At an art show opening in Whistler, my father tries to get over his “interiority” complex and make a comeback.
My father, Ed Archie NoiseCat, had just finished milling a 10-metre yellow cedar log into a four-metre by 30-centimetre beam when I called. It was a week before his show, Sqātsza7 Tmicw – Fatherland, opened at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre on Aug. 13.
Wood chips and sawdust covered his carving area on the patio between the main hall and the longhouse.
Dad’s 24-year-old apprentice, Redmond Andrews from the Lil’wat Nation of Mount Currie, a St’at’imc reserve that's a 30-minute drive north of Whistler, was working a knife handle down to a shape fit for his hands. Over the next two months, dad and Redmond will adze, chisel and carve this log and a pair of two-metre by one-metre yellow cedar blocks into a contemporary Salish-style house post.
The work proceeds in fits and starts, as the two have to clear out of the patio every few days so as not to disturb the weddings and weekly farmers' markets hosted at the cultural centre.
“Goddamn white man rules!” dad jokes as we catch up. “Don’t write that, don’t write that. That’s off the record!”
The pole, tentatively titled Sqātsza7 Tmicw, like the show, will feature a mythic thunderbird with its wings outstretched perched on top.
The red cedar base, made from a log hauled out of the Olympic National Forest by Skokomish elder and artist Pete Peterson, is carved with the likeness of a bear dancer. This, according to dad’s sketch, will rest atop a slab of black granite, representing the Coast Mountains. A bolt of lightning, hewn from yellow cedar, will strike down the length of the pole from the talons of the bird to the head of the dancer.
The post, which will eventually stand in the cultural centre alongside one other pole from the Lil’wat Nation and three others from the Squamish, represents Q’elqámtensa ti Skenknápa, or “The Place Where Thunderbird Sits,” a peak more commonly known to tourists and mountaineers as Black Tusk. The Lil’wat and Squamish nations, explains Redmond, who also works as a guide in the centre, once shared a village called Spo7ez at the base of that mountain.
Long ago, the villagers began to squabble about which nation followed the proper protocols and rites for hunting, fishing and dancing. The thunderbird, offended by the conflict, flapped his wings and sent a volcanic eruption and rockslide cascading down the mountain that buried the village. The survivors, understanding the danger of their conceit, committed to peaceful co-operation. The valley around The Place Where Thunderbird Sits became a shared territory.
My dad’s late father, Ray Peters, is Lil’wat. Our ancestor, N’kasusa7, is a noted Lil’wat chief, whose English name was Harry Peters. Our great aunt, my grandfather’s sister Martina Pierre, composed the Women’s Warrior Song that is performed at protests and celebrations across North America. (I’m told Redmond is our third cousin, or something like that — we’re still trying to figure it out.) But my father grew up with his mother’s people, the Tsq’escenemc te Secwepemc, on a small reserve up north called Canim Lake, where the Catholic Church reigned supreme.
My grandfather, or pé7e (pronounced “pa-ah”) as I knew him, didn’t do much parenting.
He fathered at least 17 children with five different women at our family’s last count. (I was with my dad when he met two of these siblings for the first time, and we’re almost certain there are more.) What little dad learned about his father’s people came from stories told to pass the time when pé7e, pé7e’s sidekick Harold Frank and my dad would hop in the truck and drive to Indian rodeos throughout the B.C. Interior. A bottle in his hand, pé7e would tell stories about the mountains, like The Place Where Thunderbird Sits and In-SHUCK-Ch, or Gunsight Peak, where our ancestors tied off their canoes during the great ancient flood. But those trips and stories ended when, at 20, my dad flew off a bareback bronc and broke his back.
“I’ve been thinking about what the hell I should say about the whole show,” dad said. “It’s mostly about the artistic journey of not having much of a basis of culture to start with. For me to have those tiny little handfuls of stories from my dad to kind of start with and to build upon, I think that’s what I take from the connection to this place and to my dad’s people and to him.”
My father is an accidental artist.
