The beautiful Haida eagle mask by artist Robert Leask, Haida/Tlingit/Tsimshian, peers out from its display case. The mask depicts the Kaigani style of totem pole images found in the villages of Howkan. The mask is carved from Western red cedar, painted with acrylic paints, and crested with porcupine quills.
Other exquisite masks are on display nearby. On walls, there are prints by well-known Northwest Coast Native artists, including this writer’s favorite: An embossed serigraph by Marvin Oliver, Quinault/Isleta Pueblo, of a land otter, or Kushtaka, hiding among wild fireweed.
There are more than 20 of these galleries on the Salish Sea. These galleries are the vessels of the Washington State Ferries, the largest ferry system in the United States and the fourth largest in the world.
This Eagle Mask, by Robert Leask, Haida/Tlingit/Tsimshian, depicts the Kaigani style of poles found in the village of Howkan.
Long before Washington’s public schools were offered a curriculum on the state’s First Peoples—teaching Native history only became required by law this year—the state ferries were putting the state’s First Cultures in front of an estimated 23 million passengers a year traveling to 20 different ports of call.
Connie McCloud, cultural director of the Puyallup Tribe, said the educational value of these at-sea exhibits cannot be overstated. Much of what people know about Native people comes from TV and movies, she said. The cultural images and works on the ferries “tell the story of our people, that our culture’s alive and well, that it’s not stagnant,” she said.
Dr. Kate Bunn-Marcuse, assistant director of the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum in Seattle, said public art in Seattle reflects local indigenous history, “and the ferries are a part of that” in the region. She said the Northwest Coast indigenous art exhibited on the ferries helps people understand indigenous history as well as politics, the people’s relationship to these lands and waters, and their presence in Washington State.
“Sea Otter,” by Dennis Allen, Skokomish.
The ferries serve 12 routes and serve as a marine highway for tourists, daily commuters, and commercial users; the ferries also provide seasonal service to Sidney, British Columbia, a city north of Victoria on Vancouver Island.
Of 24 ferries in the fleet, 23 have indigenous names—a place, individual, people, or word. And each ferry has an extensive display of artwork representative of its name: Images from the archives of Native Nations and museums; baskets and articles of clothing woven of cedar and or other native materials; masks carved of cedar or alder; and hand-signed lithographs or serigraphs. Among the most famous artists represented: Marvin Oliver, Quinault/Isleta Pueblo; Shaun Peterson, Puyallup; Lillian Pitt, Warm Springs/Yakama/Wasco; Susan Point, Musqueam; and Andrea Wilbur-Sigo, Squaxin.
Tracy Rector, Seminole/Choctaw, is a filmmaker and member of the Seattle Arts Commission. She regularly rides the ferries—the M/V Puyallup, Tacoma or Wenatchee—between Seattle and Bainbridge Island to work with film students on the Suquamish reservation. She said of the art on those ferries: “They are not only beautiful and educational, but also affirming to the Coast Salish people.”
Affirmation has been a long time coming.
After the treaties were signed in 1855, the state’s First Peoples had to fight to keep their lifeways—and often their families—alive. They moved to reservations. Their longhouses were burned and their forms of worship were banned. Their children were taken to boarding schools. As late as the 1970s, the People were jailed simply for exercising their treaty right to catch salmon, which is critical to their culture.
And yet, today, the People live, their cultures are thriving, their Nations growing in economic and political influence. Rector said that’s the message this art puts forth: “We are still here,” she said.
Rector said the art-at-sea experience engages passengers in a way that no other setting can. For example, on the M/V Samish—which will travel between the mainland and the San Juan Islands—passengers can view works of art that tell the Samish story as they travel the ancestral waters of the Samish people. On their voyage, they may view a film by Rector and Longhouse Media titled, “The Maiden of Deception Pass,” about a Samish ancestor who married a sea being and sacrificed her human form to guarantee food and water for her people. (The showing of the film on the vessel’s closed-circuit television system was being negotiated at this writing.)
An archival image of the 1911 Tulalip Indian School baseball team.
Art on the newest ferry, the M/V Samish, includes archival images of late 1800s/early 1900s Samish life; Canoe Journey images and interpretive information by a Samish photographer; images of nature and wildlife from Samish’s territory by amateur and professional photographers from the San Juan Islands; a painting of a canoe scene by Samish artist Merrilee Hagen (reminiscent of Tsimshian artist Roy Henry Vickers’ “Kitasoo Dawn”); as well as lithograph and serigraphs by noted Northwest Coast Native artists.
Combined, the ferries display a sizeable collection. Consider there’s an average of 30 art pieces per ferry. Multiple that by 23 ferries; that comes out to 690 works. When a ferry is under construction, the state ferry system usually hires a consultant to solicit and select art that will be displayed. The consultant for the M/V Samish worked with the Samish Nation, the Anacortes Museum and the San Juan County Arts Council to solicit and select works to be displayed.
The next time you are in the Seattle area, make a trip on one of Washington’s at-sea Native art galleries part of your itinerary. For information about state ferries, routes and fares, visit WSDOT.WA.gov.