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M&J Outdoor Communications » Norman Johnson


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Norman Johnson

To be honest, I can’t rightly remember where or when I met Norman Johnson. Until the final year that my wife, Julie, and I lived on 139 th Avenue in the southwest corner of Washington state, Norman Johnson was just another friendly face and a wave every time he drove his little red Toyota pick-up past our place.

One day though, and if I were to guess I’d say it was alongside that rural equivalent of the town square - the collective mailboxes - Norman Johnson and I got to talking. Almost immediately I learned that we shared a tremendous love for the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. “Stop over at the house this evening,” he told me as he climbed back into his pickup. “We can look at some reloading stuff, and there might be a couple guns you’d be interested in.” Given the time was roughly noon , this evening seemed like it was weeks away.

Sunset finally brushed Mount Saint Helens with her nightly hues of red and orange, and I found myself knocking on the door of Johnson’s home - a most interesting place situated some 400 yards to the north of our front step, and surrounded by what could best be described as a lifelong eclectic collection of stuff. It was Francis, Johnson’s wonderful wife, who answered my raps. “Come on in, honey. Norman ’s been expecting you.”

It’s a terrible understatement - you just have to take my word for it - but stepping into Norman Johnson’s home was like walking through the doors of the most incredible museum you could ever imagine. On one wall, a rainbow trout, looking as though any moment it would leap free of its hardwood plaque, stared glass eye-to-eye with a head mount of a cinnamon bear, both works of taxidermy, I would learn later, completed by Johnson. Several long guns - many of which I didn’t recognize - as well as an array of pistols adorned the couch, Johnson’s presentation pieces I assumed. Along the sidewalls and overhead, antlers - blacktails, elk, mulies, and whitetails - and the hides of bears and buffalo alike were displayed, some in their natural form while others had been decorated with painted human figures, horses, spears, and odd symbols. Bows and arrows, obviously hand-crafted, lay in the corner surrounded by spears, clubs, paddles, drums, rattles, and objects for which I had absolutely no explanation.

“Come on in,” said Johnson from his easy-chair at the edge of the room. “See anything interesting?” What was interesting was the fact that despite my fascination with firearms and hunting, my attentions were immediately drawn to the myriad sticks and strings and hides and things that festooned the room.

“Native American artifacts,” Johnson replied when I asked him my elemental but very necessary question, which basically consisted of - What are those things? “Fran and I make them, and then we take them to the area schools and give presentations to the kids. Talks,” he continued, “on how the natives of the Pacific Northwest lived their lives. The tools that they used to survive. To communicate. To interact with each other. These things you see,” he said with a wave of his hand, “tell the story of the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest better than any picture book.”

But where, I asked him, did these reed bowls and breast plates, headdresses and ceremonial rattles come from? Where did he buy them?

“Buy them,” Johnson said, failing to hide a grin behind his huge paw of a hand. “I made them. Made ‘em from scratch the same way the Native Americans did. More interesting that way, and gives me and Fran more to talk to the kids about.”

Unbeknownst to him, Johnson had opened the floodgates of my mind. What were these artifacts - the shapely curved sticks, the vicious looking club sporting alabaster white spikes, and the small woven bowl made of..Were those pine needles? For the answers, I had to go back to the mid-1930s before being fast-forwarded into the present. It was a trip well worth taking.

The man was born Norman Cecil Johnson on July 3 rd , 1935, at his parents’ small home near the Wishkau River just north of Aberdeen, Washington. The son of a Norwegian-Swedish father and a Scotch-Irish mother, Johnson spent his formative years near the coastal town of Moclips, where he attended school - “Eighth grade and out,” he says - with many of the local Native American children, a fact which he attributes to his present infatuation with the existence and creation of his artifacts.

“I have no ties to the Native Americans in blood, only in spirit I guess,” says Johnson. “As a boy, I played with them and visited their families.” He continues - “I don’t remember seeing any artifacts to speak of during my visits. Maybe an old basket or such, but the white culture had invaded the Native Americans so much by the time I was a young boy that I suppose they were really no longer ‘Indians’ in the real sense.”.

