Dr. Thomas Foor is Professor Emeritus at The University of Montana, where he was on the anthropology faculty for 25 years. His research centers on art and culture of Native North America and Northern Europe. He received his Masters in Anthropology from The University of Montana, as well as his BA in geography.
Tell us about your experience with American Indian culture as an anthropologist?
As a child, I was raised with an understanding of Native culture in Montana because my grandparents settled in the Wolf Point area in the early 20th century, where they farmed and my grandfather also worked as a lawyer. He represented a number of clients from the Fort Peck Reservation. This is one of the reasons I wanted to study anthropology. I had learned from my grandparents that there were people living in the same place as they did and with very different histories and cultures.
As an anthropologist, I've always been interested in two things: our material culture - or how we express our hopes, aspirations and backgrounds through the items we possess and use - and how societies organize themselves. The cultures I wanted to understand in great depth were the peoples of North America. I started working with Native Nations on a variety of projects staring in the 1970s. The most recent example is a UM Archaeological Field School outside of Ashland on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation where we worked in conjunction with tribal members to understand the time depth to human occupation in this area. This included working with tribal elders and a field crew of about 20 students - half from Montana's Native Nations.
Is there a distinction in American Indian culture between art and life?
Not all societies are like our own in having a distinct category for what we call fine art or decorative art. In many cultures, the proper design of a tool involves making sure that there are representational figures or abstract figures on that tool. I learned that in working with a collection of halibut hooks from the Northwest coast. Each one was carved and decorated in a distinctive style and conveyed a different but important meaning to the people who made and used them.
What is the importance of birch bark scrolls as in those among Spirit Trails and Sky Beings? What can they teach us?
In our Native communities, there are people of several minds about art work that is being produced. One group says, "I want to be identified as just an artist--please don't call me a Native American artist." Others take great pride in the reference. On another level, I'm interested in how you preserve traditions - keep them alive - by producing works like these bark scrolls. Each one of the scrolls represents a traditional story among the Ojibwa. They can be and are used by today's generation to explain their culture to the next generation.