We were nearly an hour late for our appointment with Bill McLennan, head of Northwest coast art at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, yet he still gave us a warm welcome, and a generous and intimate tour of the museum. Bill has for many years been researching the art of this region and getting to know the communities who make it. When we were at the Freda Diesing School, multiple copies of Bill’s book The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations could be seen across the desks and were constantly used by students. This book was affectionately, and mischievously, called ‘the bible’ of the course by Dempsey. The black and white photographs of the bentwood boxes whose designs the students meticulously copied in their drawing exercises also came from Bill and his work. Bill stumbled upon this technique of photographing these old pieces with infrared film so as to bring out more the faded designs. Bill also sits on the advisory board of the School and is a regular lecturer there.
The Museum of Anthropology sits at the far end of the leafy campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The modern concrete building perched on a hill overlooks the Bay that edges the city. Through the museum window we see the cold waters of the Bay glistening in the light of the setting sun – the contours of hills and small islands engulfed by evergreen trees that thrive down to the water’s edge. This was like no other anthropology museum I ever saw. You walk through the entrance into a large hall with a number of different totem poles from this region, both old and some contemporary. Bill guided us through the museum which was about to shut, taking us through the main hall, the contemporary exhibits, the new wing which displays the art of this region in an innovative way and other various rooms.
In the new wing, in a section entitled ‘multiverse’, objects are displayed in glass cabinets as well as drawing on an interactive online set of catalogues. The notion of ‘multiverse’ As the panel introducing this wing explains provides an explicit valuing of different worldviews, cultural practices and ways of knowing without valuing one over another. The panel also explains the role that First Nations groups have had in helping to curate and tell the stories of the objects displayed. We were thrilled to see this perspective of a ‘multiversity’ so explicitly stated and practiced in the museum. This resonates with the idea of the ‘multiversity’ found in higher education which similarly acknowledges that there are diverse knowledges, ways of learning, teaching, engaging, relating and living. The Multiversity movement internationally rejects that there is and can be a single definition of a ‘Uni’ -versity that, in the movement’s perspective has been colonised by ‘Western’ notions of Higher Education. The multiple ways of valuing in the ‘multi-verse’ section of the museum reflects how Bill and the museum have put into practice this pluralistic valuing of cultural objects as objects to learn from in museums and as artefacts part of living cultures.
Museum practice has come a long way from earlier museum attitudes whereby indigenous artefacts were often seen as ‘deadened’ fossilised cultures, as remnants from a previous age. As Bill explained, here the attitude of the museum is instead one in which it sees its role as that of a caretaker of objects that are part of living cultures. The Anthropology Museum has long running relationships with many of the communities from across Canada where these objects come from. There is an acknowledgement that although they are stored and displayed here for the general public, many of these objects still belong to these communities and that they are entitled to use them when required, such as for certain ceremonies.
I ask Bill how the curators at the museum, those responsible for the preservation of these objects across time, responded to these changes in practice. Bill replied that they have come around over time. The approach taken is then a pragmatic one acknowledging that the museum is split between two not altogether unreconcilable positions; first, that of a publicly and government funded institution with a role of displaying these objects so that people can learn more about them and the cultures that made them. Secondly; museums also have the role of being the guardians of these objects for the communities that have made them and opening the doors of the museum so that these cultures can tell their stories too.
As we have seen, some Nations such as the Haida and the Nisga’a already have their own museum or heritage centre, whilst others do not have the facility or prefer to house their artefacts in museums and make use of them when needed. The Anthropology Museum also has a number of outreach and participatory projects with First Nations communities such as community arts projects or housing visiting artists who make their art in the museum. Bill told us how sometimes carvers would carve a pole or sculpture in the main hall for the public to see them at work and people describe this as their most memorable experience of the museum.
Museums have come to play an important role in our ‘enlivened learning’ journey, providing us with a multi-sensory learning environment through which we have walked and traced our own paths of discovery. The stories woven together in these places have been significant additions to the other places of learning we have written about such as historical or sacred sites or landscapes. Museums have also provided a historical grounding or context to the various conversations we had and stories we heard across Canada. Adding to the written sources we have consulted, and our own experiences across places, museums have provided further threads through which the mesh of our learning has taken place.
From Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, to Writing-on-Stone, from the Nisga’a museum to the Blackfoot exhibition at the Glenbow museum, these are all examples of museums and displays designed, curated and run by First Nations peoples to tell their stories to their own communities and to others. We learnt much from these exhibitions, from the objects displayed, to the labels and narratives surrounding them, to the total experience they were trying to create. We have over our blog postings used a number of photos from these exhibits to try to convey a sense of the stories and histories being told.
In our travels we also went to several national museums, the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria, the Northern British Columbia Museum in Prince Rupert and the Fort Museum in Fort MacLoud. In many of these cases we also saw how national museums are trying to deal with and navigate the turbulent history of colonialism in Canada and the complex relationship between settler society and First Nations groups. Here we could see an attempt to represent the dark past of Canadian history, the oppressive Indian Laws, the broken and unjust treaties, the missionary conversions, the spread of disease, residential schools, the destruction of cultures and ways of life. We also saw attempts in these museums to show the cultural resurgence occurring since the 1960s, the contemporary artistic, educational, political and spiritual life of these communities. Many of these exhibitions were also curated in partnership with First Nations peoples.
Museums are an important source of authoritative knowledge in our society and increasingly for First Nations too. They are spaces of learning where this occurs in a multi-sensory way, not only through text, but also through objects, and increasingly through audio-visual and various digital media (see for instance my most recent film for the Pitt Rivers museum, Artisans of Memory). Museums are spaces where stories can be brought alive, that is why they are so popular especially with schools and parents. Behind these multi-sensory environments there are multiple designs, narratives and stories of how the world makes sense as well as through sets of implicit values.
Taking a slight detour and speaking about the use of museum in another context. We had wanted to go up to the Tar Sands region in northern Alberta to see for ourselves this place that is often talked about by First Nations peoples with much concern for the destruction it is causing to the water systems (not only immediately within this region but to much wider areas to connected watersheds across Canada and beyond) and the adverse health effects on neighbouring communities. We wanted to see this region as its development is proving to be the engine of the growth of Canadian economy and also because of its role as an increasingly important source of oil for the US and China. The region is then highly strategic for the oil economy but also of insurmountable significance in the costs to the environment and the process of climate change. I bring this up here because the corporations developing the Tar Sands also have their own museum in Fort McMurray designed to show the public their activities funded by private companies and the Alberta government. We wanted to see what this museum, the Oil Sands Information Center looked like and to experience its narratives and sets of values, but the journey north proved too far for our limited time.
Museums are then important sites of storytelling and conveying certain views of the world. They are also powerful institutions, closely tied with the world of academia and the sciences, which have come to have an authoritative aura for providing a legitimate description of the world. It is heartening to see that some of these institutions are now working much more closely with First Nations to not only include but voice their own view of the world, narratives of their histories, their ways of living, their spirituality and values. It is also significant how First Nations are appropriating and engaging with the institution of the museum, just as they are also doing with the institution of the university, as sites for the communication of their worlds and values, both for themselves and for others.Read More
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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