Story by Emilee Gilpin
The history, power and beauty of Dzawada’enuxw First Nation’s traditional territories and her descendants speak through at UBC’s Belkin Gallery in a new exhibition.
Hexsa’am: To be Here Always, intended to be experienced and embodied, tells stories that date back generations and invites participants to listen to the voices of Dzawada’enuxw ancestors speak to today’s generation, calling them to continue the legacy they left behind.
It features video installations, archival prints, acrylic work, digital prints, video work and more, of Dzawada’enuxw artists Marianne (Tayagila’ogwa) Nicolson, Lindsey Willie, Jaymyn La Vallee, Nabidu Taylor, and Darryll Dawson. The showcase also features the work of artists Tania Williard (Secwépemc), Kamala Todd (Métis-Cree), Scott Benesiinaabandan (Anishinaabe), Siku Allooloo (Inuk, Haitain Taíno), Diane Roberts (Afro-Indigenous Caribbean), Sarah Siestreem (Hanis Coo), and William Wasden Jr. (Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw).
Nicolson, who’s Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw and Scottish, has trained in both traditional Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw forms and culture and Western European-based art practice. She completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts (1996), a Masters of Fine Arts (1999), a Masters of Linguistics and Anthropology (2005) and a Ph.D. in Linguistics and Anthropology (2013). Nicolson has exhibited her work locally, nationally and internationally, as a painter, photographer, installation artist and writer.
Canadian visual artist Althea Thauberger and Nicolson were active partners in the project, from its inception. The two women worked together, activating what they called a "settler-Indigenous collaboration," with Thauberger working as a producer and facilitator, and Nicolson the director and project lead.
Thauberger and Nicolson presented the idea for the multi-disciplinary exhibition, connecting the acts of governance taken up by community members today to the cultural strength of their predecessors, and they put out a call for community artists to participate. Once five Dzawada’enuxw artists and other professional artists were chosen for the project, they brought everyone together at a potlatch in Alert Bay last year, feasted and discussed the work ahead.
Nicolson told National Observer how the Dzawada’enuxw and other artists worked across cultural and professional backgrounds to create the project. It is intended as a journey through time and space in one of the most breathtaking territories on the central coast of B.C. It’s open to the public at the Belkin Gallery until April 7, 2019.
“We brought the professional artists to our potlatch. It was like an indoctrination for them to see how we do things,” Nicolson explained in an interview on January 15. “They came and bore witness.”
After the potlatch, all of the artists took workshops in Vancouver, organized by Cineworks, a nonprofit independent filmmaker’s society. Cineworks donated equipment to some of the artists, which they brought to Kingcome Inlet in summer 2018, using film, video, social media, weaving, animation, drawing, language, and song to address their joint efforts to protect and defend the land and water.
“It was important to ground the professional artists within our own frameworks as Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw people and our land base, so we brought them in the summer to Kingcome to spend a week working with the participant artists and be on the land and see what it would say to them,” Nicolson explained. “All the works came out of that.”
The official opening of the exhibit took place Jan. 10, 2019, just hours after the Dzawada’enuxw Nation filed a lawsuit against the government of Canada, upholding their traditional legal obligations and asserting their constitutionally-protected aboriginal rights.
Days later, Nicolson told National Observer how the two events were intimately connected.
'I wanted to bring it back to what it is to us.'
Dividing the centre gallery hangs a large dance screen, by Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw artist and singer William Wasden Jr. Traditionally in potlatches, dance screens are used to divide the "behind-the-scenes” preparation from the floor where the ceremony is conducted, Nicolson explained. In the exhibit, the gallery separates one set of artwork from a space laid out “almost ceremonial.”
Feast dish lids, taken back into the hands of the community from the Museum of Anthropology, for the purpose of the exhibition, rest in the middle of the room. The lids are positioned where the fire would usually be in a ptlatch, Nicolson explained.
