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We Are Still Dancing
       
by Kathy Pollard


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WE ARE STILL DANCING!
NATIVE AMERICAN PETROGLYPH SERIES
BY KATHY POLLARD


   There are only a few known locations in Maine where Native American artists long ago created beautiful pictures in stone, by pecking tiny dots into smooth rock surfaces until an image came forth. Archaeologists believe these petroglyphs, as they are called, date from about 3,000 years ago, to the time of contact with Europeans. All told, there are hundreds of figures and scenes, some still distinct, others faded with portions of the lines entirely worn. They comprise a collage of sorts, that poignantly portrays elements of the lives of the ancient Peoples who made their homes along the region's rivers, lakes, and maritime shore. At first, the figures may be hard to see, but in the right light, and after a time of studying them, individual pictures begin to emerge: serpents appear to undulate, while caribou, moose, canines, and felines march along the rock face as though en route to a distant destination--young, old, many hugely pregnant with life about to burst forth! Eagles, and a variety of people, turtles, fish, and several mysterious figures, all bear silent witness to the passing of time, and the changes that time brings. In one spot, a picture appears to depict a woman squatting in the traditional birthing position, with her baby's head visible, commemorating his or her arrival into the world. Another beautiful scene shows a woman standing with her arms outstretched, as if she is giving thanks, or praying. Flanked by two dogs, she might have been a medicine woman. Yet another picture hidden behind a curtain of seaweed shows what looks like a man and a woman holding a baby aloft between them--like a family portrait in stone! On a rock outcropping beside the Kennebec River, there is a man paddling in a birch bark canoe, bearing testament to the exquisitely beautiful, amazing technology that enabled The People to move more easily from place to place. Perhaps he is Klouscab, legendary Wabanaki hero, on his way to do battle with a nearby, ferocious-looking sea serpent, whose mouth is agape and arms are outstretched as if about to tear apart the delicate canoe! Many figures may portray shamans and their spirit helpers. Looking at the pictures today, we cannot know exactly what each was meant to say or represent, and thus there will always be an element of mystery attending them, and differing interpretations of their meaning.

   The petroglyph sites are sacred to Maine's Native Americans, yet until recently, few scholars consulted the decendants of the original artists for help in deciphering the context of these beautiful works of art. Now, there is more recognition that there are elements of tribal stories and legends in the pictures and many are acknowledged to have spiritual, religious and ceremonial significance. Sadly, over time, the petroglyphs have been exposed to the ravages of wind, sand, and the tides, and more recently, acid rain, as well as occasional vandalism, and many have worn to the extent that they may not be visible for future generations to view--even if they are spared from eventual destruction as development encroaches with its bulldozers and backhoes. Some of the variables that contribute to the demise of the petroglyphs cannot be controlled, yet others can be. Even when we disagree on the interpretation of a picture's meaning, most who see the petroglyphs can agree that they are treasures whose fate and continued existence will be influenced by how committed we are to their preservation. That many of them have survived thousands of years to only recently be jeopardized by such accelerated wear and tear that they may imminently disappear forever certainly should be a wake-up call to action.

   I first saw the petroglyphs at Machias Bay and along the Kennebec River, at Embden, about fifteen years ago, and I was deeply moved by them. They seemed to comprise a celebration of life as it was for the people then; an array of pictures depicting the inextricable link between family, community, the spirit world, animals, and the environment--and their vulnerability to Nature's capricious generosity. These Picture Rocks, as some people call them, provide a lasting glimpse back in time, and the ancient artists have unwittingly gifted us with a treasure trove of insight into their culture and lives. The petroglyph sites have historical significance as well for contemporary Maine Indians, because they were places where large groups of people met seasonally for thousands of years--a tradition that continued into the 1800's--long after Europeans subsumed the region and customary hunting/fishing/harvesting grounds were beginning to be walled off into privately owned tracts of land. Stories passed down from both early settlers and today's tribal peoples describe how at Machias Bay, for instance, hundreds of birch bark canoes would be pulled up to shore at certain times of year, when the People would come together to hunt caribou and moose, and fish the waters of the bay, dig clams, and harvest the sweetgrass that still adorns many traditional baskets made by contemporary Wabanaki artisans. At day's end, the story fires would be lighted, and there would be dancing and singing long into the night, with the rhythm of the drums reverbrating across the bay and off rock outcroppings, like a thundering pulse beat, a heartbeat of an entire culture on the brink of unprecidented change...

