When the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology offers its first art lesson for the Community Arts Project this month, it will tap into a centuries-old Native American tradition, one that will call on families to gather, reflect, and maybe even begin a new tradition of their own.
In Native American culture, it was known as the “winter count,” a tradition practiced by certain communities of the northern Great Plains, said Nicola Harrison, Sitka general manager and former executive director for Community Arts Project (CAP).
Every year, elders would gather to talk about events of the passing year – measured from the first snowfall of the year to the next year’s first snowfall. The elders chose one important event and named the year for it. The person known as the “keeper” painted a pictograph on a buffalo hide, paper, or cloth to commemorate the event. The keeper was also tasked with storytelling and ensuring the winter count was passed down to subsequent generations.
This month, Sitka will reach out to some 300 students in the Nestucca Valley Elementary and Garibaldi Grade schools in its new role since taking on oversight, operating, and fundraising responsibilities for CAP this fall.
“The kids in the community need to express themselves now more than ever and have that joy in their daily routine,” Harrison said. She will make a classroom presentation via Zoom, followed by a discussion to “share ideas and talk about events we want to share and how we would symbolize with imagery and not use words,” she said.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An occasional series
Students will have access to a prerecorded demonstration they can watch with their families on how to do the project. Instead of sharing art supplies at school, Harrison said, Sitka will purchase and deliver individual supplies that the students can keep.
In traditional Native American culture, a winter count might record disease, war, disaster, or natural phenomena, such as the widely depicted Leonid meteor storm of 1833.
Students will be asked to talk with family members to pick three to five significant events of the year, then draw pictographs of those events using colored pencils or oil pastels.
The students won’t call their artwork winter counts, “that would be appropriating Native American culture,” Harrison said. “So, we’re just calling them pictographs. It could be a birth, it could be a celebration, it could be something exciting. I feel this will unite communities and families and begin some type of healing process, or a way to stand back and recognize what we’ve gone through; it hasn’t been easy.”
CAP was founded in 1988 with a mission to enable children and others “to freely explore healthy avenues of learning and expression in the arts, believing that this enriches the lives of all who live and work in our North Oregon Coast communities.”
As new steward of the program, Sitka will offer monthly arts-literacy lessons to students who do not have a full-time arts program in their schools. The upcoming lesson was inspired by a Zoom webinar sponsored by Sitka with Christina Burke, curator for Native American Art for the Philbrook Museum of Art, on Indigenous Histories: Community & Environmental Health in Lakota Winter Counts. Burke’s Nov. 23 presentation is free and available to the public, but registration — available here – is required.
“Looking ahead with the deeper administrative bandwidth, we’re excited to build on all the good work CAP is doing,” said Alison Dennis, Sitka executive director. “We’re excited to share the regional, national, and international artists who work in residence at Sitka with local kids and schools. We’re also excited to showcase more living and regional artists in the youth arts programs.
“There is so much alignment between CAP’s mission and Sitka’s mission, but we’ve been serving different age groups and so together now we’ll be offering programs that foster curiosity and creativity in people from age 4 to 104.”
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.