"I wanted to show these lids, but shift the meaning and understanding of what those things are," Nicolson said. On the wall is a life-size photograph of Kwakwaka'wakw men, taken in Kingcome, who are looking into the rest of the space.
"These are all our grandparents. My grandpa's older brother is standing beside the Dzunuḵ̓wa mask," Nicolson said. "They have their arms around each other, there's a sense of comradery there, a sense of community. Having the piece blown up life-size gives the sense of the collective."
"When you look at the context of this large photograph, you see there’s so much going on and it all speaks to feasting and feeding the people and the relationship to land and the abundance of that place, and the people who live off that," Nicolson said. "One of the things that struck me from home, is the love and care our grandparents instilled in us. They really tried to teach us to love and care for one another, and that we had a responsibility for one another and that’s very different from a modern society, where people feel as individuals you must struggle on your own to become successful in life."
Nicolson said the photo of their grandparents reminded her of how the old people taught them to look out for one another.
"We're bringing forward our traditions today. We're continuing forward our traditions, not in an entertainment, or recreational way, but in integral ways, utilizing spaces that perhaps people wouldn't think of as traditional spaces, like a contemporary art gallery, but spaces we feel we must engage with to continue our traditions," she said.
The masks are usually displayed at the Museum of Anthropology, with the same tiny photograph of the Kwakwaka'wakw men situated near it. Nicolson said that depiction emphasizes focus on the object and a reinterpretation of what the object is to the public.
"I wanted to bring it back to what it is to us," she said. "We see those pieces with our grandparents and we understand them in a way that talks about our traditional economy and our traditional way of life, which is everything we're trying to fight for through the title and rights cases we put forward.
Our investment is each other and the land
The Dzawada'enux First Nation is currently involved in multiple important legal actions to assert their laws, rights and title. In June last year, the nation filed a claim of Aboriginal title in B.C. Supreme Court to stop the operation of open-net fish farms in their traditional territories in and around the Broughton Archipelago northeast of Vancouver Island.
On Jan. 10, 2019, the nation filed another claim in the federal court in Vancouver, suing the government for authorizing licenses for the fish farms operating in their waters, without their consultation or consent. The claim says the fish farm operations pollute and poison wild salmon and infringe on the nation's constitutionally protected rights. Their case is the first ever rights-based challenge to the federal licensing process that fish farm companies rely on to operate along the coast of B.C.
"We're not so much interested in investment in an economic sense, our investment is in each other and the land," Nicolson said. "This photograph of the men represents that - these physical bodies of our grandparents, blown up life-sized, looking out at us, looking at the viewer in a way that has tremendous agency and that asks, ‘are you carrying forward in a way we understood things?’”
As a descendant of these men, that is a question Nicolson said she constantly asks herself: are we carrying forward our understanding and ways of being?
"Our political actions are imbedded in that question," she said.
'We're bringing together voices in a collective space.'
Featured in the center gallery, two opposing walls bear documents written and signed by Kwakwaka'wakw members. Testimonies from the McKenna-McBride Royal commission of 1912 are shown on one wall. The commission was established to "solve the Indian question” in British Columbia to "make recommendations as to reserved lands for Indians in British Columbia.”
Documents handed in and spoken to by Kwakwaka'wakw chiefs, presented to the commission, are lined up on the left side of the dance screen.
"In 1914, they felt their requests were fair and just, they were asking for justice, kindness and generosity, on behalf of the federal and provincial colonial governments, which they did not receive," Nicolson said. "On the opposite wall you have the testimonies of the contemporary Dzawada’enuxw leaders who are asking for the same thing 100 years later."
The legal statement of claim filed Jan. 10 states that 10 open net pen fish farms infringe on the nation's Aboriginal rights, protected under Sec. 35 of the Constitution Act. The fish farms are said to harm their waters and profoundly impact wild salmon populations, sea life, animal life, and the Dzawada'enuxw Nation community's way of life. The claims have not yet been heard in court.
