Ozette Art and the Makah Canoe
by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
Many questions remain concerning the contents of the longhouses excavated at Ozette. One of the most intriguing is the nature of its art, which was pervasive. More than 400 artifacts stored at the Makah Cultural Center might be considered art. Although a few pieces, such as the well-known carved whale saddle, are (presumably) ritualistic, most are everyday objects, combs, bowls, clubs, embellished with designs.
Jeff Mauger (PhD '78), an archaeologist at Peninsula Community College in Port Angeles, earned his doctorate from WSU, analyzing the shed-roof style of the houses at Ozette and their relation to the style throughout the Northwest coast. Since then he has gradually left field work, turning instead to research and analysis-and to art. Besides his science, Mauger is a silversmith, creating jewelry inspired by Northwest Coast and Makah design.
"For whatever reasons," he writes in an artist's statement, "tribal art has always evoked a deep emotional response within me and Northwest Coast Indian art traditions in particular are an early and continued passion."
Mauger's work is inspired by Makah designs. "I try to understand the structure and elements of those designs to produce art that falls in that tradition."
Individual designs are owned by families or individuals themselves. The design may have come to the creator in a dream. "It is a very personal and closed expression of their culture," says Mauger, "and there was this concern, they saw a lot of people doing Northwest coast art and benefitin commercially from it, who from a cultural perspective really had no business doing it.
"I have to say I was probably one of them, too," he says, referring to his early days before the truth dawned on him.
"To work within the tradition, which is what I try to do, you have to reach a level of technical competence and an appreciation and acknowledgement of where that art comes from."
Mauger is also now at work on a book about Ozette art. "Ozette gave us the largest single collection of southern Northwest coast art from a single place in a single period," he says. "Not only that, but you can look at variations between households and families. There's great potential."
But realizing that potential will not be easy. His first, monumental, task is simply documenting what's in the collection now stored at the Makah Cultural Center.
His second task is a structural analysis, determining patterns. In spite of the extraordinary preservation of the artifacts taken from Ozette, many of the patterns are faded by their 400-year burial. He discerns the designs through careful study and then drawing them.
He's developed a technique for abstracting the designs. "I enlarge images of Ozette art from digital photographs and see things you don't see from a macro perspective. Then I go back to the macro and there it is. One thing I looked at for 30 years, a comb, a wavy line." Once he enlarged it and outlined the design, he realized it was the outline of a whale.
"So my technique for documenting actually became a method of discovery."
Finally, he determines how the pieces relate to other coastal art. This analysis is hardly straightforward.
Some of the pieces of art likely did not originate at Ozette. "That's to be expected," says Mauger. "Knowing what we know of ceremonial exchange and movement of stuff on the Northwest coast, there are things I'm sure were produced by Salish speakers and Nuu-chah-nulth [relatives of the Makah in British Columbia].
"The geometrics [design] may relate to are from around the Columbia River."
The Makahs' long-time residence is at a very strategic location, says Mauger. Positioned at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Makahs exerted cultural influence up and down the coasts of Washington and Oregon as well as Vancouver Island. Mauger considers their role as "almost brokers."
A fundamental element of Mauger's study is determining "Is it art?" Take canoe paddles, for example. "There are elegant canoe paddles, but there are clunky canoe paddles, too."
Does decoration in addition to a utilitarian function make it art? Or consider the wooden boxes found in the houses. They were made by scoring, then-steam bending thin cedar planks, then lacing on a bottom. They were so precisely constructed they were water-tight. The craftsmanship lends them an artistic elegance as well as function.
And is the extra work evident on some of them necessary for their function? "If not, then it's probably art," says Mauger.
Then again, interpreting a much different culture is tricky.
One of the more interesting artifacts in the Ozette collection is an inch-and-a-half-tall bone carving. I assumed, given the apparent head, torso, and limbs, it is a human abstraction.
Not so fast, says Mauger.
"I don't have any real information on the piece.one of the more intriguing in the collection," he writes in an email exchange. " As for it being a stylized human.maybe, but I wouldn't even go that far. It is doubtlessly iconic and icons are very culture-bound. I am increasingly hesitant to project a 21st century, Western cultural, interpretation on such a piece; doing so probably tells us more about ourselves than the people or person who made it.
"On the other hand, on the purely structural level, it is an interesting construction of fairly typical Coast Salish style crescents, circles, and a trigon, using both positive and negative space. (Which is not to imply that it was made by a Coast Salish speaker-that is just the name of a widespread art style first noted in Coast Salish territory)."
But, he concludes, "Enough of the anthropology talk. I don't have a clue.."
Mauger's restraint is admirable, enabling him as both artist and scientist. It also gives credence to his answer to my question, "Has your definition of art changed?"
"Boy, that one caught me by surprise. Yeah. it's certainly because of Ozette that the way I look at art now is really different. I suppose that means my definition has changed. With the Ozette stuff, and any art from indigenous people, there's that old axiom, that only English and a few other languages separate art out as a distinct thing, make art for art's sake.
"Art always has a function. I look at the Ozette stuff and more and more I realize its inseparably bound to the artifact and its use in the culture and what it meant in the culture and what it indicated in the social system and the kinship system.
"So in some ways art is an expression of a whole cultural system, that when we see the object, we're just looking at the surface.it's probably how an anthropologist would look at art anyhow, so maybe I'm just a late bloomer.
think I knew that academically, but when it becomes part of your gut, it's no longer an academic definition. This is real stuff and real people we're talking about
"That really comes home to you as an artist. When you're struggling with a design, making that paradigm shift, another way of looking at the universe, when a killer whale's fin doesn't have to be vertical on its back, where can you put it and still make a logic, though not the logic of your particular world view?
"One of the most satisfying experiences is when the whole world is reduced to a design."
Consider, for example, the canoe.
The Makah Cultural and Research Center houses two canoes, a canoe for hunting sea lions and seals and a larger whaling canoe. Traditionally, the canoes were carved from a single cedar trunk. In a sense, the canoe typifies a culture where art and function are indistinguishable. On the one hand, it signifies pure function. One senses merely from its presence and look that it is a match for the sea.
"They're the only real oceangoing canoe ever designed," says Mauger.
On the other hand, it is a craft of pure beauty.
Mauger immersed himself in the Makah canoe for a while, aiming to develop a prototype of a fiberglass model. He made seven canoes.
"With the seventh, I felt I was really starting to understand what the lines were about. They're simply amazing. There's nothing accidental. Every angle, every flair, has a reason. I don't pretend to understand what they're all about. But I was starting to understand the flair of the bow, the vertical stern.
"Which is odd," he adds. "They're lousy in following seas."
But the reason for the strange chopped-off stern was their function. "These were work boats. That kind of stern worked well for working out of it."
That functional trait also reflects a deeper practicality. If a crew were caught in a following sea, they'd simply turn the canoe around and go backwards.
This point in turn explains old photos of canoes pulled up on the beach, bows seaward.
"More glassy-eyed folks say they're ready to go. Jump in the canoe and go hunting whales.
"No, that's the way they came in through the surf, reversed. They came in stern first. But they achieved a practical double benefit in that they were ready to go."