Students describe the social, political, cultural, and economic life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods.
Time Alloted2 x 1 Hour Class Sessions
State Content Standards
4.2.1 California Indians, Legends and Religious Beliefs
2.3 Use additive and subtractive processes in making simple sculptural forms.
3.2 Identify and discuss the content of works of art in the past and present, focusing on the different cultures that have contributed to California 's history and art heritage.
4.2 Identify and describe how a person's own cultural context influences individual responses to works of art.
Big Head (The World is a Gift Series) image on Digital Crocker
small sharp knifes (or you can use small cookie cutters and other items for cutting such as old film tins, metal lipstick covers, etc.
firm fresh brown potatoes (have each child bring one from home)
mixing trays (one for each color)
sponges (one for each color)
poster paints in black or brown
scrap paper for test printing and patterns
pre-cut project papers in white or beige
Begin by looking carefully at the image Big Head (The World is a Gift Series) as a group and record all comments on paper. Ask:
What symbols do you see within the image?
What do those symbols mean to you?
Overall, what does the woodcut image say?
What do you think the story is behind the woodcut?
Why do you think the author picked these symbols to communicate the story behind the woodcut?
Using the background information provided, point out the symbols out in the image and explain the meanings behind them. Then tell the students what the image is about: A springtime renewal dance ceremony.
Have students sketch their own design for a springtime renewal dance ceremony using Wintu symbols or their own symbols.
create designs using simple shapes, the most simple ones being triangles, squares and bars
patterns are created by regular repetition of the shapes
Students will write 1-2 paragraphs describing their dance and the symbols they included in their composition.
Cut a potato straight down middle and leave to dry on paper towels.
Make a potato stamp of each symbol in your sketch. Pin your paper sketch to the flat surface of the potato and cut around it for a cleanly shaped stamp. Make sure to cut the potato well away from the design so that the edges will print cleanly. Use cookie cutters and other items to make circular shapes.
Mix paint colors. Paint should be fairly thick.
Spread paint into sponge, allow paint to be absorbed. Press stamp unto sponge and test print before stamping on project paper. Or use a paint brush to put paint on the stamp.
Let each layer dry before over printing with other colors.
Submerge potato stamps in cold water to keep them fresh. They will keep for 1 - 2 days in the refrigerator.
About the Artist
Frank La Peña was born in San Francisco in 1937. While his father's heritage was Asian, his mother was Nomtipom Wintu, a tribe whose roots are in the mountain river area of northern California . He also had a brother and sister. When his father died at an early age, La Peña and his sister were sent to the Federal Indian School in Carson City, Nevada. Later, his younger brother joined them, and all three children were sent to the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. When he was older, he was placed in a foster home and began attending public schools. His interest in art began in high school and continued through college.
La Peña eventually sought to know his tribal roots. He contacted his grandmother and other relatives. It was when a Wintu friend took him to the Grindstone Reservation and introduced him to the oldest dance house in California that he found the connection he was seeking. La Peña refers to this experience as the “beginning of my most important education.” In the late 1960s, he became involved with the American Indian Historical Society in San Francisco, which brought him closer to his Indian heritage.
In 1971, La Peña moved to Sacramento to teach at California State University, Sacramento. He became involved with a group traditionalists working to revive Maidu and Wintu dances and ceremonies. Inspired, he became a member of the Maidu Dance Group. La Peña immersed himself in his native culture and articulated his heritage as an artist, poet, writer, and traditional dancer, Professor of Art and former Director of Native American Studies at California State University, Sacramento . La Peña has spent his adult life promoting awareness and respect for traditional Indian ways. Contemporary Maidu Indian artist Judith Lowry states, “I see his work as a continuation of a celebration of his culture.”
