Exquisitely designed in barbaric colors, the rugs of the Ojibway are true native art
MABEL CREWS RINGLANDApril151929
Exquisitely designed in barbaric colors, the rugs of the Ojibway are true native art
MABEL CREWS RINGLAND
WHEN starting on our summer adventure into the northland, we expected many joyous surprises, but we were not prepared to unearth, in the far hinterland, an exquisite native art. We had heard of Batchewana rugs and hoped to find a few of them, but it was primarily the marvelous fishing that brought us so far from home into the Lake Superior country of Ontario known as Algoma, the haunt of deer and moose, bear and wolf, wild goose and grouse and mammoth speckled trout. And such a country!
Algoma, as the name implies, the hidden, unknown, unspoiled land! Seldom does one see landscape so exactly as God made it, so pristine in its freshness, so sweet and crisp and unsullied, so altogether irresistible. That is, if you like to take your scenery straight, unadorned by gas stations, billboards and barbecues. One drives north from Sault Ste. Marie on a newly-made road that gives access to one of the greatest undeveloped areas of Canada, one of the few parts that has resisted the inroads of the white man and his civilization.
"DEFORE you are aware, you are plunged deep into virgin wilderness, the land of the Ojibway, far-famed by Longfellow as the Hiawatha country. This vast wooded stretch, with its towering virgin timber, extends along the east and north shores of Lake Superior—the mighty Gitche Gurnee of the poem — forming a territory a thousand miles wide, with the Turtle Mountains of Manitoba its western boundary. And the lords of this great hunting-ground were, until recent times, the warriors of the great Ojibway nation, to which Hiawatha the peacemaker belonged. In fact, it was on the present site of Sault Ste. Marie that the village of Pawiting, the home of Hiawatha, stood and the whole district is fairly steeped in legend and folk-lore relating to his life. Three hundred years ago, when Etienne Brule and Grenolle, the first white men to see the St. Marys Rapids and Lake Superior, landed at Pawiting in 1622, it was the sacred shrine of the Ojibways to which they made pilgrimages, and the rapids were the most sacred spot of all, for here they believed their ancestors had been created and the tribes blessed before they dispersed northward and westward around the lake.
It seems a far cry from those vivid days in the history of the Ojibway, the days of the tepee and the tomahawk, the war paint and the wampum, to the quiet little settlements here and there on the shores of Lake Superior, where the male descendants of these warlike aborigines now live in cosy log cabins and ply their peaceful trades of fishing and farming, of guiding and trapping, and the women their native arts. The colorful past with all its picturesque phases is gone, but to our delight we found it being recreated by the Indian women, in the Batchewana rugs that are at once so primitive and so beautiful.
Hooked rugs they are, to be sure, but quite unlike any hooked creations we ever saw before. The colors are often barbaric though never crude, dyed when necessary with grasses and roots, by native methods used for centuries. The materials used are a skilful combination of silk, cotton and wool rags, while the work is so perfectly done at times that one would declare it to be machine-made. But the significant thing is the total absence of conventional or commonplace designs. The rugs so ingeniously fashioned by the squaws during the long winter months, represent nothing but original, primitive and symbolic pictures portraying some features of everyday Indian life, some phase of the wild beauty of the country, some picturesque legend of long ago.
“Where do you get your designs?” I asked a quaint old woman who was busily working on a half-finished rug that already showed a couple of canoes, an encampment, and huge pots simmering over glowing fires.
“Just draw them like this,” and she demonstrated ner skill at sketching in the design with a blue pencil on the sugar sacking which was her canvas. “Work him out little at time. See how him look. Sometimes good, sometimes bad,” and she smiled faintly as she went back to her task.
No efforts, however diplomatic, could persuade the ancient craftswoman to pose for a snapshot with her unfinished rug. “You want pictures, take yo’ own picture,” she said bluntly, and that was the end of it as far as she was concerned. But her daughter, more versed in modern ways, consented to pose for me, with her two children and the grandmother’s work of art in the frame.
But while some of the designs are quite obviously created impromptu, as it were, many of them are worked out carefully beforehand and have all the balance and symmetry of an artist’s drawing. But they are always rugs with a story, rugs that perpetuate the traditions of a great and primitive people. For the Ojibways have no recorded histories, because theirs has been a spoken, rather than a written language. According to legend, it was Hiawatha who first suggested the use of a sign or picture language, so that the words and achievements of their great chiefs and warriors might be preserved, the graves marked, messages sent to absent friends and compatriots—the very method which the native women are utilizing to-day through a different medium.
Some of the rugs are delightful for boys’ and girls’ rooms, used either on walls or floor, notably the two hunting scenes. One attractive rug shows “Hiawatha the Hunter” going forth with the fine bow made for him by Iagoo on his first hunting adventure. The green pine-trees, the rushing brook, red setting sun and the brown deer make a typical Algoma scene, for up in this country deer and moose will actually stand and look at human beings, their natural fear of man overcome by curiosity. In contrast is “Hunters in Winter” whose white background represents the season Peboan. Armed with fire-sticks instead of arrows, shod with snowshoes and clad in picturesque orange, red and brown costumes, these Ojibway hunters go forth in quest of game, while up a tree in the foreground climbs Ajidaumo, the squirrel, friend of Hiawatha, who, according to the legend, assisted him in his fight with the great sturgeon, king of fishes.
