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Animal images tell visual story of boys in trouble

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Rick Bartow’s sculpture “From the Mad River to the Little Salmon River, or The Responsibility of Raising a Child” is a precariously balanced series of images.

The work, part of an exhibition of contemporary Native art called “Vantage Point” now showing at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, grew out of Bartow’s impressions of boys incarcerated at Oregon’s MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. Aged 12 to 18, many of the boys Bartow met already had girlfriends and babies. Around them swirled a history of alcohol and drug addiction, perhaps abuse, perhaps being an abuser of someone else. Out of empathy for the imprisoned boys whom he mentored, Bartow carved the sculpture, later casting it in bronze.

Here are some of the images Bartow used:

The sculpture is built on the back of a coyote, the trickster.

A grandmother mask on the coyote’s back end carries a tattoo that Bartow’s mother saw when she was a girl on the face of an elder healing woman at Siletz, Ore. A grandfather mask sits on the coyote’s hip.

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A pair of salmon rest on the coyote’s back. Salmon give up their lives for their children. A Pacific lamprey eel feeds on the male salmon.

A basket holds a smiling baby. It is Bartow’s daughter, which makes the sculpture one of hope, not despair.

The killdeer is one of many birds on the piece. The mother killdeer acts like she has a broken wing to distract predators from her young.

The eagle with wings outstretched rises from the coyote’s back. A raven chases it. On the eagle’s tail, the moon mask represents women; on the eagle’s wing, the sun mask represents men.

The sculpture is one of 25 pieces by established and emerging Native artists in “Vantage Point.” The pieces are in the National Museum of the American Indian’s collection of contemporary Native art. It will be at the museum in Washington until Aug. 7, 2011. Bartow’s sculpture was a gift from the artist, Charles Froelick and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Bartow, Wiyot, was born in 1946. The description of his sculpture was drawn from an essay on the Froelick Gallery website.

The American Indian News Service is produced for the National Museum of the American Indian by journalist Kara Briggs, Yakama/Snohomish. All content is free to publish or post. E-mail her at editor@americanindian Visit the American Indian News Service at