Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Graphic Art of the Indians of Canada



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



With the tribes N. of Mexico the arts that may be comprehended under the term graphic are practically identical with the pictorial arts; that is to say, such as represent persons and things in a manner so realistic that the semblance of the original is not entirely lost. Graphic delineations may be (1) simply pictorial; that is, made to gratify the pictorial or aesthetic impulse or fancy; (2) trivial, intended to excite mirth, as in caricature and the grotesque; (3) simply decorative, serving to embellish the person or object to which they are applied; (4) simply ideographic, standing for ideas to be expressed, recorded, or conveyed; (5) denotive, including personal names and marks of ownership, distinction, direction, enumeration, etc.; and (6) symbolic, representing some religious, totemic, heraldic, or other occult concept. It is manifest, however, that in very many cases there must be uncertainty as to the motives prompting these graphic representations; and the significance attached to them, even where the tribes using them come directly under observation, is often difficult to determine.


The methods of expression in graphic art are extremely varied, but may be classified as follows: (1) Application of colour by means of brushes and hard or soft points or edges, and by developing the form in pulverized pigments; (2) engraving, which is accomplished by scratching and pecking with hard points; (3) indenting and stamping where the surfaces are plastic; (4) tattooing, the introduction of colouring matter into designs pricked or cut in the skin; (5) textile methods, as in weaving, basketry, beadwork, featherwork, and embroidery; and (6) inlaying, as in mosaic, where small bits of coloured material are so set as to form the figures. The figures are drawn in outline simply, or are filled in with colour or other distinctive surfacing. The elaboration or embellishment of sculptured or modelled figures or images of men and beasts by adding details of anatomy, markings, etc., in colour or by engraving, thus increasing the realism of the representation, comes also within the realm of the graphic as here defined. In recent times, as the result of contact with the whites, much progress has been made by some of the native tribes in the pictorial art; but the purely aboriginal work, although displaying much rude vigour, shows little advance toward the higher phases of the art. Aboriginally, there was little attempt at effective grouping of the subject save as required in decoration, and light and shade and perspective were entirely unknown. Portraiture and landscape belong apparently to much more advanced stages of culture than have been reached by any of the northern tribes. When the delineations are devoted to the presentation of non-symbolic ideas merely, as in pictography and denotive devices, there is a tendency in frequently recurring use to progressive simplification; the picture as such has no reason to be perpetuated, and this simplification in time reaches a stage where a part takes the place of the whole, or where semblance to the original is entirely lost, the figure becoming the formal sign of an idea. The graphic art of the northern tribes, however, shows no very significant progress in this kind of specialization, unless modern alphabets, like those of the Micmac, or certain inscriptions of somewhat problematical origin, as the Grave Creek Mound tablet and the Davenport tablet (Farquharson), are considered.


Graphic delineations are most extensively employed by the tribes in pictography examples of which, engraved or painted on rock surfaces, are found in nearly every section of the country. Similar work was executed by many of the tribes on dressed skins, on birch-bark, and on objects of wood, ivory, bone, horn, and shell. The delineation of life forms in decorative and symbolic art is hardly less universal than in simple pictography, and is especially exemplified in the work of the more advanced peoples, as the pottery of the mound builders and Pueblos, the utensils and the carvings of the tribes of the N. Pacific coast, and ceremonial costumes, and walls and floors of sacred chambers among various tribes. The graphic work of the [Inuit] has a peculiar interest, since it seems to have been somewhat recently superposed upon an earlier system in which simple geometrical figures predominated, and is much more prevalent where these people have been for a long time in contact with the whites, and more especially with the Athapascan and other Indian tribes skilled in graphic work (Hoffman). A special feature of the art of the [Inuit] is the engraving of hunting scenes and exploits of various kinds on objects of ivory and bone-works paralleled among the Indian tribes in the S. by such examples as the Thruston tablet (Thruston, Holmes), the Davenport tablet (Farquharson), and the battle and hunting scenes of the Plains tribes (Mallery, Mooney).


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 183-184.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College