of the earth. If we spit upon the ground, we spit upon ourselves. This we know. The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover, our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot. He is the God of all people, and His compassion is equal for all. This earth is precious to God, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator. So love it as we have loved it. care for it as we have cared for it. And with all your mind, with all your heart, preserve it for your children, and love it -- as God loves us all.

Chief Seattle of the Squamish, circa 1855