PART 8. CURIOUS HAPPENSTANCES
A couple of morality tales here deal with crashing picnics and medicine-cabinet invasion: is a picnic always just a picnic? Is the medicine cabinet try-out actually a morality tale? How is thinking to do a good turn for the old man a prelude to disaster? And why is speaking in public an early problem for this eventual genius of broadcast radio? In a story about kids’ baseball, Shepherd suggests that organization is not always a good thing.
I will never forget the day that we organized the Cleveland Street Irregulars ball team. One of the worst things that I ever had happen to me as a kid, happened as a result of baseball. This is a story about the first creeping encroachment of “little league-ism” beginning to sneak into the world.
This is not a story about baseball—I do not come from a tennis background, I do not come from a polo background, I come from a slugging background. Where a man is measured in how he fields a bad hop. You notice the wide spacing between my two front teeth, and you notice how they overlap? Well, three straight ground balls on a hot afternoon one day produced this interesting denture problem I’ve got here.
I’ll never forget—one of those terrible moments we all live in our world, most peoples’ world, really—a world of frustration, sad defeats, little, tiny, momentary victories. One summer, we were just about at the freshman-in-high-school-period. We’ve got enough pizzazz to understand just a little of this world around us, but not enough pizzazz to understand that there’s a world around us. That touch-and-go moment.
I didn’t know much about Northwest Coast art other than liking raven rattles. But, in 1988, I was assigned to produce “Chiefly Feasts,” a large traveling exhibit that would begin in our museum and go to several other venues. The Kwakiutl is one of the tribes located from upper Washington State and north on the west coast of Canada—Native Americans commonly known for their totem poles. The potlatch is a competitive ceremony in which powerful leaders enhance their prestige by giving (and, at least in past times, sometimes destroying) objects of value. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict described it thusly in her Patterns of Culture.
As always, working with a curator who was an expert in the exhibit’s subject matter, I began my design. Our museum arranged for me to travel to several Northwest Coast exhibits to get a sense of the material and how it’s previously been presented—museums in Chicago, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, and Alert Bay–a small native-American town in northern Vancouver Island. The museum paid travel, food, and accommodations for me, and our family paid for my wife and son.
Allison and Evan,
Orca Inn, Alert Bay.
Although most exhibits consist of cases containing artifacts, I wanted to give a sense of environment and materials, and, reportedly, the Kwakiutl preferred something less confining than many cases—I designed a series of wide, low, open, cedar-plank platforms and cedar-paneled walls. Cedar is a common Northwest Coast construction material, especially for ceremonial buildings. All protected by a low rail that also supported some of the exhibit text, and with a security system that would sound if anyone entered the platform area. This open approach, and the overall sense of an appropriate setting, was rare and more complex to produce than the usual exhibit. Of course, the platforms needed to be disassembled for shipment and re-installation in the other museums’ exhibit spaces.
With the exhibit installed, I visited our Museum shop and bought a Northwest Coast artifact, though I believe it was created, not for indigenous use, but for non-native collectors. Despite that, I find it intriguing and elegant. It’s a combination of: what appears to be a stretched animal-skin drumhead; rattle (with pebbles or other small objects inside); and whistle (blown from the end of the bone handle). I believe the black hair is from a horse, but I have no idea about the animal skin and white feathers. From our museum’s carpenter shop I scavenged left-over short lengths of cedar to form the backing for the piece in our home. The image is of a raven holding the sun in its beak, just having opened the box in which the sun was held.
“Most important of all creatures to the coast Indian peoples was Raven. It was Raven—the Transformer, the culture hero, the trickster, the Big Man (he took many forms to many peoples)—who created the world. He put the sun, moon, stars into the sky, fish into the sea, salmon into the rivers, and food onto the land; he maneuvered the tides to assure daily access to beach resources. Raven gave the people fire and water, placed the rivers, lakes and cedar trees over the land, and peopled the earth.” –Hilary Stewart, in her 1979 book Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast.
Raven is thus similar to the Greek mythological figure, Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods (especially from our Renaissance onward, a symbol of human mentality/creativity, etc.).
My replica of a raven rattle,
as is typical in these carvings,
has a small box/sun in its beak.