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Essays / March 28, 2019

Cultivating Collectivity

Can art make a case, legally, for Indigenous sovereignty over threatened waters? A Vancouver exhibition looks at the parallels between cultural histories and public protest for a First Nations community in coastal BC
Marianne Nicolson, <em>La'am 'lawisuxw Yaxuxsan's 'Nalax - Then the Deluge of Our World Came</em> (detail), 2017. Acrylic, mother of pearl, and brass on wood, 1.52 x 4.87 m. Photo Slikati Photo + Video. Courtesy the artist. Marianne Nicolson, La'am 'lawisuxw Yaxuxsan's 'Nalax - Then the Deluge of Our World Came (detail), 2017. Acrylic, mother of pearl, and brass on wood, 1.52 x 4.87 m. Photo Slikati Photo + Video. Courtesy the artist.

On January 10, 2019, the Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w First Nation (DFN), from Kingcome Inlet, BC, held a press conference in Vancouver to announce two new initiatives in the nation’s ongoing fight against the presence of open-pen factory fish farms in their territory.

The first was the filing of an Aboriginal rights lawsuit against the federal government, challenging the permits that allow Atlantic salmon to be raised in fish farms within DFN territory. This case follows several others launched by DFN in 2018, including the filing of an Aboriginal title claim in the BC Supreme Court—the first ever claim to extend Aboriginal title to the ocean—to contest the licensing of fish farms located in the Broughton Archipelago, northeast of Vancouver Island.

The second initiative was the opening of the exhibition “Hexsa’a̱m: To Be Here Always” at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, in Vancouver. Led by Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w artist Marianne Nicolson and settler Canadian artist Althea Thauberger, the exhibition includes works by Siku Allooloo, Scott Benesiinaabandan, Diane Roberts, Sara Siestreem, Kamala Todd and Tania Willard, along with Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w community members Darryll Dawson Jr., Jaymyn La Vallee, Juliana Speier, Nabidu Taylor, William Wasden Jr. and Lindsey Willie.

On one level, it would appear remarkably serendipitous that the press conference and exhibition opening took place on the same day—or indeed, that the trajectories of these two initiatives should meet at all. But serendipity does not account for the intention of having a joint press conference, which not only signalled a common goal of Indigenous sovereignty, but also positioned the actions (both legal and aesthetic) as having an equivalent capacity to address that goal, despite—or, more likely, owing to—their differing methods.

What is quickly apparent in “Hexsa’a̱m” is the cultivated collectivity of the exhibition, which draws a line of resistance from 1912—when the McKenna–McBride Royal Commission was established to resolve the “Indian reserve question” in British Columbia, resulting in the widespread loss of territory for First Nations communities throughout the province—through to the present.

It is also quickly apparent that these acts of resistance to settler colonial incursions into Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w lives and territory are contained within a much, much deeper history, which begins with Ḵawadiliḵa̱la, the wolf ancestor of the Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w. The story of Ḵawadiliḵa̱la and his younger brother Kwalili is the opening narrative of Nicolson and Thauberger’s three-channel video installation, Hexsa’a̱m (To be there always) (2018). The video’s primary focus is a reading of the 1914 testimony of Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w chiefs to the McKenna–McBride Commission, performed by an intergenerational group of community members and broadcast via handheld radio transceivers. The work layers the telling of history with footage of the village, nestled in the coastal mountains where Ḵawadiliḵa̱la descended, and travelling down the inlet on the water, passing the pictographs left by Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w ancestors and by Nicolson herself.

On the other side of the gallery, Jaymyn La Vallee and Juliana Speier’s animation, Ne’nakw (to return home) (2018) tells another old story, in Kwak̓wala, of the place where women would gather crab apples—a place also detailed within the 1914 testimony as land belonging to the Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w. Here, story and land are interwoven, and the teachings that arise from this nexus are continuously being revealed throughout the exhibition.

The central room of the exhibition contains a ła̱milas, or dance curtain, by Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw artist William Wasden Jr. titled The Kingcome Inlet Wolves (2018). The ła̱milas is typically the threshold that divides the ceremonial floor of the Big House from the space where dancers prepare. In the exhibition, the ła̱milas performatively marks the gallery as a space akin to the Big House—as holding an equivalent capacity. This is entirely appropriate considering what else the room contains: three Dzunuḵ̓wa feast dish lids and a historical photograph, enlarged as a wall mural, showing a group of Musga̱maḵw Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w men posed in and around these same objects. The photograph was taken circa 1926, when the potlatch ban was in effect, although potlatching continued to take place in Gwa’yi (Kingcome Inlet), aided by its remote location. The photograph is held in the collection of the Vancouver Public Library, and the Dzunuḵ̓wa feast dish lids were acquired by University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology between the 1950s and 1980s; that they have been assembled here together is remarkable. It shifts the ground of the gallery: from the concrete floor of the institution to the earthen floor of the Big House.

