Potlatch 67-67: Artists creating new forms of expression

Potlatch 67-67: Artists creating new forms of expression

Part 2 of a three-part series on the significance of the potlatch to Vancouver Island First Nations

This is the second of a three-part series looking at the significance of the potlatch for the Kwakawaka’wakw of the Pacific Northwest, the attempted cultural genocide through a federal anti-potlatch ban and how artists are creating new forms of expression in conjunction with an upcoming thematic program entitled Potlatch 67-67: The Potlatch Ban – Then and Now, opening at the Comox Valley Art Gallery July 20.

***

Hundreds of miles away on Level 4 of the Vancouver International Airport is a painted bird mask carved from red cedar.

Its large, oval eyes and long jaw is a feature of the Kulus – a supernatural bird often referred to as the younger sibling of the thunderbird.

There are some physical similarities between it and the Hetux, the large Baltic birch and aluminum sculpture hanging from the ceiling of the international level at YVR.

The Kulus was once a potlatch mask; the Hetux is a sculptural piece that combines the thunderbird and the personality of a determined, creative and generous woman.

Both pieces have a connection to Connie Watts, who, upon touring the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay where the Kulus now sits, received new knowledge and family history.

Watts, who is of Nuu-chah-nulth, Gitxsan and Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry, created the Hetux, which greets travellers heading to and from their destinations in Vancouver.

It’s one of many mixed media pieces from the artist who splits her time between Port Alberni and West Vancouver.

She is also one of the artists invited to be part of an Indigenous art showcase hiłt̕sist̕a’a̱m (the copper will be fixed), part of the Potlatch 67–67: The Potlatch Ban – Then and Now at the Comox Valley Art Gallery opening next month.

• • •

When Watts was six years old, she attended a potlatch in Alert Bay. While she only has a few memories of the event, she recalls driving down a small road. There was a feeling of secrecy – a need to keep everything hidden.

“It affected the way I tell stories – we’re so used to hiding the most important things (in our life) because we’re thinking every time someone might take it away. (The potlatch ban) was a genocide that happened with open eyes. At six years old, you’re impacted.”

Elder Axu, Agnes Alfred, holding repatriated Raven and Ermine headdress that had belonged to K´wamxudi (her grandfather or uncle), U’mista Cultural Centre, 1980. Viciki Jensen, UPN-00384/Umista Cultural Centre

According to an amendment to the Indian Act in 1880, any Indigenous person who engages in potlatch was guilty of a misdemeanour, and liable to imprisonment.

The anti-potlatch proclamation was issued in 1883; on Jan. 1, 1885, it became law.

More than 600 masks, rattles and heirlooms were taken during the course of the ban. Other confiscated ceremonial items, including blankets, masks, carvings and regalia, were dispersed through collectors and museums, and sold throughout the 67-year ban.

“If someone stole a car and you bought it, is that car still stolen?” asks Watts. “Of course it is. There are (now) laws, but history is still in place.”

Much of her work fuses the very essence of being a Northwest Coast First Nation artist to the past, present and future.

When Watts was contacted by Potlatch 67-67 curator Lee Everson to see if she wanted to create a piece for the showcase, she was immediately interested.

She says the 67 years of the implementation of the ban speaks to the embodiment and strength of First Nation people and what they went through.

“I went to another potlatch later on (in life) in Campbell River; I remember being wowed and embraced. It is a combination of symphony and dance and theatre totally enveloped in life, in art and in culture.”

Campbell River artist and fellow Potlatch 67-67 contributor Liz Carter says many people aren’t even aware of the ban, and what it means for so many Indigenous people.

“We have a lack of understanding of the consequences of the ban and how it affects us now. There’s such an immediate reaction of, ‘Get over it.’ They took away our spiritual value, our language, our governance.”

Carter – a mixed media artist – uses culturally-significant materials such as wood, copper, buttons and animal skins in new ways, and utilizes mixed meanings to examine displacement and loss of tradition.

She plans on creating a new piece to fit with the theme – and wants to ensure it connects to reconciliation. She says dialogue around potlatches – and the ban – is becoming a bit more common in conversations.

“I’m excited (about the showcase) because I think it will be really great for the audience. People think of Aboriginal art as traditional art, or that it’s a dying art. A lot of people aren’t familiar with the contemporary side of Aboriginal art. I would like to see more understanding and more acceptance, more response to what Indigenous people in North America are going through. I know it’s a big wish list, but it’s got to start somewhere.”