After graduating high school, he built homes at Canim Lake for $5 an hour. In 1986, when he was 26, he enrolled in a community college in Vancouver, where he planned to become a P.E. teacher. But the campus closest to his apartment didn’t offer the proper courses, so administrators put him in a bunch of art classes instead. He showed promise in lithography, a printmaking process that involves etching an image onto a smooth limestone plate, and transferred to Emily Carr University of Art and Design, where he studied for a bachelor of fine arts.
But in truth, dad probably learned more about art from the crew of carvers he ran with outside school — guys like Frank Charlie from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and the late Russell Smith of the Kwakiutl, both on Vancouver Island. They spent a lot of time at the Indian bars on Hastings Street. Russell and Frank played punk rockabilly at open mics and when their drummer was out, my dad would sit in. But they spent even more time in studios, hanging out with some of the masters: guys like Joe David, who is also Tla-o-qui-aht, and Robert and Reggie Davidson, brothers who are Haida, and the late Art Thompson, who was Ditidaht, and the late Beau Dick, who was Kwakiutl. Joe David even introduced my dad to Bill Reid. In Reid’s studio on Granville Island, dad got to watch the late Haida master carve and plaster together the model for the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, which was on the $20 bill from 2004 to 2012 and is still on display in Vancouver International Airport.
“I studied them as I would Leonardo da Vinci’s work,” dad said. “I’ve looked at it and I’ve realized my influences were the really incredible northern styles that came out of Haida Gwaii and other people that hung out with those guys, such as Beau Dick and Russell Smith and you know the Kwakwaka'wakw down to Nuu-chah-nulth. Art Thompson was an incredible designer and so was Joe David, and just immaculate carvers as well. Those were the benchmarks I had for my own work. That’s what I strove to be.”
But my dad has always felt less than these coastal artists, almost all of whom descended from long lines of carvers and many of whom had inherited hereditary chief titles. Even though my dad is full-blooded Salish, he comes from the Interior.
“In the coastal art world, you kind of have to have a pedigree and some crests and symbols and totems to represent your lineage and your family and all of that, and I had nothing,” he said. His buddies, even guys like Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, a painter who is Cowichan from the coast and Syilx from the Interior, would tease him. He developed an inferiority complex — or maybe, more accurately, an “interiority” complex. “There was no St’at’imc artists that they knew of, there was no Shuswap artists that people knew of,” he said. “I always felt like I was that poor Indian kid who just didn’t have anything that anyone else brought.”
When dad went to work in New York for Kenneth Tyler, who printed greats like Frank Stella, Helen Frankenthaler and Roy Lichtenstein, he left with a chip on his shoulder and a handful of carving knives, a gift from Frank Charlie, in his suitcase. He took the techniques he learned watching other carvers and started making his own work. His stuff was good — good enough that when he moved in with my mom and realized he wasn’t cut out for the kind of job that came with a boss, he could start making art full time.
But in the Native art world, where many talented artists have to compete for tiny slices of an already tiny pie controlled by predominantly white collectors who have narrow anthropological views of what “Indian art” should be, my dad still felt less than. In 1995, he was invited to the first International Indigenous Arts Gathering in Rotorua, New Zealand. When the Maori invited the Indigenous artists from across the Pacific onto the marae, their traditional meeting house, with a song and dance, my dad had nothing from his culture to offer in return. He stood behind Joe David and the late Rick Bartow, a Wiyot artist, who shared songs from their own people.
His art had, by then, become noteworthy. In 1998, he won just about every prize at Indian Art Northwest, a Native art show that used to be held in Portland, Ore., taking home best of show, best of class, best of category and a bunch of other ribbons.
“I went in there and blew everybody away. Just like Bruce Lee. Just like ‘Waaaah!’ Running around and kicking and screaming at everybody,” he recalled, with a chuckle. Major museums started taking interest, like the Smithsonian, which opened its National Museum of the American Indian in 2001 with one of his pieces in its collection.
But then came the fall.