“The Three Swans” is eminently suitable for a child’s room, with its crisp, graceful white swans against a black ground, the yellow waterlilies and cattails in green and brown supplying the color note. It recalls the legend of the red swan which lured a young hunter far from home. Failing to hit it with his whole quiverful of arrows, the youth finally pierced it with one of three magic arrows taken disobediently from his deceased father’s medicine-sack, but could not bring it down. According to the folktale, the swan flew away with the magic arrow in its neck but returns every fine evening, flushing the sky with the glowing splendor of its plumage and staining the waves with its crimson blood.
Two lovely rugs that show great detail of design and delicate skill in workmanship I like to call “Evening in Camp” and “The Bear Prowls at Sunset.” In the former, by a fire and caldron sit two chiefs:
Painted like the sky of morning,
Streaked with crimson, blue and yellow,
Crested with great eagle-feathers.
On either side are strange-looking bark tepees, each with a fire inside and flames issuing from a hole in the roof. It is many years since such a structure was built by the Indians, so that these designs must have been conceived by one of the older women. In the other design a lonely bear is shown on the shore of a lake just as the sun is setting in gorgeous sunset tints, making a path of glorious color on the water. Straight lines, used as symbols for the pines and spruce-trees, both on the mainland and on the islands, are most artistic, but the symbolism of the inscription at top and bottom is a mystery. In both rugs the effective use of black on a white background is most striking and the result amazingly clear-cut and appealing.
Of a very different type but equally artistic are the animal and bird designs in which humans do not figure. “The Great Bear,” Mishe-Mukwa, the terror of the nations in Hiawatha’s day, stands against a white ground, bulky and brown, and as in the poem, “Like a rock with mosses on it, spotted brown and gray with mosses.” He is framed in an Oriental border of softly blending colors. Legend has it that Mudjekeewis, the great West Wind and father of Hiawatha, went forth alone and single-handed to thé lair of the great bear of the mountains, and shouting aloud his war-cry, smote him with his war club and “Broke his skull as ice is broken when one goes to fish in winter,” thus winning great honor in the tribe.
“The Eagle Aloft” is a design full of action and perfect in detail. Against a pale blue ground spread the shapely wings of this massive brown and white king of the air, just as long ago it sailed round and round in narrowing circles, hovering over Hiawatha as he went forth in his birch canoe to slay Pearl-Feather, the evil magician.
Ojibway Legends For Walls
A LTHOUGH any of these rugs may be used effectively as wall hangings, the two larger ones, “Beavers at Work” and “Wawa, the Wild Goose,” lend themselves especially well to this decorative use. One like the latter which hangs in our livingroom and two others in the den, have been enthusiastically admired, for they meet the modern flair for a patch of vivid color on the wall, with the added charm of the story they suggest. As a simple expedient for hanging them without mutilating the walls, we evolved the following satisfactory scheme. A thin, flat strip of metal was bought, bound with cotton and whipped to the back of the rug at the top, and a couple of light rings were sewed to it. These hang on metal push-pins and hold the rug firm and straight. If the corners are inclined to curl, a few inches of covered light wire may be tacked to the underside.
In “Beavers at Work” the rug-maker has done a skilful piece of hooking, especially in the light background of water and sky which silhouettes in bold relief the busy brown forms of Ahmeek, the beaver, framed at either side by graceful bulrushes. It recalls the legend how, fleeing from Hiawatha, one of his enemies begged to be changed into a beaver, when escaping he came
To a streamlet still and tranquil That had overflowed its margin,
To a dam made by the beavers,
To a pond of quiet water,
Where knee-deep the trees were standing
Where the water-lilies floated,
Where the rushes waved and whispered.
It would be hard to imagine a more exquisite piece of rug-making than “Wawa, the Wild Goose” in full flight, honking across an azure sky dotted with shapely clouds, with waterlilies and bulrushes in marked color contrast, just as Hiawatha, on his seven-day fast, saw and heard them—Shapely bodies full of action, white with brown wings, and eye, bill and feet delicately fashioned of orange silk.
The legends of Hiawatha’s time even explain the prevalence of the bulrush in this great northland. In the fierce conflict between Hiawatha and Mudjekeewis, the West Wind, Hiawatha pretended that Apukwa, the bulrush, was the only thing that could harm him. So Mudjekeewis, in rage, uprooted a giant bulrush and with it pursued Hiawatha throughout all the land where
Still the hunter sees the traces
Scattered far o’er hill and valley;
Sees the giant bulrush growing
By the ponds and watercourses.
Of the dozens of rugs I have examined, both at this remote Indian village and other settlements, I have yet to find two that were alike. It is doubtful if they could be made identical in every detail. But the rug-makers can reproduce any of these designs to order. A letter addressed to the writer, in care of this magazine, enclosing a two-cent stamp, will bring a reply telling where the rugs may be obtained.
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