Wisdom of the land is reflected in the MOA's Culture at the Centre

At the Museum of Anthropology, six First Nations gather to share histories that reveal the deep ties of knowledge to place

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      It’s a sunny weekday morning and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC is thronging with schoolchildren, their excited voices flying upward toward the sky-high ceiling of the Great Hall. Members of the media are gathering here too, for a preview of MOA’s newest exhibition, Culture at the Centre. We make our way through the crowds of kids, teachers, and volunteers, past towering totem poles and immense feast dishes, and on into the O’Brian Gallery.

      There, a recorded Musqueam greeting welcomes us to the show, the first-ever collaboration between MOA and five First Nations museums and cultural centres. Located from the mouth of the Fraser River in the south to the Nass River in the north, each community involved here—Musqueam, Squamish and Lil’wat (whose territories overlap and who share a cultural centre in Whistler), Heiltsuk, Haida, and Nisga’a—is represented by an eloquent and impassioned spokesperson. And each person speaks about a treasured belonging that seems to encapsulate the work their institution is undertaking. The belongings, which range from a sturgeon harpoon and a chief’s chair to a cedar-bark storage basket, a ceremonial “copper”, and a button blanket, are supplemented by interactive and nation-based maps, extensive text panels, photos, illustrations, and 10 short films playing on banked video monitors.

      Jill Baird and Pam Brown, the two MOA curators who coordinated Culture at the Centre, talk about some of the ideas behind the exhibition. “It’s a difficult thing to take complex histories and relationships and distill them into something intelligible and shareable,” Baird says. “We’re really proud that we were able to do this with six distinct First Nations communities—different languages, different histories, different cultures.”

      “All the centres share the values of culture and community being at the heart of what they do,” Brown adds. “However, their approaches are as varied as the geographies of their territories.”

      The show is organized into three thematic sections: Land and Language, Community and Continuity, and Reconciliation and Repatriation. In the first section, Morgan Guerin, a Musqueam artist, councillor, and knowledge keeper, talks about the 35-foot-long sturgeon harpoon he made for the Musqueam Cultural Education and Resource Centre a few years ago, many decades after the Musqueam ceased to fish for sturgeon. Using remembered “bits and pieces” of ancient knowledge gleaned from elders in the community, he was able to re-create the extraordinary tool. Those bits and pieces make up what he calls “the book”.

      “Being an oral people, we are the book,” Guerin says at the media preview. And the book—the cultural knowledge, including the language—is inextricably bound to the land. He gestures toward the nearby map of traditional Musqueam territory and its Indigenous place names. “Some of these refer to things like ‘the place where there are abrader stones’,” he says. Such stones would be essential for finessing a barbed harpoon head carved out of an elk scapula. He speaks at length about learning how to make the harpoon, and how each fragment of knowledge is integral to the next—and all are integral to the land and the language. “The land is the classroom,” Guerin says. “It’s where we learn what is important and ties us back to why we have such a responsibility to look after it.”

      This Heiltsuk mask by Nusi, Ian Reid, is part of the MOA's Culture at the Centre exhibition.

      Jessica Bushey

      Alison Pascal of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler speaks about a contemporary spindle-whorl carving by Aaron Nelson-Moody and recounts a traditional story of cooperation between the two nations represented in the tourist-oriented institution. Stephanie Halapija of the Nisga’a Museum in Laxgalts’ap focuses on a button blanket as she recounts the Nisga’a’s 113-year-long struggle to achieve a land-claims treaty with the federal and provincial governments, and the subsequent effort to repatriate Nisga’a belongings. Brown, who is Heiltsuk, addresses the history of a chief’s chair carved by Chief Robert Bell more than 115 years ago, while Nika Collison of the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay uses a broken piece of a ceremonial copper to talk about the Haida concept of yahguudang, meaning “respect”.

      As the media preview draws to a close, Collison also expresses her appreciation for the Culture at the Centre project. “Our nations coming together [in this exhibition] is so exciting,” she says. “We’ve got ancient histories of interconnectivity and here we are today, connecting again, through the absolute on-the-ground opportunity for change.” Then she brings us, the media, into her address, together with the audiences we represent. “You show up because you want to hear and we show up because we want to share.”

      Culture at the Centre is at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC until October 8.