We wake up early in our first morning in Terrace and drive from our motel to meet Dempsey Bob, a leading First Nations artist and co-founder of the Freda Diesling School of Northwest coast Art, at his home in a leafy street of wooden houses near the center of the town. We do not know what to expect but from his brief emails and his phone call to the motel this morning Dempsey seems friendly and welcoming. Arriving at his house we are greeted by a man with a kind, warm smile and creative eyes who accompanies us to the School. We take a short detour for breakfast and then try to catch up with the yellow school bus that is taking the students from the School to the recently opened Nisga’a museum two hours north along route 113.
The drive on the 113 is of intense beauty. A Northern landscape of towering mountains thinly covered in snow and vivid yellow autumnal trees draped in morning mist. The mist opens up into a surreal landscape of volcanic rocks, sharp but spherical and covered in bright light-green moss and lichen. An eagle lands on the road ahead of us and Dempsey says it is a good sign. On the drive back two black bears rustle into the trees, also a good sign. We speak to Dempsey for the two hours there and two hours back and he tells us his story. The story is of how he became an artist, how he learnt from others especially Freda Diesing, during a long period of apprenticeship, of how he was then sent north to Alaska to teach art there and also learn more of the art of his people, teaching in many places such as prisons and schools. He also told us more about his culture and its art, of stories from his grandparents. The drive went by quickly and we arrive in Nisga’a territory in no time.
The Nisga’a museum is in the village of Laxgalts’ap, in the territory of the Nisga’a people who have just recently settled their land claim with the Canadian government. With this settlement the Nisga’a have also been awarded the rights to reclaim their cultural property which has been housed in several museums in Canada.
The newly constructed museum is a beautiful building combining traditional and contemporary architecture and materials. We arrive with Dempsey just as the museum guide is giving her opening talk to the students. Inside we are guided through the exhibits – wooden masks, shaman regalia, rattles, blankets, spoons and other ceremonial pieces. The group of students respectfully listens and walks through the museum, looking and photographing the artefacts.
At the end of the tour a student eloquently thanks the guide and offers her gifts on behalf of the School, congratulating her Nation on their land settlement on the museum and wishing that his own Nation would also accomplish this someday soon.
Why are places like the Nisga’a museum important? In conversations with Rocque, who teaches art history and anthropology at the School, the relationship between the empowerment of a people, especially in terms of the rights to their ancestral land, and the reclaiming of their material culture became more apparent. Reclaiming ones’ material culture, dissipated through the colonial period and beyond, is a sign of strength and of the rejuvenation of cultural practices. This is not just a matter of ownership of artefacts as the objects themselves are considered as powerful items, embodying an energy of a living culture.
I also saw this in the documentary I did with the Pitt Rivers museum and the Haida Nation from Haida Gwaii, B.C. In this film, called Everything was Carved, I follow a group of Haida artists, musicians, educators and community leaders during their two week visit to the museum as they interact and learn from the pieces in the Pitt Rivers collection. I could see how the Haida treated the pieces with care and sometimes awe, regarding them as living presences of the culture that made them. The masks themselves are living representations of the animals and beings they depict and need to be danced in ceremonies to satisfy these entities. One of the masks was danced in a ceremony at the Pitt Rivers, it must have been waiting a long time on those museum shelves.
The Haida also have their own cultural centre in Haida Gwaii and have managed to repatriate a number of artefacts from museums across the world. Of even more significance though, for the Haida and other First Nations groups, is the repatriation of the bones of their ancestors which were collected at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Reburying the ancestors in ancestral land, repatriating material culture, reclaiming the knowledge of how to make the art are then all parts of a long process of healing from the trauma of colonialism and state policies and to a strengthening of community.