Brian D. Tripp: Living the Karuk Present Through the Mythic Past

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Brian D. Tripp: Living the Karuk Present Through the Mythic Past

By Gabrielle Gopinath January 22, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


The People Are Coming, by Brian D. Tripp, uses a formal vocabulary derived from Indigenous basket-weaving motifs to show elements of ceremonial regalia bridging the gulf between present and past. Tripp, born in 1945 and a member of the Northern California Karuk tribe, has been active as a painter, sculptor, poet, singer, regalia maker, and activist since the 1970s. 

This major work, which had not been on display since it entered the collection of the Humboldt Arts Council in 1988, recently returned to view at a Eureka event organized by the California Alliance of Traditional Arts to celebrate Tripp’s receipt of the California Living Heritage Award. Its exhibition posed an opportunity to reconsider the potent fusion of mythic iconography, Indigenous motifs, and popular materials that Tripp developed during the 1980s and early ’90s, alongside Northern California Indigenous artists, such as Frank LaPena, Lyn Risling, Julian Lang, and George Blake.  

The People Are Coming (1988-89) was created during a period of Indigenous cultural revival. Tripp was making drawings, paintings, sculptures, lithographs, broadsheet poems, and elements of ceremonial-dance regalia during this time, while living in proximity to his ancestral home in Karuk tribal lands, in the Klamath River watershed of Humboldt and Del Norte counties. He was closely involved with community efforts to restore the annual performance of ceremonial dances at sacred sites; alongside activists, community residents, and members of Northern California tribes, he took part in the long-running, hard-fought struggle against the planned construction of the Gasquet-Orleans road through Karuk territory. 

View from the dance pit at the Karuk village site of Katimín: the triangular crag Auwitch rises above Ishkeesh, the Klamath River, at Ishi Pishi Falls. Photo: Gabrielle Gopinath.

Despite its considerable degree of abstraction, Tripp’s drawing represents the view from a site identifiable by GPS: the dance pit at the Karuk village site of Katimín, located where the Salmon and Klamath rivers converge, at a point considered by the Karuk and neighboring groups to be the center of the world. Iconography indicates that several major events in the calendar of religious observance of the Klamath River region are taking place simultaneously in a shared present. Ritual elements associated with the Brush Dance are represented here (the lacy bundles of greenery suspended from the canopy uprights), as are elements of regalia associated with the Jump Dance (the cylinder-shaped basket at the left) and the Deerskin Dance (the headdress with antlers at the left; the obsidian blade at the far right).  

The pieces of regalia depicted here bear designs that rearrange ancient patterns long used by regalia makers and basket weavers from this region. The materials speak to twentieth-century mass production. Markers and tempera paint were readily at hand; aluminum foil entered American households after the Second World War, when military production was reconfigured for the domestic market. Tripp was drawn to these properties and perhaps intrigued by the material associations of aluminum: mass-produced and futuristic yet democratized. He had long worked with found materials and appropriated popular forms: repurposing pages of the San Francisco Chronicle’s finance section, for instance, as drawing supports.  

A canopy structure frames and subdivides Tripp’s original composition. (A section of the composition at the extreme right was appended later, after the work’s completion and purchase.) Stylized landscape elements between the upright supports provide enough information to orient one’s location. A vertical stripe at left depicts the Klamath River. The smaller of the blue triangles rising abruptly from its shore is the rocky crag called Auwitch, which still dominates the view. 

Brian D. Tripp. Balance of Payment, c. 1985; mixed media (marker on a page of the San Francisco Chronicle's financial section); 15 x 22 ¾ in. Courtesy of Libby Maynard. Photo: Libby Maynard.

Below it, an archer stands in a circle with his back to us and draws his bow, taking aim at a target as part of a marksmanship contest commonly held during multiday dances. Paired humanoid forms dominate the composition’s center. The taller, on the left, has a tapering peg for a head; the one on the right has a torso that terminates in a V-shaped notch. Both motifs are derived from basket-weaving designs familiar to the Indigenous peoples of this region, though in Tripp’s speedy freehand rendition they lack the mathematical precision that characterizes their traditional appearance in a woven matrix. A guttering red stream issues from the first figure’s wedge head like an angry oscilloscope printout. The space above has been subdivided like a calendar into squares crossed out with Xs.  

The composition’s right side veers disconcertingly into deep volumetric space. A wide, ribbon-like band shoots forth to sunder compositional unity, generating a jack-in-the-box effect that almost calls for 3-D glasses. This too is an element of regalia, one often referred to using the Yurok term cherwernerh, a decorated band worn by a man around the head and trailing down the back, ending in a feather fringe. The artist sends this headdress flying along a trajectory almost perpendicular to the picture plane, investing it with more dynamism than anything else in the picture, figures included. Inanimate objects, human actors, and geometric forms appear fungible and equally susceptible to spirit.  In Karuk mythology, ikxareyavs are beings from the race of shape-shifting spirit people who were here before humans and can change form at will.

The expressionless twins seen in the work, plausible doubled selves, recall the well-known Northern California myth about the hero No’ots, whose name means “double.” The feathered fringe of No’ots’s headdress flew apart when Panamnik Woman struck it with a well-aimed pestle, and its feathers turned into the seabirds that flock along the coast today. 

Brian D. Tripp. The People are Coming, 1988-89; mixed media (marker, graphite and paint on aluminum foil over panel); 45.75 x 115.5 in. Courtesy of Humboldt Arts Council, gift of the Morris Graves Foundation and Robert Yarber. Photo: Pedro Uribe Godoy.

In Tripp’s narrative, present-day elements mingle with those from the mythic past. Ceremony constitutes their liaison. The dance-pit structure, newly built when this artwork was made yet of ancient design, contains all this. The boldly rendered Karuk headdress, running almost perpendicular to the picture plane, spans the current of the river-shaped artwork.   

The convergence depicted here is one the artist takes to heart, per our conversation, and it may be part of the reason why this achievement is not one he later sought to duplicate. In the later 1990s, Tripp would turn down exhibition opportunities to concentrate his creative energies in the immediate community. He immersed himself in the study of ancestral rites, working tirelessly to revive the Karuk world-renewal dances at the ancient sites in Northern California that have traditionally hosted them.  

The author would like to express thanks to Humboldt Arts Council curator Jemima Harr, Libby Maynard, Mark Johnson, and Brian D. Tripp for research assistance and interpretive insights.

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