The stories of Raven stealing the light or Raven prying open a shell that contains the first people continue to inspire great art, and have the advantage of being no single family’s property. But they are only a fraction of the stories and themes that could be told in Northwest Coast art. That is why, when I buy art, I am always interested in less often heard subjects – the change is interesting to me, and, I hope, a change of pace for the artists as well.
A case in point: “Healing Ring,” the second of the rings made for us by up and coming artist Gwaai Edenshaw (the other ring was “Raven and Crows,” which I blogged about earlier).
Here’s how Gwaai Edenshaw himself describes the ring. He was talking with us as he wrote and using a soft pencil, so I have had to guess here and there as I transcribed:
[The] centre of the ring is Fungus Man, made famous in the story of Raven and the First People. The only [one] of Raven’s helpers that was strong enough to face the feminine energy/sprit, and bring it to humanity. This character was likely Fomitopsis Officinalis. This is a shelf fungus that is analogous to a Chinese medicine (in fact one of Chinese Medicine’s most prized medicines). It was almost definitely used by Haida shamans. Samples of it have been found among shaman’s effects (this was thought to be wooden carvings until a recent test of the wood revealed it to be Fornitopsis. Fungus Man appears out of a bush of K’waay K’ia (Indian Hellebore), a very important medicine to us. Like many medicines it has potential for toxicity, but in the hands of the right practitioner it is a true marvel.
Also called Laricifomes officinalis, the fungus is almost extinct in Europe, but is found in old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. In various locales, it has been used to treat tuberculosis, pneumonia, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, infection, and smallpox, and to ensure long life.
I believe that the appearance of the fungus on the ring is one of the first instances in which Edenshaw has combined his interests in Haida botany and art. In fact, aside from what appears to be tobacco leaves and European-influenced floral designs in some argillite work, flora of any sort is rare in Haida art, although some mainland nations have floral crests, such as the Gitksan Fireweed clan.
On the reverse side is a pair of herons. These are the helper in a number of stories, notably the Gunarsiargit story where they play a small but critical role in the story’s namesake fulfilling his destiny.
More specifically, a heron often dwells on the edge of the village, some distance away from the inhabited houses. This locale reflects the heron’s often lone habits, but might also suggest a shaman, since shamans often lived and certainly were buried separately from everyone else.
For me, these are the kind of details that, when combined with artistic skill, can make Northwest Coast art so satisfying to me. They offer not only aesthetic pleasure, but, for a European ethnic like me a small window into the cultures that produce them. And Edenshaw, besides being a gold smith with a genuine feel for the metal, is also clearly someone deeply knowledgable about his culture as well.