Karuk Winter Youth Camp: Artisans and Oral Tradition…Say What?

Karuk Youth show their dresses while Crystal Richardson tells the traditional story of the Maidens gathering Injun Potatoes./Photo by Julie Burcell. Karuk People’s Center

By LISA HILLMAN, TRT Contributing Writer

Despite impeding weather, the Karuk Department of Natural Resources held its third event for tribal youth, family and community members in Happy Camp on February 7 and 8.

Julie Burcell, Karuk Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and Coordinator of the People’s Center Museum, was surprised to see such a large turnout considering the road conditions.

“We planned for 40, but didn’t expect to have as many once the snow started falling.”

Youth, families, elders and little tykes graced the open hall during registration along with traditional baskets, dresses, artifacts, an extensive contemporary art exhibition from Karuk artist Brian Tripp, stands with regalia, drums and jewelry from local artisans.

Despite the roads, Rosie, 8, and Susanna, 11, Quim came from Yreka because their Grandma Blanche Moore brought them. Asked what they’d like to learn about during the camp, they both started talking animatedly: “We wanna learn Karuk stories!” “Yep!”

Basil Conrad, 12, was broader in his interest: “I want to learn everything I can.”

The event commenced in the museum with traditional prayer and a welcoming speech from Karuk Tribal Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery.

“For the Tribal Council, these events mean everything. They exemplify what we repeat every day in our mission statement about protecting and preserving our traditions and customs.”

Tying in the overall focus of reclaiming the tradition of using Native foods and the goals of the Tribe,” he said, “It’s all a part of food security – we’re not far away from that way of life.”

Upon welcoming Karuk artist Brian Tripp, he spoke of the power of having the outside world learn and understand how valuable Karuk traditional knowledge is for a sustainable future.

Tribal Elder and artist, Tripp began with relating the path he took leading to his art and his return from his “coastal Indian” existence to the tribal homeland along the mid-Klamath River.

“I love it…being back where I was supposed to be,” he said.

Coming from a logging family, Brian took his turn setting chokers. But, he always knew he was an artist. During the early years of his work, he banded together with other artists to take advantage of the affirmative action directive.

“In those days, you weren’t supposed to be discriminating, so we were invited to exhibit at all kinds of places – museums, galleries, universities…. Soon they realized, ‘hey – this stuff is good!’” he said.

“I realized that being a Karuk artist gave me an advantage. It helps me explain myself. It’s based on something that’s very different than what most others have.”

To him, the most important thing he had going for himself was “the Indian thing.” The numerous paintings, statuettes, and figurines speak to a very different reality: Brian Tripp is an accomplished artist in his own right.

Of the many pieces he presented, “On the Prowl,” which used the medium of driftwood and paint to invoke the body of a cat, found particular interest among the children. An abstract painting with metallic details told the creation story of the Orleans Maiden.

One of the participants called out, “Hey Brian, tell me how much I would have to pay for one of those sculptures.”

Head bent slightly down, Brian looked at the audience with a sly smile and said, “It varies.” Resounding laughter burst from the crowd.

“It’s really great to see a Karuk artist showing his Karuk art at the People’s Center,” Julie Burcell said. “Brian has been asked to exhibit his work all over the Northwest, but he’s never shown in his own Ancestral Territory.”

She noted how good it is to see the kids in the museum and divulged that she’d like to showcase more tribal artists in the future and tie Food Security Project activities into what they’re trying to do at the Museum. While she could imagine many people might have difficulty understanding how these fit together logically, she sees the connection with the items in the museum and Native foods: having enough and celebrating the bounty of the homeland.

Asking some of the youth what they expect to learn about oral traditions, most were perplexed.

Manual Moon, 12, says haltingly, “I’m not sure what to think about “Karuk Oral Tradition—not really.” Looking up with clear brown eyes, he amends, “but I’m interested and that’s why I’m here.”

Unabashedly, Avora Arwood, 10, asked the question, “What does “oral” mean?”

In the old gym, Sociologist, college lecturer, and Karuk spiritual leader David Tripp delivered the keynote speech—An Introduction to Oral Traditions.

Director of the Karuk Department of Natural Resources Leaf Hillman led the group in a discussion about Native foods and their place in the Karuk oral tradition. He began by asking the group the question: What all might be meant by the term, Oral Tradition?

Songs, Pihnêefich stories, prayers are all answers that come quickly from an attentive audience.

And, what purpose do they serve?

The crowd hesitated before the first hands rose slowly.

“They tell us how things came to be,” explained Bobby Burr.

“They pass down our heritage,” added David Tripp.

A Karuk teen followed with the suggestion that the oral traditions teach us lessons and give instruction.

More ideas came quickly as the group engaged in full force.

Karuk Council Member Joshua Saxon primes tribal youth on the art of making fish traps./Photo by Julie Burcell, Karuk People’s Center

Hillman said, “They connect the instructions of the first People to us and serve as a linkage to the here and now and to all time.”

Robert Super, whose work along with that of other Native artisans was displayed throughout the duration of the camp in the open Museum, added, “Yeah, oral traditions teach lessons about how things were prescribed – and engage the next generation.”

On cue, Taden Brink, 10, offered to share a story with the group, and the room quieted down to enjoy the story of how birds got their colors.

An impressive number of cultural practitioners shared their skills and knowledge during the demonstrations and workshops focusing on making regalia. Phil Albers opened the workshops with an introduction to Regalia and engaged the audience with foundational questions.

“Why do we even make regalia?” he asked.

His sons, E’haan and Gaven, bravely helped perform a coyote story. Their focus of interest was the oral in the oral traditions, “We want to learn all the Karuk words!”

Josh Saxon demonstrated the art of making fish traps. Daniel Goodwin shared his expertise in animal skinning for hides to a gaggle of boys and curious girls. Crystal Richardson showed participants how to make maple bark skirts and jewelry. And Paula McCarthy and Brittany Frank taught bear grass braiding.

Kara Brink, 10, whose father cooked the salmon for the event, was an avid participant. Although she already had experience in basketweaving, she was interested in learning more.

“I haven’t done the overlay yet,” she said shyly.

The event was highlighted by a show of traditional maple bark skirts, pine nut necklaces and beautiful caps on a processional of tribal girls. Cultural practitioner Crystal Richardson told a story about maidens gathering Injun potatoes and the young males who tricked them of their harvest. The audience chimed in to a gathering song sung by Crystal and the girls.

Questions were answered, and the youth felt empowered by their new knowledge at the closing of the event.

Taden Brink announced to his grandma, “Phil just showed me how to hit the obsidian to make it break off!”

Facilitator Ron Reed, Cultural Biologist, said proudly, “We’re trying to create a platform for a discussion of information, passing knowledge from generation to generation. Our vision for a final product at the end of this five-year grant is that individual families can enjoy this sort of environment we’ve created. Gesturing to the collected audience, he notes the power of having elders and babies all in the same room.

This project was funded by the USDA-Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture Grant #2012-68004-20018.

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