In the summer of 2018, Nicolson hosted the exhibition’s artists in Gwa’yi for a residency. Their journey was preceded by a video recording and editing workshop at Cineworks in Vancouver (a commissioning partner of the exhibition) for the Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w artists, and by a potlatch held in Alert Bay, BC. Darryll Dawson Jr.’s video in the exhibition, We’re Still Here (2018), combines documentary footage and text to share potlatch teachings, in which ancestral histories are re-enacted, and feasting and gifting are gestures of respect and appreciation for those who come to witness and validate the ceremony. Following these teachings, the residency was itself an act of gifting Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w culture and territory to the visiting artists. Respectively, the visiting artists became witnesses, validating the offering of the community through the reciprocal gesture of art-making.

The artworks in the exhibition evince this reciprocity through parallel stories, histories, objects and acts, and all are acknowledged as making significant contributions. Secwépemc artist Tania Willard’s Xyemstwécw – Respect for one another (2018) includes another historical photograph from 1926. Rendered as a laser etching onto 3M reflective material, the image shows a delegation of Interior Salish chiefs, including Willard’s great-great-uncle William Pierish, departing from Kamloops. The group travelled to London, England, to (unsuccessfully) petition King George V on the issue of land rights. Willard offers flashlights for gallery visitors to activate the work’s reflective quality, metaphorically illuminating interrelated struggles for sovereignty while literally shining light on images that demonstrate the histories of land activism across Indigenous territories.

Sara Siestreem, <em>aretha franklin 
(1942-2018) reigns supreme</em>, 2018.
Courtesy the artist.
Sara Siestreem, aretha franklin (1942-2018) reigns supreme, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

Sara Siestreem’s woven basket, up all night (2018), and dance cap, aretha franklin (1942-2018) reigns supreme (2018), are accompanied by labels indicating sites in her territory where the materials were gathered, as well as acknowledging the women who helped her source materials in their own territories: “Red Cedar Bark from Kingcome, BC (courtesy of Marianne Nicolson); Spruce Root from North Spit of Jordan Cove, Coos Bay, OR; Mud Dye from the place of beginning, Coos Bay, OR.” Siestreem also led a spruce-root weaving workshop in Gway’i, re-introducing this practice to the community. Nabidu Taylor’s Untitled (2018) basket, which resulted from the workshop, is installed in proximity to Siestreem’s work. Rather than finishing the weave, Taylor opted to leave the strands at the top of the basket loose, creating a striking sculptural form that remains true to the materiality of the spruce root.

Lindsey Willie’s A’ax̱sila (to take care of) (2018) presents a series of photographs, arranged in two lozenge forms, that depicts a reciprocal movement within the Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w community itself. On the left side, the images show protest, occupation and other actions in opposition to the fish farms; the images on the right side document harvesting practices on the land. The outward, political acts of public protest and occupation are a means of protecting and enacting the value of cultural knowledge and customary practices—practices which, in turn, inform and sustain ongoing acts of resistance.

Willie’s contribution is indicative of a concept that is deeply held within the exhibition, and which reflects back upon the joint announcement of the launching of the federal lawsuit and the opening of the exhibition. The teachings of the Big House—in which the reciprocity between host and guest validates the legality of the performances—extend to the space between the culturally specific (interior) and the public commons (exterior). After all, the health and wellbeing of the ecosystem in Kingcome Inlet is only a localized version of what is happening in the broader environment. Rather than being prescriptive, “Hexsa’a̱m: To Be Here Always” offers a way forward by looking back. It provides a structure for continual exchange and learning that also asks the viewer how they will respond to this knowledge, this offering. A history of resistance in one community can teach many others not only how to survive, but how to thrive.

A group of Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw men pose in and around an enormous Dzunukwa feast dish in Gwa'yi (Kingcome Inlet), BC, ca. 1926. Photo Albert Paull. Courtesy the Vancouver Public Library, VPL 1706. A group of Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw men pose in and around an enormous Dzunukwa feast dish in Gwa'yi (Kingcome Inlet), BC, ca. 1926. Photo Albert Paull. Courtesy the Vancouver Public Library, VPL 1706.

Tarah Hogue

Tarah Hogue is a curator and writer of Métis, French Canadian and Dutch ancestry. She lives in Vancouver, BC, as an uninvited guest on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. She is the inaugural Senior Curatorial Fellow, Indigenous Art, at the Vancouver Art Gallery.