Enlivened Learning

Navigation Menu

The totem poles watch over the forest and Gitsaex village at Kitselas Canyon once again…

The totem poles watch over the forest and Gitsaex village at Kitselas Canyon once again…

Posted by on nov 26, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

During our second day visiting the Freda Diesing school, the topic of ‘Kitselas Canyon’ kept emerging.  I wondered about what this place was, why it was so important, if and when I would understand more about the uniqueness that this place seemed to hold for not only the artists – learners and teachers – at the school, but also for many First nations communities beyond.

Photo taken by Kelly during presentation given by Stan and Ken on carving the community totem pole at Kitselas Canyon

Dean Heron (current teacher and former student) and Latham Mack (former student and apprentice artist of Dempsey Bob — see ‘voices of former students’ post for more information) each spoke about the importance of their experiences working on the painting of longhouses and carving of totem poles at Kitselas Canyon.  Closer to the end of the day, Rocque, Ken and Stan spoke about Kitselas Canyon, providing a brief historical overview of the place, stories about what happened as part of European conquest and colonization and what was being done now as part of a long-term cultural reclamation project at Kitselas Canyon that each of them (Dempsey, Ken and Stan) and students were deeply involved in, as well as people from Gitsxan communities.

Photo by Udi – presentation of Kitselas Canyon and the process of totem poles being carved

After all of the presentations were finished for the day, Dempsey hurried us to gather our things so that we could visit Kitselas Canyon before dark.  I had not realized we were going on that day and I was very moved at Dempsey’s insistence and energy to take us there and show us around.  We drove the 20 minutes or so with Dempsey to the site.  Stan and his cousin, Brian, were there waiting for us in front of a huge totem pole that looked recently carved.  The ‘community totem pole’ as it is fondly and proudly referred to, offers a richness of stories that are literally embedded into the cedar tree that was carved into being.  I cannot tell the particular story of this totem pole unless I am explicitly given permission to do so – it is not my story to tell, it belongs to the community.  Stories are protected by communities and transferred as forms of knowledge when it is decided by a member of the community that the timing is appropriate.  Needless to say, there are multiple clans represented within the Gitsxan community totem pole (raven and bear) and a conflict that involved an arrow and a chief…

Photo taken by Kelly of the Kitselas community totem pole, Kitselas Canyon

Totems poles are stories.  The most important figure on the totem pole is on the bottom rather than the top.  This was significant to me as I was reminded of the oft used phrase – ‘low man on the totem pole’ — who would according to the design and carving of stories embedded within a totem pole – be the most revered!  This particular totem pole is really impressive, the more you look at it, the more you see.  The details are exquisite.  Dempsey, Stan, Ken, Dean and Latham were all involved in the carving of this pole. The community pole was the first one to be raised in over 150 years and there was a community ceremony of dancing and singing before it was raised.  The main motivation of this ceremony was so that the community felt it belonged to them, in spite of the fact that multiple people, from multiple First Nations communities, aside from the Gitsxan, were involved in its design and carving.

After we marveled at and learned more about the community totem pole, Dempsey directed us down to the Kitselas Canyon, a short 5 –minute drive down a hill.  We met Brian, Stan’s cousin at the entrance to Kitselas Canyon.  Brian spoke to us of the importance of this place to him personally as a renewing of their culture and community.  In front of us were 4 longhouses and 5 totem poles – each one placed on one side of a longhouse.  Another longhouse and totem pole were on the right side of the 4 longhouses.

Photo taken by Kelly of Brian explaining the longhouses and totem poles to us at Kitselas Canyon

Rocque had explained during that afternoon in a photographic presentation to all of the students about the tragic history of the area.  Using maps and old photographs we learned that Gitsaex Village was between 5,000 to 6,000 years old.

Historical overview of the Kitselas Canyon area borrowed from the Kitselas website – http://www.kitselas.com/about-kitselas/history/village-history/ (accessed 3rd December 2012)

The last people to leave the village was in 1912 and we saw them, in an old photo from that time, dressed in their Sunday best, rather than clothing they might have worn before European contact. Where the new longhouses and totem poles were being built at the current Kitselas Canyon National Historic Site, was about a mile or so above the Skeena river.  The reason for the new construction being at this higher site was that the area next to the river, the site of the original village, were now gravesites where nearly the entire village died due to Smallpox. Families who had perished were left as they were in their longhouses to prevent further spread of the disease. There were also many fallen totem poles amidst the gravesites.  The last totem pole fell down in that area in 2001 and is now nearly impossible to discern from the fauna that has grown around and through it, decaying it beyond recognition.

