Indian Art of the Northwest Coast:
A Dialogue on Craftsmanship and Aesthetics
by Bill Holm and Bill Reid
Of all the great spindle whorls Ive seen, this is the best. I suppose its a female flanked by two birds. I assume these are joint marks on the wings, made of human facesa Northern characteristic, except that it certainly isnt any Northern form. Theres 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 its the fetusI hesitate to guess. A beautiful thing. Makes you wonder why the Salish didnt 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. Therere also two little holes in the ears,
but Im not sure theyre original. Maybe they were made to hang the spindle
You mentioned faces in the birds wings. I dont 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 artsNootka 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 closerthis is really conjecture, therere lots of missing linksbut 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 characteristicswhich is the way a lot of people have seen this, as being a backwoods imitation of Northern formline worknot 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 relationshipwhere you ignore holes and concentrate on spaces between holes, which is the basis of Northern formline artthen 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, ifinstead of seeing bunches of little, long triangles below the central face, along the sides and at the topwe 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, theyre 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. Theres no problem on this piece, compared with some others. This really isnt far from the Northern systemjust another direction that must have been taken. This little foot of the birdyou 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 figureIm not sure I see it as femaleare 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 proportionsstraightforward 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 beto me its really successful. I share your feeling that this is certainly among the greatest known spindle whorls. Therere some nice ones and the nice ones look like this. But they cant be seen in the same way as Northern pieces. Theyre different. I think its wrong to compare Salish pieces with Northern pieces, except to see how theyre related.
Round faces like this and bodies in unlikely places are typical of the Salish. I think theyre part of the same tradition of extraneous faces weve been seeing all day. I dont 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 shaftwhich is just neat! Or the woman, if its a woman.
REID: I suppose youre 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 onparts coming together to form extra faces, which arent really parts of a face at alljust arranged in such a way they make a face. Im 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 wayyou dont see it here, at least I havent seen itbut you get some suggestion of it. This whole body, with arms coming out here, can be read that way and maybe thats an example. It often cant be justified when you look closely. You first say, "Oh, thats a double face!" and then, when you look closely, you see it really isnt, but the impression is that way.
Thats what we have here with the birds 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 dont know whether to make anything out of that, but it happens so often in the carving of this region, I think its part of the play going on there.
REID: Id like to know what thats all aboutin the center, in the wombin the womb of the man.
HOLM: If it is. Unfortunately, that carver wasnt too anatomy-minded. He didnt give us many clues. Some Salish figures are pretty specific. Gender is generally clear.
REID: This one is interesting because theres no headjust features.
HOLM: Thats what happens. These two parts overlap and merge. Thats one of the exciting things about itits illogical, like some of the other things weve been looking at. You think you see somethingthen you dont.
REID: And these are mythical birds, you think?
HOLM: I dont know. Probably. Some have features like birds in nature, but I think theyre 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 thatjust educated guesses.
I liked this spindle whorl real well when I first saw it. I like it better nowafter Ive had a chance to look at it and really think it through.
The concave side is where the wool goeswhen its 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 dont face the spindle. Some modern spindles have simple, geometric stars, but Ive never seen one with elaborate decoration.