Still, it was this early introduction to the Native Americans of the Pacific Coast, and to their cultures and customs, combined with a boyhood and adolescence spent primarily in the fields and forests of the Great Northwest, that started Johnson on the path not only of the outdoorsman, but of the artifact-maker.

“I grew up in a family where my father made his living mostly out of the woods,” says Johnson. “He peeled cascara bark, picked foxglove, huckleberries, and ferns, gathered fir cones, and trapped, so I was very well schooled in the ways of the outdoors.”

Johnson’s introduction into the realm of the artifact crafter came, as he says, some 11 years ago - and not, as some might assume, as a direct result of either his Native American “background” nor his father’s outdoor teachings. Instead, Johnson’s inspiration originated elsewhere, with his daughter.

“I started making artifacts,” he says, “about 11 years ago. My daughter, Tammy Burggraff, is a fifth-grade teacher at Union Ridge School in Ridgefield, Washington, and she asked me if she could borrow some of my blackpowder things to take to her school because she was teaching her kids about the Indians. Things like my powder horn, hatchet, knife, and possibles bag.”

“I asked her if she needed some other things to help her with the kids,” he continued. “She said she did, and so I began reproducing some of the Native American artifacts that the tribes commonly used here in the Northwest. It wasn’t long before she asked me to come to school to help teach the kids about the Native Americans and the tools that contributed to their way of life. Well, one thing led to another, and other teachers in other schools heard about what I was doing and they invited me to their schools. It’s just continued since then.”

To date, Johnson has completed more than 250 artifacts, many of which have been displayed and discussed in elementary and high schools throughout southwest Washington. Some of his creations include war bonnets, cedar bark clothing, fish spears and traps, war axes and clubs, ceremonial rattles, breast plates and chokers, peace pipes, halibut hooks, flutes and other musical instruments, soul catchers, rope, arrowheads, bows and arrows, cradles, bowls, eating utensils, hair combs, and earrings - to compile but a partial list. In but one spotlight of his museum, though you’ll never hear him refer to it as such, there stands a full length ceremonial headdress made entirely of wild turkey feathers which my wife, Julie, and I were honored to have contributed to Johnson’s efforts. It’s one of the most wonderful pieces in his collection, and one of which he’s particularly proud.

With few exceptions, Johnson’s artifacts are crafted entirely as the Native Americans would have done. Flint arrowheads are knapped using raw flint and striker stones. Bow strings are fashioned of deer sinew from blacktails which Johnson personally harvested, while fish nets are made of nettle and elk snares - Elk snares?! It’s true! - of blue flag, a plant native to the Pacific Northwest. Incredibly, Johnson has several bowls of various sizes, each as watertight as any modern Tupperware container and yet each has been crafted not of plastic, but of pine needles or the aforementioned blue flag. But that’s, as he says, how it was done during the time of the coastal tribes.

“I get my materials,” says Johnson, “the same places the Native Americans did 100 years ago.out of the woods. I go out when things are in season, and collect and dry materials for later use. I collect bones (necklaces, chokers, combs, arrowheads) during hunting season. Friends bring me horn, antler (knives, ornamental decorations, pipe bowls), and skins (clothing and dressings). During the last days of April, well before the pitch comes up, I collect my cedar bark.”

“In early spring,” he continues, “I collect nettle and blue flag. I strip the fibers off and dry them in order to make my rope and cordage.”

Feathers, as I’ve learned since Julie and I started supplying the artist with the material in 1996, have an almost infinite number of uses. The aforementioned headdress combined Eastern, Merriams, Rio Grande, and Osceola wing feathers to create an incredible contrast of lights and darks. Wingbones, not surprisingly, are used to craft turkey calls and other musical instruments, while other primary feathers are used as fletching on the cedar arrow shafts which Johnson painstakingly planes, bends, and straightens. But it’s not only the wild turkey that contributes to Johnson’s craft. Over the years, feathers from pheasants, grouse, and a wide variety of waterfowl have been worked into Johnson’s creations - soul catchers, earrings, and clothing on the positive side to war bonnets and sacrificial slave-clubs on the.well, not so positive.