The construction of the longhouses and the totem poles involved a multitude of people, the majority of which work or learn at the Freda Diesing school. Dempsey, Ken and Stan designed the longhouse fronts and the totem poles in a 13 week project.  Dean described how the students were responsible for sketching out the designs using projectors and painting the designs onto the longhouse fronts using the original drawings by Dempsey, Stan and Ken.  Dean told us how they worked on their hands and knees those 13 weeks – all of the painting had to be done on the floor as painting vertically was much more difficult.  He said that this was a tremendous opportunity for them as students, to be so closely involved in such a significant cultural reclamation project.  Ken described the project as ‘an artist’s dream’ to bring out their culture and that the project had been excellent overall.

Photo taken by Udi of a longhouse front at Kitselas Canyon

The longhouses all began in 2007 (although the project had been discussed for at least 25 years) and are now used as a museum; a gathering space for ceremonies or weddings; a studio space and a shop for selling objects.  The totem poles next to the longhouses represent 4 different clan crests – wolf, bear, raven and beaver.  There is also a salmon totem.  Similar to the community totem pole, there was a ceremony and Elders came to bless the longhouses and totem poles once they were built and raised.

After viewing and learning about the longhouses and totem poles, Dempsey said that we should hurry through the forest before dark.  The walk through the forest down to view the river was about twenty minutes.  The forest was carpeted in moss with glowing shades of green.  There was still a good deal of light on the way down.  Stands of evergreen trees emerged sharply, perpendicular from the bright green moss.  The trees are second growth (possibly third) and are about a meter in diameter.  There are odd areas that are sunken in and it is difficult to perceive why and how these were formed as the moss disguises well.

Photo taken by Udi of the forest down to Skeena River, Kitselas Canyon

We suddenly came upon four totem poles, formed in a line, all facing toward the river.  Stan, Brian and Ken had designed and carved the totem poles.  One is of a Raven and is a replica of a fallen totem.  Brian told us that participating in the design and carving of these totem poles for Kitselas Canyon had pulled him out of a deep depression that had taken over him after the death of a family member due to suicide.  We had learned (previously through conversations we had with Blackfoot community members) that this happens often within First Nations communities.  I was moved by Brian’s openness and could feel his emotional connection with the carved beings that were now storied into the landscape at Kitselas Canyon – providing a renewal of wisdom and watchfulness.

Photo taken by Kelly of the 4 totem poles facing the Skeena River and the ancient village, Kitselas Canyon

The color of the totem poles had become a silvery color due to weather and aging.  Brian spoke of a calm that has ensued since the totems were raised – within the community and within the forest.  Udi and I both felt a sense that these totems belonged to the place, that a gentle eye was keeping watch on the beings that have lived and continue to live in this place.  The light of the last rays of that day’s sun created an intensity of strength emanating from these beings watching over the gravesites in the ancient village, the fallen totem poles and the Skeena river.

The Skeena River is deceptively dangerous.  The current is wild and dangerous.  There are upswells and a place in the middle is known as the ‘shaman’s whirlpool’ which has taken people and canoes under on many occasions.  The river is a turquoise color, the rocks covered with shades of lichens (blacks, greens, yellows).

Photo taken by Udi of the view of Skeena River and mountains beyond, Kitselas Canyon

Beyond the river, mountains raise and there are evergreen trees and aspens yellowing in the decreasing Autumn daylight hours.  On the other side of the river, the train runs straight through where the Gitsxan once had their fortress – a large longhouse to which villagers would escape to during times of siege.

Photo taken by Udi – Dempsey Bob looking into the currents of the Skeena River, Kitselas Canyon

Brian and Dempsey decided to take us all the way down to the river’s edge.  We had to walk through brush and on a muddy path.  There was an eerie feeling here and we were told half-way down that we were in the middle of the old village, the longhouses and gravesites and that old totem poles were decomposing amidst the vines and brush.

Photo taken by Udi – Dempsey helping us to see a petroglyph carved onto a rock o the banks of the Skeena River, Kitselas Canyon

We walked slowly on the small rocks along the river’s edge and then towards the larger rocks where Dempsey found a petroglyph and poured some water on it so that we could see it more closely.   On the rocks next to and on the river, there are highly intricate petroglyphs of spirit beings (this is obvious as the beings look like they are being x-rayed, you can see their bones) amongst other animal forms and symbols.  There is still a great deal of speculation as to what these mean.

