This blog post began as an effort to showcase my son Jonah’s “genius” (you’ll forgive a dad trying shep a little nachas from his boychik). Part of that story involves the book my son and I are currently reading at bedtime: Spirit of the Cedar People. But the more research I did on the book’s author, Chief Lelooska (Don Smith) the more amazed I became at the depth and breadth of his artistic accomplishment.
Let’s first begin by talking about children’s literature. There’s so much dreck out there it isn’t funny. It gets to the point where when I’m reading a book to Jonah about Curious George or Bill Cosby’s Little Bill, I have to change the text as I read it in order to keep myself from dying of boredom. Jonah doesn’t like this too much as he’s a stickler for keeping things as they are and as they should be. But he’s a good sport about daddy’s shenanigans most of the time.
All this by way of saying how much I enjoy a really good children’s book (and there are so many of them out there). But one of my all-time favorites is Spirit of the Cedar People. It is a collection of stories told by Chief Lelooska and compiled by Christine Normandin. The extraordinary artwork accompanying the text is also by Lelooska. The book is accompanied by a CD of the chief reading his own stories. In addition, he introduces each story with singing and drumming. If this guy had been a rock musician he’d be the one who recorded an album on which he sang all the parts and played all the instruments. It’s really quite a remarkable artistic achievement. And the book shows it. Besides the books’ contents, it is gorgeously printed and typeset. You can tell this was a labor of love, even infinite love. So different from some of the slap dash children’s books you find these days.
Amazon’s blurb accompanying Lelooska: Life of a Northwest Coast Artist provides a short bio that is helpful in getting a grasp of the artists background:
“Don Smith, or Lelooska, (1933-1996) was well-known in the Pacific Northwest as a Native American artist and storyteller. Of “mixed-blood” Cherokee heritage, he was adopted as an adult by the prestigious Kwakiutl Sewid clan and had relationships with elders from a wide range of tribal backgrounds. Initially producing curio items for sale to tourists and regalia for Oregon Indians, he emerged in the late 1950s as one of a handful of artists who proved critical in the renaissance of Northwest Coast Indian art. He also developed into a supreme performer and educator, staging shows of dances, songs, and storytelling. During the peak years from the 1970s to the early 1990s, the family shows, with Lelooska as the centerpiece, attracted as many as 30,000 people annually.”
The book cover art and other images here will give you some idea of the richness of Chief Lelooska’s work.
And here’s the story I originally intended to tell about Jonah. After immersing himself in the artwork of Spirit of the Cedar People for the past few nights, I heard him say while we were driving to preschool that he saw “an Indian ‘E’.” I had no idea what he meant and pretty much ignored the comment. The next day, also on the way to preschool and passing by the same spot he again told me about the Indian E. I looked up and sure enough, there was a electrician’s truck with a company logo painted on its side. The first letter was a large stylized “E” which contained within it NW Native images. What struck me about this was it showed that Jonah had absorbed the NW Native art style sufficiently that he could recognize it when he saw it in an entirely different context (on the side of a truck). Amazing, if I do say so myself.