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A trip to the Nisga’a museum, our first day in Terrace

A trip to the Nisga’a museum, our first day in Terrace

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

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.


Nisga’a Museum

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.

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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.

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