After walking, observing, feeling, breathing it was time to leave.  There was barely any light left.  Dempsey handed us a perfectly round stone as we begun to walk back up through the brush.  We thanked him for the beautiful stone and he said that it was not him that we should thank.  He had asked Brian’s permission for us to be given the stone because afterall, it was a stone that was not from his territory, but rather from that of Brian’s.  Dempsey could not have given us the stone without either putting another one in its place or without permission from a community member of that First Nations territory.  It was then we really began to further understand this notion of reciprocity and how it is practiced.

Walking through the forest out of the canyon, it was nearly dark.  I kept thinking I saw shadows of different animals.  Brian told us stories of playing in these woods as a boy and encountering bears and wolves.

The longhouses were striking under the dim lights as we emerged from the forest.  I felt I understood more about the importance of these reconstructed longhouses, the cultural connections for artists such as Stan, Dempsey, Brian and Ken – and for the students to have the opportunity to engage so intimately with repatriating space and culture through their art.  There was a strong sense of healing in this place – for Brian, for the forest, the river and the ancestors.

I was also understanding more about the stories and symbols represented in totem poles and designs.  Like Udi, I was starting to see ovoid shapes and animals within the rocks and the forests.  I could only imagine what it must be like for these artists to live in such a wondrous storied landscape with the stories echoing through the ages.

Read More

Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, an overview

Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, an overview

Posted by on nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art sits on the outskirts of Terrace, population 11,000, in the far North of British Columbia. The town is crossed by the Transcanada highway which connects the country from Winnipeg on the East to Prince Rupert on the west coast. The town, surrounded by mountains and forests, is also home to large lumber yards and number of motels housing the temporary workers labouring on various construction projects in the energy industry. The School is part of Northwest Community College and is housed in a large converted workshop building on campus. As we go in early in the morning, students are arriving and settling in their desks and earnestly busying themselves with their drawings. Inside a large banner hangs with the School’s logo and First Nations designs decorate the walls. We are received at the school by Stan Bevan (Tahltan/Tlingit /Tsimshian) and Ken McNeil (Tahltan/Tlingit/Nisga’a) Dean Heron (Kaska/Tlingit). The School was set up in 2006 by Dempsey and his nephews Stan and Ken with the help of Rocque Berthiaume an anthropologist and art historian already working in the Northwest Community College.

 

The School runs a traditional Northwest coast art two-year programme, with an intake of around 25 each year. The students come from a range of First Nations across British Columbia (B.C.) which presents some challenges for the instructors because of the diversity of language communities represented and the range of stories and styles from the communities people come from. The Northwest Community College website states that students in the College as a whole come from 27 out of the 197 different nations in B.C.

 

In the School the students get a thorough training in drawing and carving, learning the grammar of Northwest coast art, its forms and transformations and the iconic representations of the important animals of this region. Over our time here we saw the students meticulously drawing, copying the traditional designs from old bentwood boxes from large photo reproductions spread across the desks. Those in their second year were creating their own compositions in different colored ink. Students also learn to carve masks, spoons, bigger sculptures and are often invited to help the instructors working on larger commissions and totem poles. The course also teaches the students how to make their own tools, how to source and treat the wood for their carvings, and how to engage with the art market. At the end of their second year the students exhibit their work in the prestigious Spirit Whistler Gallery in Vancouver (more on this later).

 

Students drawing at Freda Diesing, photo by Udi

The teaching occurs through the examples of the ‘old pieces’, high quality work done in the past by these communities and now found mainly in museums across the world. Teaching also occurs through the examples and instructions of Dempsey, Ken, Stan and Dean who offer constant feedback to the students. Students also learn from each other, showing and commenting on each others work and creating a supportive environment that I did not encounter in the art college I went to. With Rocque students have classes in the history of Northwest coast art which takes place through lectures and visits to significant sites such as the Nisga’a museum, the Kitsela Canyon, and elsewhere, where students can learn from the pieces and from others practitioners.

Also significant at the school are the guest lecturers who include those involved in the art market, in museums (see the entry on our conversation with Bill McLennan from the anthropology museum in Vancouver), as well as artists from abroad. A group of Maori artists, with whom the instructors have had a long working relationship, are regular lecturers in the course.

teaching Northwest Cost designs, photo by Udi

 

An important element of the school for us was also the role of stories and their connection to this art form. Whereas the art from the Northwest coast has its particular grammar of forms, it is also embedded in a larger web of stories concerning the various animals represented and their relationships to humans and the land. This rich and diverse web of stories permeates the lives of the various Nations of this region. Yet we do not pretend to understand but the very basics of this highly intricate and complex cosmology and the role of stories within it which involves such things as clan and family affiliations, kinship rules, origin stories, history, ecological and spiritual knowledge, rights to land and cultural property.

