Modern primitives

Michael Williams

Creative spirit: Michael Williams finds his balance constructing tule decoys.

Creative spirit: Michael Williams finds his balance constructing tule decoys.

Photo By David Robert

Great thinkers from Carl Jung to Marcel Proust to Henry David Thoreau all spoke of one of art’s most common, bittersweet themes: sacrifice. For American Indian artist Michael Williams, sacrifice holds significantly deeper meaning, emerging within itself and transcending the ravages of Manifest Destiny, historical grief and collective, cultural loss.

Williams’s extraordinary tule [TOO-lee] art—featured in Finding Our Balance, at Fallon’s Churchill County Museum, represents not simply sacrifice, but symbolic, self-determined tenacity, as well.

The tule is a medium-to-tall, green-stemmed marsh plant with brown leafy flower clusters found growing in thick reeds on freshwater shores, mainly in California and local regions of Nevada.

“[This tule] art keeps the culture alive; culture that’s been pushed away, under the mat,” says Williams, a Paiute-Shoshone who lives on the Stillwater Indian Reservation near Fallon.

Williams says there’s a “spiritual connection with our artwork that goes to the Creator and to our balance as Native American people—who we are, what we lost. This [our artwork] is bringing our spiritual ways back.”

Eight years ago, Williams, who enjoyed making traditional jewelry with antlers, animal bones and beads, embarked on a new artistic journey: hand-crafting tule duck decoys and boats, just like the centuries-old decoys he’d seen while growing up in the Great Basin.

“I was told by an elder here in Fallon that once you start doing these tules, you have to pray and smudge yourself down. The Creator just guides my hands through every decoy I make.”

In the traditional manner, Williams prays for abundant tules, found in Stillwater’s wetlands, bestowed by Mother Earth.

“You give back,” he says of his artistic purpose, “and She always gives back.”

Sometimes gathered after “a good rain,” Williams soaks the tules in warm water for 30 minutes, then lets them sit for another half an hour. While they’re still moist, he shapes them into their destiny, using up to 30 tules for the body and a cattail stem for the decoy’s head, which is then wrapped with another 15 tules.

“The way I learned is the way my ancestors did. There was no one around to teach this ancient [craft]. I had to learn it on my own.”

Williams’ artistic insight was fortified by research, particularly work that was noted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The institute had acquired one piece of this rare, on-the-brink-of-extinction art: a painted, Canada-goose-and-turkey-feather decoy. The Smithsonian, he says, has some “original, 2,500-year-old” tule decoys in storage, brought out of a Lovelock cave in 1924. The decoys functioned to bring in flocks of waterfowl, so the people could hunt and eat. Those ancient rhythms are ever-present as Williams works the tules.

“My mind goes back to the ancient ways. I can see them working on decoys by the cave or the marshes. It puts me in a good, spiritual frame of mind.”

The father of two and grandfather of three instructs his son, Micah, 19, and eldest grandchild, Olivia Rose, 7, in the ways of the tule.

“It’s been a real blessing to learn this, to pass it on,” Williams says softly. “People tell me, ‘You’re the only one doing this. You’ve been blessed in such a powerful way to learn.’ And I have. I give thanks to the Creator every day for what I have. You have to live that way.”

On March 27, Williams will be honored for “Excellence in Folk and Traditional Arts” at the 28th Annual Governor’s Arts Awards in Las Vegas.