About Big Head
This artwork is called Big Head. The Big Head dance ceremony is the springtime rite of renewal. It is considered to be one of the most graceful of all Indian dances, and more beautiful than any other is the regalia that the dancer wears. A central figure dances, while a sense of movement conveyed through the swaying lines in the vertical panels that drape from the dancer's neck to the ground. Long feathers radiate from the head, while the head is depicted in small, connected flower forms or tufts of small feathers. Hands are implied by the extended wooden bats used to clap, in accompaniment to the dances and chanting. A symbolic messenger appears as a bird and extends its wings from the earth to the dancer. Across from the bird is a circular disk that could refer to the sun, moon, earth, or simply as the symbol of harmony and continuity. Surrounding the upper half of the figure is a large circle, punctuated by small triangles, which emulate shapes associated with basket designs. An implied cape extends in a semi-circular form that stops in a large star-form at each end. The pattern in the cape can also be read as fish-like forms swimming through water. The dancer's figure also seems to hover above designs that can be read as the diamond-pattern of a snake, and as peaks of mountains, referring to the sacred Mt. Shasta area. Overall, the rhythm of the dance ritual is conveyed in several ways, including the richly gouged pattern that forms the background and sky.
In regard to this image, La Peña writes about a connection between living things and the world itself. He sees a continuity through space and the importance of dreams. “We can go to the stars by thinking ourselves there as fast as we think of it.” He also mourns the destruction of sacred spaces and other natural forms, and considers this destructive attitude towards nature as the ultimate form of disrespect.
La Peña also expresses in his writing the joy of understanding the connectivity of life. He refers to the place depicted – Sanchaluli – as being constant and patient in its teaching . “The stars, stones, animals, people and all beings spiritual and physical are bound together.” This represents the balance and harmony sought by elders and traditionalists. La Peña refers to “a beautiful red, orange, yellow, black and white striped snake sunning itself,” perhaps represented by the diamond pattern that is suspended between the dancer and the mountain-like imagery. Even though the colors he describes are not part of this black and white image, La Peña expresses his joy in the natural world.
About California Wintu/Wintun* Indians
* Wintu and Wintun spellings are both acceptable, and refer to the same people.
The Wintu settled in the Northern California mountain river area bounded by the Trinity, Sacramento and McCloud Rivers. Wintu beliefs are based on the belief in a supreme being, and their stories deal with elements of the natural world, specifically moon, stars, thunder, lightening and animals. They convey their traditions through stories, songs and dance.
According to Wintu belief, and as articulated by Frank La Peña, “the world is a gift from our old ones.” Despite overwhelming loss due to disease, death and displacement form their homelands, the resilience of the Wintu and other Indian people can be attributed to a belief in the strong connection between humans and nature. They believe in the importance of ceremonies, storytelling and the manifestation of dreams and visions in images. They considered Mt. Shasta to be sacred, a site significant in many ceremonies and stories. La Peña explains, “Art helps to create order through the use of symbols. These symbols help to maintain the connection between traditional and contemporary cultures by reminding us of our responsibility for the way we choose to live, the way we relate our lives to the sacred universal connection of the sacred circle.”
Frank La Peña's Maidu name is Tauhindauli. This name honors his relatives, the Towendolly family, who were the traditional cultural keepers and medicine people for the Wintu tribe. His great uncle was Grant Towendolly, the last trained, traditional leader. Towendolly never assumed a formal position as leader because his people were forced to flee their lands to escape the roving vigilantes of the 1860s and 1870s. Grant Towendolly wrote a book on the Wintu ways, entitled The Bag of Bones.
Another important leader, Wallace Burrows, lived from 1886 to 1988. He provided a remarkable link between old and continuing traditions. He learned from those who had lived before contact with the outsiders who came to the Sacramento Valley. Burrows was a singer and dancer at the important Grindstone Rancheria in Glenn County, drawing people who wanted to know the old ways from miles around. He was also the last fluent speaker of the old Nomlaki language.
Another significant contact with tradition was the artist Frank Day, who lived from 1902 to 1976. As a Maidu, Day honored and documented the stories, dances and events of his heritage in paintings. He was an influential force in the revival of dance and art traditions among northern California Indians during 20th century.
La Peña, Frank. The World is a Gift . San Francisco : Limestone Press, 1987.
La Peña, Frank; et al. Extension of Tradition: Contemporary Northern California Native American Art in Cultural Perspective. Sacramento : Crocker Art Museum , 1985.
“Frank La Peña.” www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/art/ind.htm (April 2005)
The Big Head Dance Ceremony” www.sacredhoop.demon.co.uk/Hoop-09/POMO.html (April 2005)