 

Panel on Northwest Coast Nations from the Museum of Northern British Columbia, Prince Rupert.

What was significant for us, in our enquiry upon enlivened forms of learning, was to see how art served as a conduit to reconnect with these ways of knowing embedded in these communities. As such students were encouraged, through their art practice, to learn these stories and the ways of knowing and being expressed in them. As narrated to us by the instructors and students we talked to, this process of reconnecting with the stories, art forms and cultural practices also led to a rekindled sense of identity, cultural pride and feeling of belonging.

 

Read More

Burning the totems, residential schools and an art resurgence

Burning the totems, residential schools and an art resurgence

Posted by on nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art | 0 comments

Tlingit sculpture of a missionary, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria (photo by Udi)

 

A number of the oppressive acts against First Nations committed by the settlers and the Canadian state we learned about in Alberta were also perpetrated in British Columbia. The same pattern of the spread of diseases, the appropriation of land, the extraction of resources, the destruction of culture through missionary zeal, the prohibition of ceremonies and the removal of children to residential schools were also part of the stories we were told here. Just as the bundles were targeted by missionaries in Alberta, in B.C. it was the totem poles which were taken to be the most visible expression of local beliefs and ceremonies. These were either burnt or bought, at times under dubious circumstances, finding their way to museum collections across the world.

 

In time few master carvers and artists, with skills that had been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, remained. For several generations no poles or masks were carved in many of these communities. It was not until after the Second World War and the period of gradual removal of the oppressive laws against First Nations peoples that a group of artists started to re-learn the art, piecing fragments together from surviving artists and learning from the old pieces that were scattered across collections throughout the world. Pioneers such as Bill Reid, Freda Diesing her student Dempsey Bob and others, provoked a resurgence in northwest coast art. Whereas today a number of professional and world renowned artists from this region ensure the place of this art form in the public imagination and in the international art market, the Freda Diesing school is the only one in the country that provides training for a new generation of artists.

Burnt mask, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria (photo by Udi)

 

As Dempsey and other instructors we talked to put it, it is hard to be an artists and develop these skills by yourself. The school provides an environment where this development is nourished and supported by a community of other artists, instructors and fellow students.

Read More

Residential schooling

Residential schooling

Posted by on nov 6, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 1 comment

This is a difficult blog entry to write as neither of us has had the experience of this kind of schooling and the forms of cultural oppression it brings, but also because it is always challenging to faithfully give an account of experiences and stories one is told. However, given that  so many people spoke about residential schools to us not only here in Alberta with the Blackfoot but throughout our journey across Canada we felt that we had to write about this. Residential schooling is an underground current, and for most a poisoning one, that has permeated the formative experiences of many First Nations peoples not only in Canada but in many other settler societies where the government had a policy of assimilation.

St. Mary’s Residential School Dormitory – photo from Glenbow Museum Archives

As we heard from a number of people we talked to, residential schools perpetrated a still present trauma in First Nations communities as children were forcibly removed from their families and schooled into the ways of thinking, believing, of being and relating of the White settlers. The schools where run by different Christian denominations and the Blackfoot language was forbidden. During the same period the government prohibited the Blackfoot from practicing their ceremonies, dances and from leaving the reserve without permission.

 

The first residential schools were opened in the 1840s with the last one closing its doors in 1996. At school, children had to cut their hair, speak only in English and learn a history which was not their own. At the same time they were made to feel that the ways of their grandparents were inferior to those of the settlers. They were also required to pray and learn the teachings of the bible. The government and the church have only recently offered a public apology for these policies and associated abuses and we were surprised to find ‘truth and reconciliation’ commissions for residential schools when we arrived in Canada. Also through our stay a number of stories in the press addressed grievances against former teachers of some of these schools who were accused of abusing the children.

 

We heard many stories of the adverse effects of the loss of family, culture, community and of a way of life with its complex mesh of social, ecological, spiritual and economic practices for those who attended residential schools. The loss of orientation in the world which the destruction of this mesh was attributed to the hardship encountered in First Nations communities; alcoholism, violence and abuse, suicide, loss of confidence and so on. A key part of this, as we heard, revolved around a crisis of identity, of having one’s culture destroyed and delegitimised, of being in a limbo state of not really knowing who you are.

