It has been said that our Athapaskan Indians, including the Chipewyans and Beavers, had no art as such. That is an unwarranted conclusion to draw because, until the advent of the horse, they had so few non-perishable items on which to exercise any talents they had. Clothing and blankets wear out. Tipis like those of the Blackfoot and Sioux were not practical until after horses were common. War shields and drums were the most likely portable articles to be decorated, and these, too, are perishable. The unique still-preserved drum of Charlie Yahey is a “museum piece”, as it has two heads, each side being decorated with a design, one seemingly being very, very old.
“Design” is the key word here. Whatever decoration the Athapaskans used tended to employ straight lines adapted no doubt to the ancient art of quill embroidery. Geometric figures predominate. Such designs were symbolic suggesting such natural phenomena as lightning, water, or perhaps animals. They meant something, and were not used just for decoration’s sake. The same geometric lines appear in the famed blankets of the Navajo, who are also Athapaskans.
A latent talent for representational art came out in the Sarcees who, to this day, decorate their tipis in the manner of the Blackfoot with whom they associated. The artwork tells of visions or events. “The designs painted on Blackfoot tepee [sic] covers referred to such (medicine) powers, and even today the rights of such designs can be obtained in the traditional way only.
Thus it is not surprising to see in a village of Sarcee decorated tipis one pure white one, as pictured by Mr. Rick Belcourt. The owner had not yet had a vision.
The Sarcee did undertake representational art, as shown in pictures of a Sarcee chief’s blanket, where his exploits were recorded. However, the representations of human and animal figures is stylized to emphasize action, but not features.
In museum pieces of bead-decorated clothing, the circle divided into four parts has persisted. Seeing such a design across a museum room, this writer was curious to learn what tribe executed it. Sure enough – it was a Sarcee piece, bringing to mind the representation on the Charlie Yahey drum, and his exposition of the Beaver cosmos.
The Cree, on the other hand, adopted stylized designs based on flower and leaf forms, which they still execute in brilliant beads reminiscent of the stylized representations of flowers in Chinese embroidery in silk. The Cree designs are “pretty” and often beautiful, but seemingly decorative only.
The talent for painting was latent in the Cree. It has received wide attention for the works of Allen Sapp of the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan, whose painting s now hang in art galleries, as well as private collections.
Another artist is Henry Nanooch who grew up on the northern fringes of the Peace River country in the Little Red River west of Wood Buffalo National Park. “His sketches to illustrate legends are more than just pictures about events. They seem to reveal an added depth that extends beyond the obvious lessons of the stores”. [Supplement to Alberta School Broadcasts produced by Alberta Native Communications Society.]