   Recently, my daughter Ann and I visited a petroglyph site that we had just heard about. As we were carefully stepping over smooth rocks searching for images, we encountered pictures of a fish, several moose, an eagle, and what looked like the face of a woman who seemed to be watching over the now quiet place that was once vibrant with the sounds of dogs barking, children laughing, and all the activity one would associate with village life beside the sea. Suddenly, in an awed tone, Ann exclaimed, "Look at this series of people holding hands--I think they are doing the Round Dance!" Ann is 12, and a member of the Penobscot Nation, and she dances the same dance in tribal celebrations. I could see the spark of pride in her eyes as she studied this beautiful picture that may be more than a thousand years old. Despite so many changes since the people used to gather there, despite a hundreds of years old campaign by the dominant culture--only recently ended--to obliterate Native languages, Native religions, traditions, and lifeways, Indian people today--everywhere--are still dancing, still celebrating, still telling stories around the fire...still distinct tribal groups and Nations whose cultural continuity stretches back to time immemorial! In that hallowed place, Ann could easily have linked hands with the ancient dancers, and stepped into the circle. All of the pictures were beautiful, but that one in particular stood for so much--and what a wonderful gift from the far reaches of time, left by an artist who likely never even imagined what the future would bring!

   It was this sense of pride and wonder and connection that first moved me to begin the "We Are Still Dancing!" petroglyph series. I wanted it to be a celebration of the beauty of Native American cultures and the miracle of their continued existence, against great odds, today! However, I did not simply become inspired, and then immedately start reproducing examples of these ancient artists' work! Rather, once the idea came to me, I prayed and meditated about it for a long time, to be sure that I should proceed. I spent many, many hours at the sites, studying the petroglyphs, and immersing myself in the sacredness and ambient beauty. In praying, I asked the spirits of the artists if it would be OK to reproduce their work, and I asked them and the Creator to help guide me. I knew that if they did not want me to proceed with the project, there would be no way that I could. There is a funny thing about making art: I can assemble all of the materials for a piece, and begin the journey from idea to finished product, but if that image in my mind's eye was not meant to be brought forth, no amount of time spent trying on my part can force it into existence!

   When I did not meet with a negative response to my request, I began the next phase of the project: choosing which petroglyphs to reproduce. There are so many pictures, and many differing interpretations of what those pictures represent! In the end, I decided to trust the intuitive process, and allow myself to be guided. I hoped to convey the essence of the grace and beauty they embody, so that if a viewer never saw them as they are on the rocks, at least some of their allure would be brought through in my interpretation of the original works. Likewise, I felt that the message I could impart--in adding a part of me to the original art--would be to demonstrate the humanity of the ancient Native American culture(s). So often that humanity is lost in the history book depiction of Native Americans, and in the academic analysis of what little remains of the material culture--and even in the language of the "authoritative" descriptions of the petroglyphs themselves! I wanted to show through the pictures, that these peoples were ALIVE, and that they lived their lives with dignity, spirituality, beauty, intelligence, humor, passion, wisdom, and grace. I feel that many of the pictures do not require explicit knowledge of the culture they came from to understand and be moved by them, because they depict universal themes that resonate at the core of our shared humanity. These are the petroglyphs I have tended to select to reproduce, and often when I begin work on one, the background and the title for the piece comes through, as if someone unseen watching quietly beside me whispered in my ear.

