Community Arts Project

Storytelling without words

From pets to the pandemic, from wildfires to vampires, a Sitka Center project spurs discussion among second-graders about the year's big events

You might think in a world turned upside down by COVID-19, kids asked to name a significant event in their lives would naturally turn to the virus. But with the exception of one second-grader who noted it occurred on a special day, it barely registered a blip this week in a virtual arts-literacy class.

The session was the first class held since the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology took over the Community Arts Project on the North Coast. Sitka’s general manager, Nicola Harrison, led the virtual project with two second-grade classes at Nestucca Valley Elementary School.


THE ART OF LEARNING: An occasional series


The project focused on the Native American tradition of “winter counts,” the recording of significant events for the year, which began with the first snow of the season. Tribes and families in the northern Great Plains gathered to discuss the year’s events. A  “keeper” was charged with drawing the events on a buffalo hide and passing the tale onto the community and future generations. In this way, they recorded history both with art and in the oral tradition of storytelling.

Home school was the year's most memorable event for Kael S.
Home school was the year’s most memorable event for Kael S., a 7-year-old participating in a Sitka Center class covering pictographs, Native American winter counts, and storytelling through art.

Ten students in Nicole Royster’s class gathered on bedroom floors, at dining room tables, and on living room sofas for the Zoom session to discuss this thing called art. Amidst the usual calls for muting and unmuting, enabling audio, and general requests to sit still, the class looked at pictographs from Egypt, Australia, and by Native Americans, as well as stone carvings from Easter Island. They talked about the purpose of art, about symbols and about storytelling without words. Then they took up pencils and paper to sketch ideas about the year’s important events.  

Roy volunteered first to share his, a party hat, mask, and cake, “because coronavirus struck on my birthday.”

But the popular theme of the day tended toward animals. One girl sketched her family’s new baby chickens; another, the dog and kitten that did not initially get along, but eventually became friends. Still another talked of going with her mother to pick out a dog and with her father to pick out a cat. One girl reported, sadly, that she planned to sketch the picture of the old dog she gave away.

The big event for Lucian was losing a tooth. Brodie also went with the dental theme, noting he had four teeth filled.

Continues…

Marking a year, marking a change

As Sitka Center for Art and Ecology assumes stewardship of an arts-literacy program, its first lesson brings a Native American tradition to elementary students

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.

Battiste Good (Sicangu Larkota) (ca. 1821-1894) kept a winter count that was unusual in that it contained more than 500 years of Lakota History. Its reference to the year 1834, “the year the stars fell,” commemorates the November 1833 Leonid meteor shower with an image of a tipi covered in stars. Photo courtesy: U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board
Battiste Good (Sicangu Larkota) (ca. 1821-1894) kept a winter count that was unusual in that it contained more than 500 years of Lakota history. Its reference to the year 1834, “the year the stars fell,” commemorates the November 1833 Leonid meteor shower with an image of a tipi covered in stars. Photo courtesy: U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board

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.

Continues…