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.

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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.

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