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Lesson Plans


Native art and totem poles

[ Thread ][ Subject ][ Author ][ Date ]
Rita Irwin (irwinr)
Thu, 16 Oct 1997 17:27:22 -0700


Hi everyone

I have been away for a week and have returned to several hundred messages...
you have been busy!!

I am very interested in the totem pole topic that many of you have responded
to. Over the last 5-6 years I have been working with Aboriginal communities
in Canada as an art educator interested in understanding culture and how we
can learn about other cultures. I have also had the opportunity to travel
to and work with Aboriginal communities in Australia and Taiwan

I have learned many things as a non-Native person which I try to pass on to
student teachers, teachers, and adult educators. I thought I might try to
describe some of what I have learned here in a short message.

To all Aboriginal cultures, from what I am told and have experienced, the
land and the environment is central to their cultural beliefs, attitudes and
values. In my personal research this has come through as I have come to
understand the significance for three groups. The Adnynmanthana peoples of
Australia have a strong sense of "belonging to land," the Sechelt peoples of
British Columbia, Canada believe in the "importance of place" while the
Paiwan people of Taiwan believe in "inheriting a place." In these and other
cultures, land is seen as pivotal, sacred, spiritual. It is the source of
culture. David Abram in his recent book "The Spell of the Sensuous" talks
about the relationship oral cultures have with the land. It is something
that must be experienced.

Aboriginal cultures feel responsibility toward land while most mainstream
cultures believe people have rights over land. Bridging these views is
difficult and with that tension we witness land claim settlements that seem
never ending...... but the relationship between people and the land form a
basis for all other realtionships with animals, objects, rituals, events,
beliefs, etc. Of course there are some Aboriginal peoples who are adopting
views along a continuum between these extremes of responsibility and rights,
but even then, more often than not, the emphasis is on responsibility.

With this responsibility comes a particular kind of relationship to what
activities, values, and beliefs are enacted in the culture. I say this
because if you were to ask a native person who could speak both a Native
language and English, if he/she could translate the concept of art within
their culture, they would say no. Such a concept does not exist. Nor does
a concept or word(s) for creativity. What you would probably hear however
is a rich description of how the culture is enacted through daily life,
through beliefs, through feelings, etc. You would probably be struck by a
way of being within an environment of activity in which the culture is
produced over and over.

What this points to is how we as art educators need to seriously consider
how we portray Aboriginal cultures. What are we teaching about their
cultures? Are we teaching our interpretations? Is that enough?

If we really want to teach about the visual world and about the context in
which cultural objects and forms of cultural expression are made... then we
need to allow ourselves to come to the process of understanding from a
different world view. This is often difficult but it becomes easier if we
invite Aboriginal elders, artists, or community members into our classrooms
to teach us about their culture.

As art educators we are also cultural translators, not only of our own
cultures, but increasingly of cultures which are completely foreign to our
own. I have personally found that through the activity of inviting guests
into my classroom, everyone involved learns so much more than if I had
assumed total responsibility.

Ideally, cultural translation becomes a reciprocal activity. We learn about
each other's cultures together by talking to one another, opening ourselves up.

I bring these ideas up because the activity of making totem poles is very
appealing to many art teachers. However, teaching about totem poles without
Native input, understanding, and appreciation is dangerously narrow,
particularly if we begin to understand the depth of the relationship
Aboriginal peoples have toward/with land and objects made from the land. If
we are teaching about culture, then we need to understand the concepts held
within the culture. Usually this means that all of us must be students, all
of us must be open to learning.

Appropriation is an ongoing issue in global society. Is it our right to
assume appropriation? Or is it time to pay respect to the ideas and beliefs
of others who hold a keen sense of responsibility toward their relationships
whether it is with the land or one another's ideas and beliefs?

perhaps art education isn't just about the visual world but about the
invisible world of values and culture as they are embedded within everything
that is experienced.

I believe that through cultural studies with students, we can introduce them
to approaching the world from different world views, different yet wonderful
perspectives and in doing this, we actually provide them with an empowering
sense of freedom to choose the kind and quality of life they wish to pursue.

However, enough for now. I would welcome any thoughts others might wish to
add on this topic.

Rita Irwin
University of British Columbia