With the arrival of European settlers, Native American communities had transformation forced upon them. In some cases, traditional knowledge has been lost. Or it has skipped a generation or two, and a new generation is now trying to reclaim it.
Where traditional knowledge has been retained — or reclaimed — it has undergone a transformation. Inevitably, there is a process of syncretism at work:
- the union (or attempted union) of different systems (especially in religion or philosophy).
The photo and the accompanying text (excerpted below) is from a catalogue for an exhibit at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg (just north of Toronto). The catalogue is titled, Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast.
The artist, Don Yeomans, has a Haida father and a Métis mother. Yeomans works within the stream of Haida tradition — but transformed as necessary to express his personal artistic vision.
“Creator” revisits a theme Yeomans originally explored 23 years earlier. The 2008 version adopts a more positive attitude toward Christianity than the original carving had:
The 1985 work depicts a raven held to a stainless steel cross. Above the raven is the title Creator. A superbly carved piece of yellow cedar, the work is a deeply felt meditation on what the church has done to First Nations people. The raven is beautifully rendered but, pinioned to the cross, is helpless, unable to fly away or assume a different form. The contrast between the harsh steel and the natural wood implies the imposition of a different order on the world of the First Nations.
The revision, shown here, depicts the raven on a wooden Celtic cross. The work is somewhat gentler, and the elegant Celtic knot forms provide counterpoint to the curves of the ovoid and feather shapes on the body of the bird. Yeomans describes how his thinking changed in the time between the two pieces:
When I had initially conceived of the idea, my notion was that the Natives gave up their culture, gave up their ideology for technology. But it was a superficial observation on my part, and I realized that Christianity had a lot to offer…. I’ve seen things in my life since then, like my father becoming a Christian, and how that transformed him as a human being and made him a better person. I felt the need to go back and respect the religion, make the cross more ornate, give it as much focus as the bird.1
Thus the second version of “Creator” expresses a relatively positive view of Christianity. Even so, I think this work of art is subversive.
As a religious symbol, the cross commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth: a historical event with salvific consequences (so says Christian doctrine). The only person who can properly be represented on a crucifix is Jesus. Any other representation is subversive of Christian history and theology.
What does “Creator” say about the relationship between Christianity and the Haida religion? The following three possibilities come to mind:
- That Christianity is responsible for the near-destruction of the Haida religion. In this, the second version of “Creator”, it’s true that Yeomans treats the cross more beautifully and respectfully. Nonetheless, it still depicts a primary symbol of the Haida religion afixed to an instrument of torture and death drawn from Christian iconography. In this interpretation, the protest message of the original version of “Creator” remains intact even if it has been softened somewhat.
- That the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was not a unique historical event. Just as the incarnate Creator suffered and died under Pontius Pilate, so the raven — the Creator of Haida mythology — has suffered and died in modern times. Perhaps, like Christ, the raven is not dead forever, but can be resurrected. In this interpretation, “Creator” symbolizes both catastrophe and hope for the Haida people — just as a traditional crucifix symbolizes both of those things for Christians.
- That Christianity and the Haida religion are equally valid paths to God. This interpretation stays close to the explanation Yeomans gives above. The validity of Christianity is symbolized by the ornate, respectful treatment given to the cross. The validity of the Haida religion is symbolized by the substitution of the raven for Christ: also by the title of the piece, which honours the raven as Creator.
Any of the three interpretations I have proposed would subvert Christian history and theology. But note how tradition has been used in service of this subversive message: Yeomans has utilized traditional Christian iconography, and traditional Haida iconography; but, merely by combining them in a non-traditional manner, he forces us to reexamine our traditional ideas.
In its subversive retelling of the crucifixion story, “Creator” reminds me of a notorious, feminist rendering of the crucifixion: “Edwina Sandys’s four-foot, bronze statue, ‘Christa’ (right), which depicts a bare-breasted, wide-hipped woman nailed to the cross.”
1Ian M. Thom, Challenging Traditions: Contemporary First Nations Art of the Northwest Coast, Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009.