With all these different artifacts, does the artist have a favorite? One that he particularly enjoys working on?

“I don’t think I have a favorite,” says Johnson. “I try to put everything I have into each and every one starting with the research as well as collecting the materials necessary. Each one,” he says, “seems to lead me to another, almost as if I’d been there when the original tools, decorations, and items were made. I can sit and work on these projects, and I just have the feeling that I’ve been there before.”

“Fran and I have been showing our reproductions and artifacts,” Johnson says in closing, “for more than a decade now. The children seem to love them. In fact, we’ve had some kids skip their regular classes just so they could come and see our presentation - and most of them had already seen our artifacts! I just got started in an effort to help my daughter teach her school kids, and,” he laughs, “it’s continued ever since.”.

Making a turtle shell rattle

Over the years, I’ve sent Norman many an empty Eastern box or painted turtle shell, most of which I’ve found - Surprise! - while I’ve been turkey hunting. These he uses to make turtle shell rattles, an instrument commonly found at ceremonial (bringing good spirits in) or medical (driving bad spirits out) gatherings.

Beautiful to look at, the making of these rattles, as Johnson says, “isn’t as easy at you might think.” However, if you have the patience and a small list of materials, such a rattle can make for a wonderful start to your own artifact collection.

The material list for a turtle shell rattle includes -

  • Sharp knife or Exacto tool
  • Pencil
  • Contact cement
  • Thin leather
  • Turtle shell - NOTE: Make sure your state doesn’t have regulations to the contrary concerning the possession of turtle shells.
  • Two green (pliable) sticks
  • Rawhide lacing
  • 1-3/4″ square cedar stick 2.5 times as long as your turtle shell.
  • Several round stones or glass beads
  • Luck - Johnson’s comment

1. Determine the neck end and tail end of the turtle shell. The neck end will be the larger of the two holes.

2. Trim the 1-3/4″ cedar stick so that approximately ½ of the stick will be inside the shell. Leave about 3 inches for a tail. This will protrude from the tail end. The half remaining outside the head end will serve as the handle. You want a snug fit at both the head and tail ends, so some shaving might be necessary. Also, you’ll want to whittle down that portion of the stick that will be inside the shell so that the stones/beads have room to rattle around. If you feel creative, some decorative carving on the handle looks nice.

3. Next, cut your thin leather into circular “patches.” These will be used to seal both the head and tail ends of the shell. Make sure to cut your patches at least 3/8-inch larger than the holes can trim later. Carefully apply contact cement to both the edges of the shell holes AND the edges of the leather, and let dry until tacky. Now - CAREFULLY - match the patch to the hole. Do the tail end first, then the head end. You can cut a small hole in the tail end and use a long stick or pencil to help guide the head end patch in place.

4. Once both patches are dry, carefully cut out the area where the handle stick goes, and insert the handle.AFTER you’ve dropped in your small stones or beads.

5. At this point, it’s necessary to cut/drill two holes in both the top and bottom parts of the shell. These holes (1/8 x 3/8) are located approximately 1-1/4 inches to the right and left of the centerline of the shell (head to tail), and approximately 1/3 the distance from the head end. Once completed, you should be able to look through both sets of holes (right and left), and see through the shell.

6. Next, you’ll need two thin green sticks that can be easily bent - willow sticks, for instance - and about as long as the shell. Bend the first stick into a l-o-n-g U shape, and insert the tips of each “leg” approximately ¾-inch into the holes in the top of the shell. Slowly bend the U backwards until the stick lies on top of the handle, and hold in place. Repeat using the second stick and the bottom set of holes.

7. Pinch one end of your rawhide lacing between the top stick and the handle, and begin slowly and tightly wrapping the rawhide around the sticks/handle, working from the shell outward until you’ve wrapped approximately 2 inches out on the handle. Finish with a whip finish or a half hitch with the rawhide. You may find it necessary to tack the lacing with a small brad.