In the Spirit celebrates art, culture

It's not just about connecting cultural heritage with contemporary art, although that's part of it. But at In the Spirit, an exhibit, market and festival of contemporary Northwest native arts at the Washington State History Museum this weekend, visitors also get the chance to see a huge array of tribes and media, while tribal artists get the opportunity to learn new things and meet other artists.

“In the Spirit is important on several levels,” says Chholing Taha, a Cree/Iroqois shawl weaver and painter who was a judge for the art show this year after winning best in show in 2009. “As native artists, we don’t often have the opportunity to show our art, because it’s considered separate from the mainstream. People say, ‘Oh, that’s Indian art,’ or ‘That’s Western art,’ thinking we’re just talking about the past or history. But it’s contemporary as well.”

The exhibit features 22 artists in a variety of media, from weaving to carving to painting. Works were judged by Taha, along with Lynette Miller, the Washington Historical Society’s head of collections and native art expert, and Ann Friedman, director of the Evergreen Gallery at The Evergreen State College.

“We saw everything from traditional wall carvings to contemporary pieces dealing with very hard iss ues of life,” says Taha, who has submitted work every year since the festival began five years ago.

“It was a wide variety of art and people. There are some beautiful weavings by Pat Gold, and Jerry Laktonen’s carved piece is just gorgeous,” Taha says, referring to the Alutiiq artist’s sculpture of an octopus mask playing a groovy blue-and-red electric guitar. “And Erin Genia’s piece on the Dakota Uprising shows how a historical event can still impact people today.”

The exhibit, which is up through September, is complemented this weekend by the museum’s annual free In the Spirit market and festival, showcasing performing artists in the outdoor amphitheater and craft vendors on the plaza.

After an opening prayer by Robert Satiacum, performers will include flutist Rona Yellowrobe Walsh, Maori dancers from New Zealand and the Alaska Kuteeyaa Dancers. Vendors include weavers, bead artists, carvers and printmakers. Visitors can vote for the People’s Choice award until 3 p.m. Saturday, when awards will be given.

For artists, though, the festival provides more than just the chance to show work.

“When Northwest artists get together, we have the opportunity to see each other’s art and find teachers,” Taha says. “We can ask each other questions, or find an article for regalia or a ceremony. I had some fasting feathers once, but couldn’t make the rawhide case for them. Then I found a guy at a festival who made rawhide cases.”

Taha doesn’t see it as a problem that shows such as In the Spirit combine artists from many different tribes.

“I think it’s healthy to have lots of representation,” she says. “In Puget Sound, we have 300 tribes, it’s very diverse, and the vast majority of people are urbanized and don’t live on reservations. People need to come together. Of course, the Puyallup tribe is always honored, because it’s their land.”

Taha says In the Spirit grows every year.

“People are excited about it ... and come down from north of Seattle to see it. We really appreciate what the museum does for us: It provides a platform, an avenue for us to meet the public. It’s just great.”