   Building the sweetgrass portion of the basket around the featured petroglyph is a long process. As the rest of the piece begins to take shape, my mind is free to muse and wander. As I work, my thoughts frequently turn from the picture in my hands, to the bigger picture of the world at large today. Anyone who tunes into the news has to wonder where it will all end up. Even without looming terrorism and war, it can be mindboggling to contemplate how much life has changed just in a few generations here in America. In my grandparents' time, they lived from the land, and knew the cycles and rhythms and their place in the scheme of things. Really, it hardly matters where on earth people lived before the twentieth century, their lives were similar: whether it was my mother's parents--whose people lived for thousands of years along the west coast and islands of Ireland--or my father's German ancestors who farmed the midwest, or his father's Native American ancestors whose original home was in the mountains and river valleys of the Southeast. They were all were a part of the circle, not apart from the circle. Regardless of race or national origin, most people had to come by the food that sustained them by either catching it, growing it or gathering it. A blackberry was understood to be a fruit gathered in late summer, that sweetened the table all year. You went out with a basket to where they grew, and gathered them. Sometimes the harvest was abundant, sometimes, there were few. Now, people mostly run to the grocery store or fast food chain to get their meals, and the word blackberry has an entirely new and different meaning. In times past, the elders could have shared with the next generation the best places to gather blackberries, and anything else that was necessary for survival. Their wisdom would have been greatly valued. Now, at first appearance, it would seem that there is little of value that the elders can impart on the current generation with all the changes in the way we live and the vast leaps in technological advances. And yet, ironically, it is the echos of my father's words that I heard so often all through my growing years that I hear when I work, words that join the murmuring of voices of the wise sages on down through the ages: With all of the advances, what has humanity contributed to the health and condition of this Earth, our only home? What other animals will see their last breath forever upon this planet as a result of alterations to habitat and environment, and our single-minded consumption of resources? Why are humans the only species that consciously commits acts of genocide upon oneanother? In a place of such abundance, why do people still starve, and perish from diseases for which there are cures?

   Most importantly, when we look around at all of the conflict and wars, and we look past the notion of one group being "right", and the other "wrong", or one being "superior" and another, "inferior", what we see are people: human beings of every shape and color--families; sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, friends. We see people with the same struggles everywhere, just trying to survive, to raise their children amidst the uncertainties of natural forces and in so many cases, the chaos and incomprehensible paradigm of dominance and war...There may be different ways of worshiping, different folk heros and cultural stories, different languages and customs, but when one group comes along and mandates that the other's ways are all wrong, and uses force to attempt to destroy all that threatens their version of truth, the wisdom and treasures that contribute to the richness of us all can be lost...forever. To me, the petroglyphs speak powerfully not only of what was lost and what survived here in North America, when races and cultures collided--but on a more global level, they remind us that we have come to a time when, as a whole, our very continued survival on earth relies upon a shift in beliefs and values, and a greater recognition of the need to live in balance. This shift can be guided by what has survived of the wisdom of those ancient Americans who left their legacy upon smooth rocks beside water, and in the stories passed to those who followed them down through the millenia to this present day. Thus, what started, for me, as a journey to reproduce the petroglyphs to exemplify and to celebrate the miraculous survival of what could easily have been eradicated through several hundred years of oppression here in America, now seems additionally to be a celebration for all of humanity, that the very ways that the dominant culture tried so hard to destroy may ultimately be the wisdom needed to save the world...

   After all these years of visiting the petroglyph sites, that sense of awe that I felt when I first saw them has never diminished, and it is with deep appreciation of and respect for the original artists that I borrow these images in my work. I dedicate this "WE ARE STILL DANCING!" petroglyph basket series to all the ancient artists who were inspired to record vignettes of their lives. With my words and my interpretations in my art, I hope I have done them justice.

    Finally, it is my hope that if the pictures move you, the viewer, it will be with the sense that no matter who your people are or where you come from, we are truly not so different from oneanother. We all love, laugh, play, dream, cry, sing, hope, dance, pray. We are all part of the beautiful, diverse human family sharing the same home. It is through recognition of our shared vulnerabilities and joys that we see past our differences to the collective miracle of life unfolding, in all its great mystery and beauty here on earth--such a small space in the entirety of the universe and eternity. I often think that if we could just take a break from our separate lives and step into that same circle with the ancient dancers, and join hands with them and each other, the whole world could celebrate peace!
 
OCTOBER 2006