Animation Celebration at American Indian Museum

Originally posted at GalleryCrawl

Under Pseudonym: Wilton Yankee

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is screening three short films daily through February as part of their“Animation Celebration!” Every exhibition, screening, lecture, and workshop at NMAI provides an opportunity for visitors to explore nuanced perspectives of Native American culture, which is often underrepresented in the art world. “Animation Celebration!: Part 1” is no exception.

The first film, by Jarrett and Trent Twoyoungmen, North Peak, is a simple, four-minute stop-motion animation piece about a mouse who wishes to become an eagle. Narrated in the Stoney language of British Columbia’s first people, this dialogue-free piece cultivates a sense of mystery through its music, heavy shadows, and shots cluttered with bushes and rivers. Transformation is one of the most revered abilities in Native American Mythology, where the cosmos are not created and maintained by unswerving gods, but by tricksters like Raven and Coyote, who can alter their physical form to best manipulate any situation. Thus, other creatures doubt the ability of this lowly mouse, who is reminiscent of a tattered finger puppet, to transform into an eagle. But the mouse proves willing to sacrifice anything for this goal, including his own body parts, which he serially trades to other animals in exchange for their help. Legless, eyeless, and earless, the mouse takes flight as an eagle in the last scene.

The second film, Raven Tales: Raven and the First People, is rendered in two-dimensional animation based on the traditional masks of Simon James, co-creator along with Chris Kientz. While more cartoonish than North Peak, the film is more conceptually sophisticated. Its narrative is a reinterpretation of a ubiquitous Pacific Northwest myth in which Raven frees the first people from a giant clamshell. In this retelling, Raven is not the only higher being involved. The Native American animal spirits are transformed into a sort of pantheon, in which Eagle is the Apollo to Raven’s Hermes. But there is also another trickster, Frog, who, in her limited role, appears to be a force of pure chaos. Frog leads Raven to the clamshell containing Man, and he must strike a balance between Eagle’s order and Frog’s disorder to govern these new creatures. By adding these elements with comic flare and animation, Kientz and James exchange some of the power of the original myth for the freedom to include more themes. The symbolic image of Raven-the-trickster slamming his fiery beak into the clamshell that confines man, killing many but exposing those who survive to a greater reality, is lost. But Raven and the First People takes a cue from Raven himself: it lightheartedly reverses the gender roles of most mythology and pokes fun at figures of order. Women arrive in a separate clamshell than men and quickly learn to hunt and craft clothing, two things the buffoon-like men are incapable of. In an effort to teach them, Eagle employs tactics from many modern-day incantations of Apollo, from gym teachers to army generals, but fails every time. Ultimately, Raven gives up, tricks the men and women into a single clamshell, and sends them back to sea. In doing so, he succeeds where Eagle could not. When the two spirits finish their patrol and return to the beach, they find a burgeoning society of men. Atop their totem poles stands the face of Raven, a testament to the spirit that brought them back to the beach and has inspired artwork from those early totems to this piece of animation – a subtle, self-reflexive touch.

The last film, Wapos Bay: The Elements, is a twenty-four minute claymation piece by Melanie Jackson. The story threatens to be predictably didactic when one child, Little Bear, strands his camping party in an ice storm with no fuel, food, or radio because he incessantly plays a hand-held video game and never listens to his elders. Little Bear inevitably learns the value of traditional ways, but also helps himself and everyone else by fixing the radio, presumably because of his experience with electronics. This concession that some modern equipment and knowledge is helpful even for native people, whose ability to survive in the arctic is unparalleled, speaks to the adaptability necessary to life in the far north. And the detailed claymation, which is stunning throughout this long piece, carries the narrative.

“Animation Celebration!: Part 1” makes visiting NMAI this month even more stimulating than normal. If you have time before or after the show, peruse the museum’s two galleries.Identity by Design follows the history of traditional women’s clothing: the bead-work and stitching are masterful, and the progression tells a story of women crafting their identity through their artwork. The other show, Fritz Scholder: indian not indian, explores the work of a NYC artists who strove to create work entirely outside of his heritage. The whole museum is free, and the George Gustav Heye Center is a work of art on its own. So get down there before the last showing of these films on Saturday, February 28th.

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