James Swan, Cha-tic of the Northwest Coast

Monday, April 28, 2003 (All day) to Saturday, July 19, 2003 (All day)


Paintings and Drawings from the Franz & Kathryn Stenzel Collection
James Gilchrist Swan, a.k.a. Cha-tic, died in Port Townsend, Washington, in 1900 at age 82. Cha-tic, "the painter," was the name given him by the Makah Indians of Cape Flattery, among whom he spent many years during his eventful life as (among other occupations) lawyer, traveler, and ethnographer; entrepreneur, judge, and teacher; journalist and oysterman; diarist, artist, and author. From 28 April through 19 July 2003, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library will have on display over 100 drawings and paintings, most of them made by Swan, others commissioned by him from Native American artists of the Northwest Coast.
James Swan left Medford, Massachusetts, for California in 1850. The pictorial record of his experiences in the West begins two years later when he moved from San Francisco to Shoalwater Bay, north of the mouth of the Columbia River. While botanical subjects dominate Swan's earliest surviving work, his interest in Native American culture was present from the beginning. He learned Native languages, moved easily in Indian communities, and in his writings showed unusual sensitivity to the variety and particularity of Indian communities and the stresses to which they were subject.
In the fall of 1858 Swan moved to Port Townsend, at the head of Puget Sound, with the intent of establishing a nautical outfitting business.But his interests in Indian culture prevailed, and he spent much time with a local Indian leader, Chetzamoka.
James Swan. "Salmon Berry, Wake Robin, and species of cress found at Neeah Bay." [April 1861]
Under Chetzamoka's tutelage, Swan witnessed and sketched portions of a Chemakum tomanawos ceremony, a rite designed to harness the power of guardian spirits, as well as the festive potlatch which followed the ceremony. In the fall of 1859, Swan began an extended visit among the Makah Indians at Neah Bay.
James Swan. "Waadah Island" and "Baadah Point, Neeah Bay." 1859..
Swan's study of Indian cultures continued under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution, for which he collected artifacts, and the Indian Office, which he served as teacher and census-taker. A commission to collect artifacts for the Centennial Exposition of 1876 financed a trip to coastal British Columbia and Alaska, and in 1883 a similar commission to collect for an international fisheries exhibition supported a voyage to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia.
James Swan's art, writings, and the fruits of his collecting activities form an important historical record, but one which is enlivened at every turn by personalities, Native Americans who became his friends--Chetzamoka, whose status in Chemakum Indian community near Port Townsend earned him the sobriquet "Duke of York" among local whites; Swell, distinguished for his intelligence, who served as Swan's guide among the Makah; the Haida Kitkune, whose tattoos Swan recorded in drawings; and finally fellow artist Johnny Kit Elswa, Swan's Haida guide on his trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Kitchen-sum [a Makah Indian]. "Private mark . . . drawn by him Nov. 10, [18]59. This is the mark put on his hat, paddle, canoe, or anything he wants to make his own.
The Beinecke exhibition includes over 100 drawings and paintings, most of them by Swan himself. These range from botanical subjects-delicate renderings of the sweet pea, water lily, and trillium, for instance-to landscapes and depictions of Anglo-American and Native American villages along the Northwest Coast. Informational drawings of Indian artifacts, carved columns, and tattoos show intricate detail. Scenes of Indian villages and ceremonies, often employing color, constitute an important record of a way of life about to be irrevocably changed by the advance of Anglo-American culture.
The eleven drawings in the exhibition by the Haida artist Johnny Kit Elswa contrast sharply in style with Swan's own. Bold and stylized, the Elswa paintings portray mythological figures, such as Hooyeh the Raven, the mischievous trickster and shape-shifter of Haida lore. Elswa, noted as a carver and maker of jewelry, was among the first Haida artists to work in pen and watercolor on paper.
The materials in the Beinecke exhibition are part of the Franz & Kathryn Stenzel Collection, donated to the Yale Collection of Western Americana in 1997 by the collectors, residents of Portland, Oregon. The Swan materials (manuscripts and letters as well as art work) constitute a subset of the Stenzel Collection, which includes 1300 art works, ranging from oil paintings and watercolors to engravings and photographs, as well as research files, all of which document the history and culture of the Pacific Northwest. "In their passionate pursuit of Northwestern art," says George Miles, curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana, "the Stenzels crafted a legacy that will enable generations of students and scholars to investigate the history of the Pacific Northwest and consider the role of the visual arts in American culture." The Swan drawings were last exhibited in 1959 at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.
On May 2, George Miles, who arranged the exhibition, will present a lecture entitled "Trading Pictures: James Swan, Johnny Kit Elswa, and the Art of the Northwest Coast" in the Yale Law School auditorium at 5:15 p.m. The lecture will be followed by a reception at the Beinecke Library and an opportunity to view the James Swan exhibition. An illustrated catalog of the exhibition will be on sale at the library.
For more information: 
George Miles (
Beinecke Library
Box 208240
New Haven, CT 06520-8240
fax 432.4047
James Swan, Cha-tic of the Northwest Coast:
Paintings and Drawings from the Franz & Kathryn Stenzel Collection
An exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
121 Wall Street
New Haven, CT
28 April through 19 July 2003
Mondays-Thursdays, 8:30 am - 8 pm
Fridays 8:30 am - 5 pm
Saturdays 10 am - 5 pm.
Closed Memorial Day and July 4


Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
121 Wall Street | New Haven, CT 06511
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Monday 10 am - 7 pm
Tuesday-Thursday 9 am - 7 pm
Friday 9 am - 5 pm
Saturday (Exhibitions only) 12 pm - 5 pm
Sunday (Exhibitions only) 12 pm - 4 pm

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