Column: Hand, heart, spirit and artHere in Onigamiising, this past week the UMD Survey of American Indian Arts class watched the documentary film “Teachings of the Tree People” which introduced us to the late Bruce Miller, who was a Skokomish weaver, carver, and teacher of traditional arts and culture.
Here in Onigamiising, this past week the UMD Survey of American Indian Arts class watched the documentary film “Teachings of the Tree People” which introduced us to the late Bruce Miller, who was a Skokomish weaver, carver, and teacher of traditional arts and culture.
In Skokomish tradition, the tree people are the spirits of the woods; Mr. Miller spoke of them as well as the plant people, as he showed us his work as an artist and respected teacher-leader (although, appropriately-modest traditional Skokomish man that he was, he never referred to himself as either).
The Skokomish reservation is in Washington state. Mr. Miller, who was called “Sobee-ay,” was a man who had experienced quite a lot of the world: He left home to go to college, was in the Army and served in Vietnam; had lived in cities; and had been an actor and an artist. In an interview, he talked briefly about these experiences, which he seemed to find interesting and of value in his education as a person; and then, he said, “One day I just left” — and returned home. There he began the next chapter of his life, which would mean recalling all that he had been taught by elder relatives, building upon that learning and then sharing tribal knowledge, tradition and values with others.
As the students and I watched Sobee-ay working alongside with those he taught in the gathering of materials for the weaving of cedar mats we were especially struck by two things: first, the physical demands of harvesting cedar bark in a respectful manner; and second, the awareness of the spiritual world in every aspect of that work. Here in northern Minnesota we live some distance from the Skokomish people, yet the traditional Skokomish way of interacting with all that we encounter in our existence here on Earth is much like Ojibwe teachings. I think this must be the way of tradition and living good lives all over the world, and that though we may sometimes forget and stray, the Creator must have made people like Sobee-ay with the intention and wish that they would help us to remember and live those virtuous ways, what in Ojibwe language we call “Mino-Bimaadiziiwin,” the living of a good life.
In “Teachings of the Tree People” the students and I watched Sobee-ay and the Skokomish elders pass knowledge and values on to others in the making of traditional arts, in storytelling, and in the autumn First Foods Feast, which Sobee-ay called “our Thanksgiving.” The making and serving of food to others was done in the same manner as the making of arts and the nurturing and gathering of plant medicines, which was awareness of and thankfulness for the Creator’s gift of life and sustenance, and an atmosphere of kindness and caring for other people and the world around us.
Next week the students and I will begin a hands-on art project that has been a part of several American Indian arts classes over the past 7-8 years: We will make simple no-face dolls that are similar to those made by many tribes. Ours will be a little larger than most (easier to handle, for those of us who are not familiar with sewing and craft work) and not be made of the traditional materials (such as corn leaves, hide, horse hair, cattails, sinew, or basswood bark thread) that we have gathered ourselves, but of felt, linen “sinew,” yarn and calico, materials that are readily available to us at this time.
Although the dolls we make will be of those everyday 21st-century materials, the works of our hands and spirits will, just the same, become a part of their existence, which in our simple way will respectfully model those who have lived and taught before us (and perhaps some of us, perhaps even I, will one day make a no-face doll of traditional materials, gathered in the traditional way). And I hope that as we work we will enjoy ourselves in the atmosphere of teaching and learning as the elders have taught us: We will be mindful of them and of their teachings, which we will apply to the tangible pleasures of hands-and-hearts art.
Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. E-mail her at email@example.com.