Dad divorced my mom because he loved alcohol more. During one of our weekly court-ordered visits, I remember watching him get into a fistfight with a landlord who had evicted him. He fathered my little sister, Zia, and then left me for Santa Fe, N.M. — the mecca of Native art in the United States. A few years later, he split with Zia’s mother.
When Native Peoples magazine wrote a profile of him, it didn’t say a word about his kids or his family.
Then he started partying with the daughter of a famous Crow painter. After a night at the bar, she died after driving the wrong way down the highway. Dad started getting in trouble with the law. When I was about 12, he took on the police department in Red Lodge, Mont., with a carving knife. I distinctly remember the drive home after one hockey practice when my mom told me I needed to be prepared for the real possibility that my father could die. For years, he carried on, drinking and quitting occasionally before relapsing.
“When you get drunk, you crave that drunk feeling,” he said. “It’s an addiction.”
I had to lend him money to come to my high school graduation. One summer, during college, I had to drive out to the boonies of Nevada to bail him and his long-haired chihuahua out of jail for speeding while smoking weed. (The dog wasn’t high, but my dad was.) After that, dad tried to start his own gallery and quickly fell in debt with just about everyone: banks, loan sharks, artists, family members. When he finally gave up on the venture, he was homeless and had to sell his tools to put gas in his car. In 2014, he departed Santa Fe for Washington state, where he now resides.
Closer to home in the Northwest, he’s had a late career resurgence. This Christmas, he will be five years sober. He has representation for his work, which is better than ever. For this opening, he’s been stockpiling pieces for two years. He likes to show them off on his Instagram.
There’s Bear Mother Moon Mask (2018), carved in alder with abalone inlays in its eyes and snout and bone set in its teeth.
There’s Sea to Sky Spindle Whorl (2020), a Salish spindle whorl cast in gaffer crystal with a purple heart spindle. And then there’s my favourite: The Scream (2020), a killer whale, ensnared by the tail of a black snake, which has a sheen and serpentine form that looks more like marble than wood, but was carved from alder, walnut and yew. The piece is a commentary on the threat that fossil fuel tankers and pipelines pose to species like the killer whale. Like other recent works, including a banner used by Greenpeace activists to block a tarsands tanker in Burrard Inlet and a statue gifted to the Standing Rock Tribe in honor of #NoDAPL, this sculpture reflects the increasingly political bent of his art and our people.
“That’s the kind of work that I want to do,” he said. “That’s what I’ve gotten back to with this black snake piece that I have in the show.”
But more importantly, he’s started to give back, the way an artist and a father are supposed to — and not just to family and friends, but also to Redmond. Redmond’s father, Bruce Edmunds, was an artist, too. In 2010, he died by suicide on the Duffey Lake Road. Bruce’s friend Jonathan Joe, also from Mount Currie, held on to Bruce’s knives for three years after that before passing them on to Redmond. By the end of his apprenticeship, Redmond should have a new set of knives, and hopefully some new skills.
“Art helps me feel a lot more connected to my own dad — understanding his struggles and everything,” Redmond said.
A few days before the opening, my old man sent me a picture of his feet kicked up in front of the lakeside window of his cabin, the snow pack of Whistler’s famous mountains gleaming in the distance.
Summer tourists on paddle boards spooned past. Coronavirus cases were low, so some of Canada’s well-to-do had decided to get in a little vacation time. When I gave him a call, dad was sipping a kombucha, trying to fit in.
“I think I’m at a point where I don’t feel like I need to sing and dance for the show. I bring what I bring, which is my art, my sculpture,” he said. “I think after all is said and done, that is enough. What I do, what I make with my hands from my heart and my experience, I think it’s enough. After all is said and done, I’ve ended up back here in my father’s territory feeling like I actually do belong and like I’m bringing something, bringing something back, something to show. It makes me feel good now. I feel proud of myself.” He paused. “It took me a long time to get there though.”
“I feel really happy for you dad,” I said. “I can’t remember you doing this well ever in my life.”
“Well, there was a time when I had that little slobbering boy bouncing around in my lap every day,” he said. “But I got lost in alcohol, son. But it’s all gone now. I’m back.”