- United States
Artist not known, Tlingit
15 ft. X 9 ft.
Native arts department acquisition funds, 1951.315
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2008. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
This partition comes from the house of Chief Shakes of Wrangell, Alaska, who belonged to the Nanyaayi clan of the Tlingit tribe. The Tlingit lived in groups or villages along the Pacific Coast of what is now southern Alaska and northern British Columbia. Each child was born into one of two groups, called moieties. Within each moiety, there were several smaller groups called clans. The Tlingit were skilled artisans and master woodcarvers, known for their elaborate totem poles, bentwood boxes, and canoes. They had extensive trade contacts and dealt in many different types of goods, which were made by their own tribe as well as others. Animals played an important role in the Tlingit belief system. The Tlingit believed that animals and humans were closely related and that every animal had a soul. They also believed that an animal could take on the form of a human, as is evident in many of their stories. Some stories involve animals and humans changing from one species to the other, while others tell of animals and humans living together and sometimes marrying one another. Even though the Tlingit people had to rely upon hunting and fishing for survival, no animal was ever killed needlessly. Hunters followed strict rituals and asked for forgiveness at the end of the hunt, thanking the animal for giving its life.
What Inspired It
Screens like this one were used in large wooden houses to separate the clan leader’s sleeping area from the central areas of the house. Clan houses were large and there could be up to six families living in each one. Screens fronting the sleeping quarters of nobility were painted with important family crests, which are symbols used to represent individual families. The clan leader would enter and exit the room through the hole in the center of the crest—a symbol of rebirth from his ancestors. Sometimes the screens were removed to open up the space for ceremonies. In front of these private rooms was a platform where the owner and his family sat. The image of the brown bear represents the crest of the Shakes family, which memorializes a clan myth in which two brown bears escaped death in a flood by climbing a mountain. The Indians killed one of the bears and took its head and skin to wear as a family crest during festivals. In another clan story, during the time when animals and humans were believed to have married, a male ancestor is said to have been captured by bears and forced to marry the female bear. Having managed to escape, he kept the bear symbol as a clan symbol.
Faces appear at the joints, eyes, nostrils, and hands of the bear. The small bear figures inside the ears distinguish the crest of the Shakes family from other groups within the clan.
The formline delineates each of the forms. Usually the formline is painted in black; however, this screen’s formline is red.
These are the building blocks of Northwest Coast art. Ovoid is the most common shape—a kind of rounded rectangle. This shape is used to form the face, eyes, and small faces that appear at the joints. U forms are usually thick on one end, thinner on the other.
The screen was carved in low relief, meaning that the design projects only slightly from the surface of the wood; it is not three-dimensional. The design was then painted with red and black, which are fairly traditional colors.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Have students choose an animal to represent their family, taking into account the strengths of different animals (e.g. dogs are friendly, bears are strong, dolphins are intelligent). Students can also give their animal a special power. Have the students write a story about how their animal got its power.
- Using the traditional Northwest Coast ovoid and u-shapes, have students create a picture of an animal.
- Compare the Tlingit House Partition to the Yoruba Door Panels and the Palace Façade. Discuss what each object reveals about the things its culture considers important.