NATIVE ARTS AND TRADITION
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Buck Morigeau traces the root of his art to a story about an Indian agent who delivered a pile of watches, cutlery, and gardening tools to the Salish in Arlee. When he returned, he was angered to find his gifts disassembled. The Salish had used them—in the ways they saw fit.
“The backs of watches made great earrings,” Morigeau says. “Spoons were sharpened into arrowheads. Hoe handles were turned into spears decorated in fur and leather. The blades became hide scrapers. They used the modern materials within their own vision of the world.”
That adaptation has helped Morigeau’s people—the Bitterroot Salish—survive. It’s also visible in his art; like the acrylic eagle he paints on a deer hide war shield. Morigeau embraces the new in order to preserve the old. “No matter how things change, my people are still alive,” he says. “We’re going to take what’s new and turn it into something we can use.”
As a kid, Morigeau pored over old pictures of Indians, using a magnifying glass to inspect their tools and dress. He listened to elders talk about the old ways. When they talked about fishing, he’d try to make a fish trap. Later, he used their stories to carve an elderberry flute, and fashion a hatchet. “Elders seemed to have a need to teach what they knew,” he says.
So Morigeau peppered them with questions: What’s the best wood for a bow? When do you collect it? How do you carve it? “I don’t think anyone thought I’d go out and cut one,” he says. “But when I would, they’d see it, and tell me more cool stuff.”
Morigeau incorporates modern materials into his art. Bobby pins and superglue secure the bustle feathers in his warrior dance outfit, for example. But he employs the old skills, too. He likes to work slowly. He drills holes using a bow-drill with a spindle of sharpened bone. He makes glue from pitch and charcoal, or rendered hide. But he’s also just as happy to use store-bought Elmer’s—another way he embraces the new while carrying his people’s history forward.
“That history is carried on in the art,” Morigeau says. “It’s there for people to see. Maybe kids born today will see the stuff I make and get inspired.”
His greatest fulfillment, though, comes when he shows an elder something he’s made and sees a spark of recognition in their eyes, like he’s resurrected something they thought was lost. “Boy that makes you feel good,” Morigeau says.