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The face of the Columbia is like no other

Artifacts of river region go on show together for the first time

'People of the River: Native American Arts of the Oregon Territory' is the stunning premiere of more than 200 decorative and functional artifacts created by the people who lived for 10,000 years along the Columbia River.

It's the first museum exhibition to focus on the art that was generated within the 300-mile area stretching from the mouth of the Snake River to the Pacific Ocean.

'We truly are defining the Columbia River art style,' says Bill Mercer, the Portland Art Museum's curator of Native American art. 'Nobody's even looked at it before. It's so different and off the map from what we expected.'

Assembled through loans from museums and private collections, the items were created by the ancestors of the tribal groups that today live in the Umatilla, Yakama, Grande Ronde and Chinook communities.

Despite the fact that the exhibit coincides with the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, Mercer says its significance stands alone.

'This exhibition is not about Lewis and Clark's journey,' he says. 'These tribes were here before and after the explorers passed through the area.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, the first focusing on sculptural works made from stone, wood, bone, horn and antler. Remarkably, it's the most extensive collection of pre-European-contact stone sculptures in all of North America. It includes the largest piece of stone sculpture created north of the Valley of Mexico: a 55-inch-high anthropomorphic figure carved from basalt.

'It's impossible to know just how old the pre-contact pieces are,' Mercer says. 'Stone isn't an organic material, so we can't use carbon-14 dating to determine when it was created.'

He points out the distinctive characteristics that define the sculptures created by the tribes that dwelled along the Columbia River.

'All of the faces have a a single brow ridge that connects to the nose,' he says of the T-shaped feature. 'The faces are also broad and fairly round with a small mouth. They generally wore some sort of headdress, and the limbs were very small or nonexistent.'

Mask-making didn't appear to be an artistic priority for these tribes; Mercer is aware of only two that have been found, both of which are in the exhibition.

Bundles of baskets

The second section features the various basketry forms and techniques used by Columbia River tribes. One technique, which created the cylinder-shaped basket worn over the shoulder to gather berries and fish, wasn't done anywhere else in North America.

Beargrass, cattail, hemp, cedar root and cornhusk all were used to create the baskets, which are adorned with human and animal figures and bold designs.

The final portion of the exhibit is made up of the colorful beadwork that resulted from the tribes' contact with white people. The European glass beads that the settlers used for trade purposes replaced the rustic, earth-hued beads that the artisans had originally used. Numerous bags, dresses, shirts and moccasins are represented in the museum's collection of elaborate beadwork, the newest of which is dated circa 1940.

An independent style

Beyond their beauty and function, the Columbia River artifacts also merit review on academic principle.

'It's important to know that the Columbia River artistry is not derivative of the Northwest Coast style,' Mercer says, referring to the tribes that lived around Puget Sound and northward. 'We're assembling it for the first time so people can see it and identify it as distinctive from any other region in North America.'

He blames the delayed appreciation for the region's riches on archaeologists' perception of the area as less than exotic.

'This region, known as the Plateau, wasn't as appealing to researchers in the late 1800s. They preferred working in the Southwest and the Great Plains,' Mercer says. 'First of all, it was considered difficult to get to, and then there was a great disruption of the culture when the tribes people were forced onto reservations. So they basically said, 'Let's go somewhere that there's something going on.' '

Sadly, modern engineering has eliminated any further opportunity to look for additional artifacts.

'The dams along the Columbia River have completely ruined the (archaeological) resources,' he says. 'Most of it is underwater now.'