Braden Holtby’s new mask designed in collaboration with Luke Marston and David Gunnarsson. (Mike Wavrecan photo)

Braden Holtby’s new mask designed in collaboration with Luke Marston and David Gunnarsson. (Mike Wavrecan photo)

Quinn: Art is more than simple expression in First Nations culture

Indigenous artwork has a connection to its people, and vice versa

When new Vancouver Canucks’ goaltender Braden Holtby initially unveiled the artwork for his goalie mask, I was surprised that a company from Sweden would think it was OK to copy a First Nations design without consulting any First Nations.

I was even more surprised at the number of people in the general public who think it is acceptable.

I give credit to Holtby that once he discovered what he did was considered cultural appropriation, he apologized and immediately worked to set it right. He found Vancouver Island Indigenous artist Luke Marston and together with NHL mask artist David Gunnarsson, they designed an appropriate mask for the goalie.

RELATED: Vancouver Island Coast Salish artist unveils new mask for Canucks goalie

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This isn’t the first conversation I’ve read recently about cultural appropriation: a non-Indigenous person recently posted a carving for sale fashioned as a “totem pole” and was criticized for trying to capitalize on culture that wasn’t theirs. Many commenters, some of whom I know to be non-Indigenous, didn’t see anything wrong with it. Art is art, they said.

When it comes to First Nations art, that’s not the case: art is connection to ancestors, to family, and it is as individual as it is sacred.

“First Nations art is symbolism and an expression of and from individual, familial, Tribal, ‘government,’ history and legend,” Ed Samuel wrote on several Facebook posts as a result of Alberni Valley News’ coverage of the new mask unveiling.

“One really cannot use our names, titles, songs, dances, art form without participation and belonging to our House system and Potlatch.”

Indigenous artwork has a connection to its people, and vice versa, Samuel explained both online and in a telephone conversation later. This connection is celebrated in potlatches, which are held for celebration, tradition, tribal laws and more, he explained.

“The Potlatch is our gathering where we express to our communities, but song, dance and including art in our curtains, regalia, drums and carvings…First Nations can have clan and/ or house systems for communal and governance structure, which is commonly marked with art design on long houses, totem poles, Potlatch curtains and more.”

This artwork isn’t there to be taken by anyone who wants it. Taking it without it being gifted to you is stealing.

Samuel does not call himself an Indigenous artist, although he is involved in his Nuu-chah-nulth culture in a variety of ways, including dancing and singing.

“Having many artist friends, my context and intent in commenting is out of respect for their talent and our culture,” Samuel said.

Cultural appropriation isn’t limited to two-dimensional or three-dimensional art forms either, he said. Canadian actor and director Michelle Latimer recently found herself in hot water when she claimed a family connection to a First Nation without first making sure she was correct. She profited from that connection, which was later found to be false. She has since resigned from her latest CBC television show.

“That’s a balance that is not OK,” Samuel said. “We have to find a respectful balance.”

Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor. For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

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