• • •

As part of the artist showcase at the gallery, Everson says artists were invited to provide responses through their practice to the impact of the potlatch ban and its reinstatement on their lives, families, communities, art-making and cultural practices.

Because Indigenous culture is an oral culture, Everson said many families lost their identities.

“Where does that leave those people today?”

In hopes of engaging and educating, Everson, along with her husband Nagedzi, Rob Everson, hereditary chief, Gigalga̱m Wala̱s Kwaguł, envisioned an arts and cultural program that would engage the community and other Canadians – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – about the history and impact of the potlatch ban.

The thematic program includes the art exhibition hiłt̕sist̕a’a̱m (the copper will be fixed), a creative residency, community engagement through traditional ceremony and knowledge-sharing, performance, film screening, sharing circles, blanket exercise workshops, documentation practices, a dedicated website and an e-publication.

It will bring together more than a dozen artists, all living in the western part of B.C. and affiliated with six different First Nations.

hiłt̕sist̕a’a̱m (the copper will be fixed), Potlatch 67–67: The Potlatch Ban – Then and Now is set for July 20 to Oct. 4 at the Comox Valley Art Gallery. For more information, visit potlatch6767.com, or visit the Potlatch67 67 Facebook page.

Just Posted

B.C. Centre for Disease Control maps showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 4-10. (BCCDC image)
Parksville-Qualicum passes Nanaimo in new COVID-19 cases

B.C. Centre for Disease Control reports 65 new cases in Oceanside health area April 4-10

A nearly four-hour standoff at an apartment complex on Cowichan Lake Road in Duncan ended peacefully on Wednesday, April 14. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Police standoff at Duncan apartment ends peacefully

Officers surround building as homeowner held in apartment for nearly four hours by adult son

Pacific Institution in Abbotsford. (Black Press Media file photo)
Inmate with ties to Victoria dies in Abbotsford institution

Brodie Bingley, who was sentenced for aggravated assault in Maple Ridge died April 13

Norm Scott, president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch # 91, is disappointed the Legion does not qualify for COVID financial assistance from the provincial government. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C.’s pandemic aid package passing Legion branches by

Federal non-profit status stymies provincial assistance eligibility

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as he walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

The Baynes Sound Connector leaves Denman Island en route to Buckley Bay. Photo by Erin Haluschak
Baynes Sound Connector undergoing upgrades

The MV Quinitsa is providing service between Buckley Bay and Denman Island

The corner of 96th Avenue and Glover Road in Fort Langley now has traffic signals, and new “touchless” signal activation buttons. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Busy Fort Langley intersection gets ‘touchless’ crosswalk signals

The new traffic light started operation in April

A crossing guard stops traffic as students wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-infected students in Lower Mainland schools transmitting to 1 to 2 others: data

Eight to 13 per cent of COVID cases among students in the Lower Mainland were acquired in schools, B.C. says

Latest modelling by public health shows cases generated by COVID-19 infections into places where it can spread quickly. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
Industrial sites, pubs, restaurants driving COVID-19 spread in B.C.

Infection risk higher in offices, retail, warehouses, farms

Quatse, the abandoned sea otter pup who was rescued in Port Hardy. (Marine Mammal Rescue Centre photo)
Quatse the sea otter pup continues to recover in treatment

Quatse’s last “pupdate” was on March 31, where it was noted she is “doing well and gaining weight.”

Hwy. 4 was shut down in both directions for 10 hours on March 23 as a rock bluff was blasted as part of Kennedy Hill’s ongoing construction. Commuters can expect five more 10 hour closures on five consecutive Wednesdays beginning April 28. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)
Five 10-hour Pacific Rim highway closures planned in the next 6 weeks

Closures needed for rock blasting as part of the Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement project.

Bulldogs forward Stephen Castagna flips the puck into the Clippers zone during a game on Oct. 24. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Island BCHL game postponed due to ‘potential positive’ COVID-19 test

Nanaimo Clippers team suspends activities, players isolating pending further test results

Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller said it would be “very challenging and not very safe” for him and his teammates to play as scheduled on Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Canucks’ return to ice postponed again after players voice COVID health concerns

Friday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers was called off after the team met virtually with the NHLPA

Most Read