Over the next few weeks, as part of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, Vancouver will be treated to a diverse array of First Nations art forms: everything from traditional Gitksan dance to an avant-garde take on Inuit throat-singing to an assortment of visual-arts shows. But it’s necessary to understand that the massive painted curtains collected in Backstory: Nuu-chah-nulth Ceremonial Curtains and the Work of Ki-Ke-In, on view at UBC’s Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until March 28, aren’t art at all. Instead, these thliitsapilthim, many on public view for the first time, are more like symbolic documents that serve a number of functions.
“They are kind of the ceremonial faces of proud houses with long histories,” says Port Alberni resident Ron Hamilton, aka Ki-Ke-In, who cocurated the show with historian Charlotte Townsend-Gault. “They allude to birth, initiation, war, marriage, peace-making, and, most importantly, spiritual events in the long histories of these families, clans, and First Nations.
“Maybe the most important place for people to begin to understand them,” he adds in a telephone interview from UBC, “is that a month ago the Supreme Court handed down a decision—and it’s the most sweeping decision ever in the history of the court on aboriginal rights—that said the Nuu-chah-nulth people have a right to fish for all species of fish in their traditional territory, to whatever extent they wish, with whatever equipment they want, and at whatever season they wish.”
In his role as head of the Nuu-chah-nulth’s Takiishtakamlthat-h house, Hamilton has been working on aspects of this case for 30 years. The coded representations of history and geography featured in various thliitsapilthim, he says, played a vital role in establishing his nation’s claim to vast stretches of Vancouver Island.
“There’s a physical aspect to them, there’s a hugely important geographical aspect to them; they feature representations that symbolize specific territories, specific geographical features—lakes, mountains, streams,” he explains. “And they symbolize specific resources: I’ve painted thliitsapilthim with octopus, with dogfish, with sea urchins, with sea cucumbers, with mussels, with whales and seals and sockeye and steelhead and spring salmon—just all kinds of resources that individual family heads and chiefs have a right to.”
The thliitsapilthim are also used to define sacred space during Nuu-chah-nulth ceremonies and serve as mnemonic devices that help preserve the history and genealogy of the families that own them. Some of the images that appear on Hamilton’s own thliitsapilthim, for instance, are taken from a wall of petroglyphs carved by his ancestors; others depict a pair of coppers, “large copper shields that represent the wealth and status of my family”.
“There’s a lot of stuff on it,” he says. “I could go on.”
As ritual objects owned primarily by families, thliitsapilthim are only rarely put on public display. Indeed, for many years their ownership and use was forbidden; Hamilton believes that his forebears started painting on sail cloth, instead of cedar mats and planks, so that the thliitsapilthim could be easily hidden from Indian agents. The artifacts’ survival, he adds, has been integral to the continuation of the Nuu-chah-nulth as a people.
“All Nuu-chah-nulth tribes have used them and have continued to use them,” he stresses. “They’re not something that died with the colonial epoch.”
Backstory isn’t the only must-see exhibition produced in conjunction with the Cultural Olympiad; also worth viewing will be First Nations/Second Nature, at the Audain Gallery in the Woodward’s complex until April 10, which showcases politically charged aboriginal art from across North America. Native movement traditions will be surveyed in the We yah hani nah Coastal First Nations Dance Festival at Whistler’s Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre on February 14; Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq presents her Tundra Songs collaboration with the Kronos Quartet at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on January 30; and Ontario’s Red Sky Performance fuses Mongolian overtone singing with First Nations drumming in the spectacular Tono at the Vancouver Playhouse on February 11, 13, and 14. For an extensive overview of both veteran and emerging aboriginal performers in many genres, pay special attention to the Talking Stick Festival at various local venues from February 21 to 28.
As the Cowichan-sweater controversy showed, Olympic organizers have not always dealt fairly with B.C.’s aboriginal population, but Vanoc’s cultural programming seems to be more than token redress.