In the late 1960s, Adelaide De Menil spent several years traveling to Northwest Coast villages to photograph weathered totem poles, cemeteries, and village sites. Now De Menil has donated a major portion of that photography collection — which includes more than 20,000 images — to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.
“The photographs, taken between 1966 and 1968, illustrate in haunting clarity a monumental sculptural tradition on the brink of extinction,” says George MacDonald, director of the Burke Museum. “They document the culture of the Pacific Northwest Coast like no other work since that of Edward S. Curtis.”
Many of De Menil’s images, together with poetic text written by Haida artist Bill Reid, were published in the 1971 book Out of the Silence and helped to document a pivotal moment in Northwest Coast history. At the time, Northwest Coast culture indeed appeared silent to outsiders. No new poles had been raised for decades, and few people still alive remembered or practiced the traditions that gave the poles their meaning.
“At nearly a hundred villages and cemeteries on the Northwest Coast, some of the greatest sculptures in the world were on the verge of disappearing,” says MacDonald. “The importance of the De Menil collection lies in its outstanding record of the last vestiges of a sculptural tradition that had, for the most part, died out.”