native american art

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.


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.


ArtsWatch’s hit parade 2018

2018 in Review, Part 1: Readers' choice. A look back at Oregon ArtsWatch's most read and shared stories of the year

When we say “hit parade,” that’s what we mean. In the first of a series of stories looking back on the highlights of 2018, these 25 tales were ArtsWatch’s most popular of the year, by the numbers: the most read, or the most shared on social media, or both. From photo features to artist conversations to reviews to personal essays to news stories, these are the pieces that most resounded with you, our readers. These 25 stories amount to roughly two a month, out of more than 50 in the average month: By New Year’s Eve we’ll have published roughly 650 stories, on all sorts of cultural topics, during the 2018 calendar year.


Like ArtsWatch? Help us out.

We couldn’t bring you the stories we bring without your support, which is what keeps us going. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit journalism publication, with no pay wall: Everything we publish is free for the reading. We can offer this public service thanks to generous gifts from foundations, public cultural organizations, and you, our readers. As the year draws to a close, please help us keep the stories coming. It’s easy:


And now, the 25 of 2018, listed chronologically:



Legendary jazz drummer Mel Brown. Photo: K.B. Dixon

In the Frame: Eleven Men

Jan. 2: Writer and photographer K.B. Dixon’s photo essay looks graphically at a group of men who have helped shape Portland’s cultural and creative life, among them jazz drummer Mel Brown, the late Claymation pioneer Will Vinton, Powell’s Books owner Michael Powell, gallerist Charles Froelick, and the legendary female impersonator Walter Cole, better known as Darcelle. Dixon would later profile eleven woman cultural leaders, a feature that is also among 2018’s most-read.


A new curator of Native American Art named by the Portland Art Museum

Kathleen Ash-Milby joins the museum's staff in a role that's become increasingly important

The Portland Art Museum has just announced the hiring of a new curator of Native American Art, Kathleen Ash-Milby. Ash-Milby comes to Portland from New York where she has been an associate curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) for nearly 20 years. She is a member of the Navajo Nation and replaces previous curator Deana Darrt, who stepped down in 2016.

At NMAI, Ash-Milby organized, curated, and co-curated many important exhibitions including: Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound (2017), Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist (2015), C. Maxx Stevens: House of Memory (2012), HIDE: Skin as Material and Metaphor (2010), and Off the Map: Landscape in the Native Imagination (2007). In addition to her work at NMAI, Ash-Milby has curated projects internationally and served on the boards of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (2007-2012) and the American Indian Community House (2005-2007).

Kathleen Ash-Milby, the new curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum

Ash-Milby was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and received her M.A. in Native American art history from the University of New Mexico. However, she does have connections to the Northwest as her undergraduate degree is from the University of Washington. She says she is “thrilled to be returning to the Northwest and joining the Portland Art Museum at such an important time in its growth. Portland has such a vibrant community of Native artists and community members, and I’m looking forward to being part of it.”

The Portland community is equally thrilled. Portland artist Lillian Pitt and member of the Native Advisory Board says, “I have known Kathleen since she started working at the National Museum of the American Indian…while the hiring process was lengthy, I am so pleased that Kathleen accepted the job. She will make us all proud.”

The position of curator for Native American Art has been vacant since Deana Dartt left the position in 2016, but the department has remained active. It has received several important grants from, among others, the Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and has continued to add new works to its collection. And it recently opened CCNA: Not Fragile, a show of glass art by contemporary Native artists.

Ash-Milby will start at the Portland Art Museum in July 2019.