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Shakes Bear screen carving to get underway

 

Greg Knight

Master carver Steve Brown, seen here with the rejuvenated Chilkat Blanket screen, is currently working on a new cedar screen for the exterior and interior of Chief Shakes Tribal House..

The traditional cedar screen that will adorn the face of the renovated Chief Shakes Tribal House will spring from bare wood beginning this week – and give colorful life to the new building, courtesy of master carver Steve Brown and his crew of adzers.

According to Brown, the past week saw the cedar used on the screen adzed, joined and the traditional design drawn on its face courtesy of some high-tech methods.

“We’re wrapping up the adzing of the boards and the surface will have the same hand-hewn texture as the rest of the house, only it’ll be done to a little finer scale because we will have to paint on it,” Brown said. “Our next task is to use a projector to place the image of the original Bear screen onto the boards and we’ll pencil in the design. Then we’ll start painting it and finally we will carve the background away.”

The design used will replicate the original Bear screen used in the 1940 Potlatch, though with different types of paint and a few changes in size.

“The opening in the original screen was only three feet high and that is a little small for people to crawl through, so we are going to enlarge that doorway,” Brown added. “The original design will be slightly modified from the one that was on the front since 1940. The paint will also follow the original color scheme, though it was originally done with salmon binder Native paint and red ochre pigments. We will use a latex acrylic paint that has the same matte finish as the original and it will be close to the same hue of the black and red.”

While the new screen will be on the front of the building in summer months, it can also be disassembled like the original to form an interior wall for the “hít s’aatí” or apartment for the head of the household.

“It was primarily an interior screen and occasionally they stood outside during a “ku.éex’” or Potlatch,” Brown said. “So the plan is to not leave it out there over the winter, which will decrease its life considerably, but to have it up during the summer and bring it inside during the winter.”

The original screen for the house, which was last dedicated in 1940 during a Potlatch ceremony on the island, is now in the possession of the Denver Art Museum, where it is a part of their Native Arts Department.

The museum’s website gives a glimpse into the historicity of the original screen.

“Screens like this one were used in large wooden houses to separate the clan leader’s sleeping area from the central areas of the house,” the website proclaims. “Clan houses were large and there could be up to six families living in each one. Screens fronting the sleeping quarters of nobility were painted with important family crests, which are symbols used to represent individual families. The clan leader would enter and exit the room through the hole in the center of the crest – a symbol of rebirth from his ancestors. Sometimes the screens were removed to open up the space for ceremonies. In front of these private rooms was a platform where the owner and his family sat.”

According to the museum, the image of the brown bear on the original screen represents the crest of the Shakes family, which records a clan myth in which two brown bears escaped death in a flood by climbing a mountain.

In one story, the site states, Natives killed one of the bears and took its head and skin to wear as a family crest during festivals. In another clan story, during the time when animals and humans were believed to have married, a male ancestor was captured by bears and forced to marry the female bear. Having managed to escape, he kept the bear symbol as a clan symbol.

A Chilkat blanket screen is also now inside the Shakes House and will remain as a permanent fixture inside the structure. Native artist Tom Ukas designed the screen in the 1950s, according to Brown.

Brown also added that the Bear screen would be ready just in time for the May rededication ceremony.

“It will done right before, or even a little earlier than the rededication,” he said.

 

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