Potlatch 67-67: Artists creating new forms of expression

Potlatch 67-67: Artists creating new forms of expression

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cathy Browne is very proud of her new front door. All the new doors are lovely and create an individual look for each room. Photo submitted
Courtenay’s Glacier View Lodge dressing up its doorways for residents

Glacier View Lodge’s vision of ‘feels like home’ has been enhanced this… Continue reading

Ginette Matthews shows off some of the wares at The Local Refillery. Photo by Femke Overmaat
Pandemic meant going digital quickly for Courtenay’s Local Refillery

Owner Ginette Matthews says system keep business open in its early months

Comox Valley RCMP are looking for witnesses after the theft of a generator worth thousands of dollars. Photo supplied
Comox Valley RCMP asking public to watch for stolen generator

Vehicle may have been travelling on Highway 19

Tom Lennox finds peace when he runs in the Cumberland Forest. He hasn’t missed a day in nearly a year. Photo supplied
Cumberland runner nears 366 consecutive days on the trails

Cumberland resident Tom Lennox has been running a minimum of five kilometres… Continue reading

Courtenay’s Ace Brewing Company’s Jet Fuel IPA was chosen for second place in the annual Canadian Brewing Awards. Photo submitted
Courtenay brewery takes silver medal at Canadian Brewing Awards

“It’s huge - they are the biggest awards in Canada that you can get (in the brewing industry).”

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. (News Bulletin file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Nanaimo hospital

Two staff members and one patient have tested positive, all on the same floor

A long-term care worker receives the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic in Nanaimo earlier this month. (Island Health photo)
All Island seniors in long-term care will be vaccinated by the end of this weekend

Immunization of high-risk population will continue over the next two months

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move to Vancouver Island will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

A video posted to social media by Chilliwack resident Rob Iezzi shows a teenager getting kicked in the face after being approached by three suspects on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (YouTube/Rob i)
VIDEO: Security cameras capture ‘just one more assault’ near B.C. high school

Third high-school related assault captured by Chilliwack resident’s cameras since beginning of 2021

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma State Rep. Justin Humphrey prepares to speak at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. A mythical, ape-like creature that has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades has now become the target of Rep. Justin Humphrey. Humphrey, a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season, He says issuing a state hunting license and tag could help boost tourism. (Steve Gooch/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
Oklahoma lawmaker proposes ‘Bigfoot’ hunting season

A Republican House member has introduced a bill that would create a Bigfoot hunting season

Economic Development and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly responds to a question in the House of Commons Monday November 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Federal minister touts need for new B.C. economic development agency

Last December’s federal economic update promised a stimulus package of about $100 billion this year

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2017, file photo, Larry King attends the 45th International Emmy Awards at the New York Hilton, in New York. Former CNN talk show host King has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for more than a week, the news channel reported Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021. CNN reported the 87-year-old King contracted the coronavirus and was undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File)
Larry King, broadcasting giant for half-century, dies at 87

King conducted an estimated 50,000 on-air interviews

Most Read