If you are fortunate enough to visit the National Mall in D.C. during the spring, hopefully you will get to the American Native museum of the Smithsonian there. As you come to the museum, there are several displays outside that are worth a look. The figures above are among them, representing themes often chosen by native artists.
We Were Always Here the figures are named, representing Bear and Raven. The artist, Rick Bartow, has written about his creation.
The Bear and Raven, Healer and Rascal sit atop the sculpture poles; one, slow and methodical, fiercely protective of her children, the other a playful, foible-filled teacher of great power. Both Bear and Raven are focused on water and salmon for serious reasons. The salmon are an indicator species reflecting the health of the environment In particular water, the source of all life.
On each pole are repeated lower horizontal patterns that symbolize successive waves, generations following generations, an accumulation of wisdom and knowledge. The tree used for the sculpture is an old growth Western Red Cedar from Washington state. It is approximately 500 years old. The elders say that the power of the sun is stored within the tree. Essentially the tree embodies the fundamental elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, our sacred and precious natural resources.
To do a huge carving is like creating 22 feet of music. It is creating a rhythm that can be sustained over a long period time. It is music created by chisels, hammers, knives and pencil marks. It moves like a tide, slowly and surely along, turbulent around knots and troublesome grain and then surging along oil-smooth over good clear grain, upwards to completion. The Creator gave me this job of being an artist. Now I create out of necessity. Spirit waits for me in the “doing”–the process of working. Whatever comes of the “doing” is what I share. Spirits are pleased. Ancestors rejoice!
Visiting these sculptures in their setting outside the museum reminds us that much of the heritage of native Americans is that of nature, appropriate in the wind, sun, air and breath of the outside world.