Nicolson said the voices of ancestors on one wall, the voices of the old chiefs on another wall, and the voices of contemporary people on another, brought together in a collective space, makes the space one of witnessing and testimony.
"The lids act as witnesses. They speak to our traditional economy of giving and redistribution of wealth, in a way that recognizes the communities," Nicolson said. "I feel this opposes the contemporary approach of fish-farm and logging industries in our territories, where it has been about profit and about the profitability of certain investors, at the detriment to the wealth, both within the land, and the people who live off that land."
Some people ask Nicolson why her nation doesn't just "take the money" and "take a cut of the profits" from the fish-farm industry her people are trying to push out of their waters, before it's too late for the salmon. "We say we can't do that, because our investment, our value system won't allow us to do that. What is valuable to us is our love of this place."
The healthiest steps the nation could take, Nicolson said, is to assert themselves, speak in a public realm and assert their jurisdiction. It doesn't matter whether the government chooses to work with, for or against the nation, she said, their decisions to take legal actions were the healthiest decisions they could make as a people, given the limited choices they faced.
"We're in a modern society now and our traditional ways of harvesting have been broken down. What we used to live off of, the fish, and everything around us, was removed from us," she said. "We’ve held onto it as much as we possibly can, when we see the decimation of the fish runs around us, we know we’re in a bad state. The options being put forward by industry and government is to become a part of that decimation."
Nicolson said the valleys in Kingcome were logged for over 100 years before the logging companies pulled out. She said the people who continue to live there have been left to deal with how to heal the land.
"Industry and government come to the table and say, well you could be a part of it, and if you accept this deal, we’ll give you money and you can fund programs to help with the streams and the cleaning out of some of the compromised places within our territories," Nicolson explained. "How do you accept that? It’s a partial solution to a problem that has been created by the perpetuation of this very mindset. We’re being asked to join that mindset, just so you can heal a tiny part of it."
Nations fighting to protect their lands and waters won't want to sign up for government and industry-funded restoration projects, only for industry to stay in their territories, causing more irreparable damage, she said.
"It's like putting a Band-Aid, an economic Band-Aid, over the real issues. It's perpetuating the status quo, so we felt we couldn't do that," she said. "What’s most difficult is that we had agency within those places, and within the reserve system we were pushed onto tiny spaces, not allowed to enact our traditional ways of life within those land bases and what little is left there is being diseased."
Stories of power and place
Nicolson said it takes a tremendous amount of engagement and investment with each other and the land, to be able to turn down short term benefits, to focus on the bigger picture.
Nicolson has spent a lot of time reading about the trajectory of Indigenous rights within the country. She thought people could experience a glimpse of Indigenous realities, relatives and rights, through art, through experiencing the space the way it has been designed.
"Even if someone doesn’t fully understand, in a vocalized, or literal capacity, one might be able to experience physiologically, emotionally, or reflectively, even just an impression of what we’re trying to express," she said.
Nicolson said when people outside of the community come to their ceremonies, they can feel something powerful, even when they might not understand what work is taking place.
"I thought, if we have that power within our ceremonial spaces, can we not also have that power within our public art realm?" Nicolson said. "Not where we’re positioned as objects to be viewed, enjoyed and consumed, but as voices with agency."
That intention to engage as "voices with agency" speaking through time and space served as the impetus behind the exhibition.
"It’s a hopeful exhibition and the public is encouraged to engage with it and to ask questions," Nicolson said. "It also created an atmosphere, where we can open up this discussion to the public, without our traditional ceremony being appropriated."
Nicolson said that though it may seem easier to do things on your own, because "you don't have to check in with everyone," it’s far more beneficial and rewarding to do the work through listening and speaking with people. The artists featured in the exhibition are the next generation to carry on this understanding, she said, and to carry forward the foundation of meaning through relationship to the land and each other.
Members of today's generation are the next to look back and ask the question, are you carrying forward our understanding and ways of being?