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Northwest Coast Indian Painting: House Fronts and Interior Screensby Edward Malin
The Extraordinary Place of the Tongue
The portrayal of the tongue is surprisingly common in Northwest Coast painting. This repeated depiction of such an obscure anatomical part forces the sense that the tongue was of considerable symbolic significance to all the Northwest Coast native tribes from north to south. Tongues are to be found in both profile and frontal faces in the paintings. Most are associated with the predominant figures, or occasionally they are portrayed simply as decorative elements in the painting. By contrast a very elaborate tongue is given a central importance in a number of configurations.
Tongues appear more frequently on interior screen paintings than on house front paintings, except among the Tsimshian. The wolves positioned at the base of the Wolf Bath House screen ... , for example, possess long, slender, realistically drawn tongues. Extremely ornate tongue configurations are in the killer whales' mouths in Figures 1.1 (see right image). The central dominating figure in the Rain Wall Screen, the ocean-dwelling monster, was also provided with an elaborate tongue. The marvelous rendering of the four ravens in the Raven Screen (Figure 15, see left image below) is enhanced by the inclusion of the symbolic tongues ... [R]avens and thunderbirds , respectively, [often bear] ornate tongue configurations. The figure in the Southern Kwakiutl example ... likewise displays an intricate tongue.
There has been a good deal of speculation as to what all these elaborate tongues portray, whether in secondary or primary figures, or symbolize. To Aldona Jonaitis, writing about the Tlingit, the protruding tongue generally represents the immense power associated with the utterance of words that originate from supernatural mythological creatures (1986:135.) Tongues symbolize special kinds of communication as, for example, between a shaman and the beings in the spirit realm with whom the shaman associates. The imparting of special knowledge through mystic visions may be associated with tongue symbolism. Certainly the numerous ritual paraphernalia associated with chiefly rank and shamanism reveal countless examples of tongue connections between animal, bird, and other creatures of the supernatural realm; however, these renderings are seen on carvings rather than on flat paintings.
When these treasures are advanced to explain the symbolism of tongues in house front and screen paintings they fail, because the raising of flat paintings has never been shown to have anything to do with the workings of shamanism. The crests employed in flat painting may have indeed in the first instance been derived from ancestor exploits or at some point in the past been received as gifts in a spiritual quest. However, so many crests were, in contrast, derived not from such mythic undertakings but rather from the transfer of crest prerogatives amassed out of negotiated marriage dowries between the powerful and influential lineages and clans.
Stanley Walens, writing on the Southern Kwakiutl, advanced the alternative hypothesis that tongues symbolize the priorities the people gave to eating and feasting (1981:12). The central role of these activities in the lives of the native, particularly of feasting, seems to me to offer the most compelling explanation for the common portrayal of tongues. My own impression, garnered from periodic field work in the region, confirms this association of tongues with the act of eating with supernatural beings and with the concomitant ceremonialism such ritual feasts implied. The ostentatious display of food in quantities far beyond the amount that could be consumed by those attending a feast or potlatch and the subsequent abandonment of that food was a display of great wealth designed to impress and humble the guests. Such feast displays were in line with the principle values driving Northwest Coast Indian culture. Representing this practice in their art, native painters showed mythical creatures with large extended tongues and gaping maws to dramatize a gluttonous appetite, which in turn represented inordinate power and wealth.
Depictions of whales with mouths slightly open are commonplace in house front art but do not relate to tongue symbolism. They display teeth, not tongues, and appear to be hungry or poised to ravenously swallow victims. These designs were more likely intended to intimidate rivals.
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