Education panel from Blackfoot exhibition at the Glenbow musuem, Calgary.

 

At the same time we also learnt of how much effort is being placed on healing and cultural rejuvenation amongst First Nations communities around the impact of these policies on individuals, families and communities. What has occurred since the 1960s is a reawakening of First Nations spirituality, ceremonies and societies, of art and education.  Alongside this cultural re-invigoration a stronger assertion surrounding land and treaty disputes with the Canadian government has also been seen (see our entry on the Nisga’a from Northern British Columbia).

Community Colleges Panel, Blackfoot Exhibition, Glenbow museum, Calgary.

Red Crow Community College is part of this wave of cultural reawakening as First Nations groups seek to gain more control over their own education. Kainai Studies, as far as we understand, is the first and most successful initiative at a post-secondary school level which is reconnecting with the Blackfoot way of being, knowing and doing which was deliberately destroyed through residential schooling. That Red Crow college is housed in what used to be St. Mary’s residential school makes their victory all the more palpable.

St Mary’s Residential School, Blood Reserve, photo from Royal Alberta museum exhibition, Edmonton

Read More

Deadened and Enlivened Knowledges – Encounters of Blackfoot and Settlers

Deadened and Enlivened Knowledges – Encounters of Blackfoot and Settlers

Posted by on nov 6, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

Both Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavy Head told us the stories of how when the European first arrived in Blackfoot traditional territory they were given a Beaver Bundle. I try to imagine the scene and the bafflement in the face of the Bundle recipient, receiving and opening this gift with dozens of animal skins and other objects. What would a European educated Christian aristocrat have made of this object with no point of reference as to how to interpret or use let alone make sense of the complex knowledge it contained. The Bundle was offered in generosity by the Blackfoot, as a way of sowing the newcomers that if they were to be here to stay then they might as well have the knowledge of how to survive and how to enter into reciprocal relationships with the beings of this place. Needless to say, no meetings of minds did take place. The European settlers went on to exploit the land, decimate the buffalo, spread horrific disease such as smallpox (accidentally at the onset though with increasing intentionality as time passed) which killed the vast majority of First Nations peoples across not only Canada but all the Americas. The settlers also introduced new crops and animals to the grasslands (eradicating much of the original prairie grasslands) and removed the Blackfoot from their land, isolating them onto reservations that were a fraction of their traditional territory. The government then passed the Indian Act in 1885 which prohibited the Blackfoot from leaving the reserves without a pass, outlawed their ceremonies and introduced residential schools.

 

Beaver Bundles, according to Ryan and Narcisse, were also targeted by missionaries who recognised these as a central part of Blackfoot spirituality. The Bundles found their way into the hands of various collectors, eventually being acquired by a number of museums such as the Peabody, in Harvard University, or the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. It is only in the last three or four decades that a process of cultural rejuvenation and healing has begun in First Nations communities. An important part of this has been the movement of repatriation, of their children from adoptive homes and from the legacy of residential schooling, and of cultural and religious artefacts housed in collections throughout the world. Ryan’s involvement with the Bundle started in this way, through the repatriation of the Bundle from the Peabody Museum (see the museum’s repatriation announcement).

 

On several occasions in conversations with both Ryan and Narcisse the concept of ‘dead knowledge’ came up. This sometimes emerged in reference to traditional museum practices and their treatment of objects which are removed from their connection to people and ceremony and instead rendered as things for contemplation, as examples of the past (see also ‘Everything was Carved’, the film I made about the Haida, from British Columbia, and their interaction with the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford). Instead for the Blackfoot objects such as the Beaver Bundle is considered as a living entity to be treated with respect and, as written previously, are intrinsically woven into to a tapestry of ceremonies, songs, dance and ecological-spiritual knowledge. The Anthropology Museum in Vancouver which we visited has engaged with this issue in a creative way by housing the objects in their museum but allowing them to be used in ceremonies by the communities they belong to (see the blog entry on this which is to come).

 

Ryan also referred to how nature is often regarded in the disciplines of ecology, zoology, and by nature reserves and parks, as a manifestation of this deadening knowledge that removes the objects it studies (or preserves) from the world placing them in a realm that precludes human interaction and first person experience. In opposition to this approach to knowing, an aspect of the knowledge and learning that is encouraged at Red Crow appears to revolve around the development of relationships through the process of knowing. This knowing entails a deep process that when students learn a place they do so not from a distance but rather through an intimate connection with it.

Read More