Sunday, 15 July 2007

Book Review: Smoke from their Fires: the life of a Kwakiutl chief by Clellan S. Ford.

It is important to describe my familial connection to Charles James Nowell, a point that brought me to read this book and no doubt influenced my understanding of it. My Great Great Grandfather was Owadi (Thomas Nowell) and was born in 1840 and died in 1921. Owadi was Charles’ older brother who took the role of raising him because their father, Malitsas, went blind. The name Nowell came from an Englishman who wanted a godson in Canada. After being baptized the name Nowell was born. Owadi was the head chief of the first clan of the Kwixa tribe. Owadi’s grandfather (mother’s father) was the younger brother of Tlakodlas (Tlakwudlas), the head chief of the second clan of the ‘Namgis (41). My grandfather, Joseph Lewis Isaac, was the son of Dorothy Isaac (nee Nowell) and Benedict Isaac.

Image: Great Great Grandfather O'wadalagalis (Thomas Nowell).

Smoke from their Fires offers a very brief introduction to the Kwakwaka’wakw culture followed by a first-hand account by Charles of his life. Clellan Ford successfully showed the life of a Kwagu’ł man through the narration of Charles James Nowell with minimal anthropological ‘analysis.’ Charles tells his story after a lifetime of learning the English language and experience studying through the lens of an ethnographer. This undoubtedly influences his mostly objective, detached delivery, instead of a personal accounting that would have provided more emotion and connection to his life. I found Ford’s footnotes and introduction to be very Eurocentric in nature, which was typical of anthropologists at the time where the conjured threat of extinction of a dying race was consistently put forth to fuel interest in a superfluous research field. Although one must consider the popular theories of the time, the book is filled with references to the ‘primitive, inferior ways’ of the Kwagu’ł. In fairness, Ford’s work could be considered on the progressive side of a flawed argument based upon the hierarchy of man and the perceived eventuality of Kwagu’ł assimilation. This challenges the reader to find meaning within today’s more progressive thought on Indigenous peoples, while not eliminating the underlying importance of Charles’ experiences.

Smoke from their Fires provides a valuable accounting of the responsibilities and system of governance of a Kwagu’ł tribe through the perspective of a noble family during a difficult period of Western assimilative attempts. Despite these pressures, Charles James Nowell skillfully masters elements of Western culture, especially those of speaking and writing English, that benefit him and his people most. He finds himself a leader in the fight against the potlatch ban (along side William Roberts and Moses Alfred). Charles was a skillful advocate and traditionalist for the cultural integrity of his people, all the while maintaining European allies whose mandate was to eliminate the practices considered backward at the time. I encourage those interested in the personal accounts of the Kwakwaka’wakw to find (it is out of print) and read this book.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Statement against the Cultural Appropriation of the Kwakwaka'wakw

A solid friend with several familial links has written the following statement to which I have received permission to post on this blog. Cultural appropriators beware!


Gilakas’la Nał’namwiyut / Welcome Friends

I have been asked to write a statement on behalf of my fellow artists and Kwakwaka’wakw “Kwakwala Speaking People” relations. Our nation would like to share our feelings about people who imitate our traditional art forms and label their work as coming from our respected tribes.

Kwakwaka’wakw artwork, which includes carving, painting, designing, weaving, singing, dancing and story telling, are traditions that have been passed on amongst our nations from generation to generation from the beginning of our existence. The teaching of these “talents” or “skills” or as we call them “gifts”, are through mentorship and only select people are chosen to apprentice. Young people, who are recognized as carrying “natural talent” or gifts, are often selected or taken to a master in the specific art form and groomed to fulfill that role. Only chosen students, especially in earlier times, are allowed to learn these skills that we as Kwakwaka’wakw consider sacred.

As with many of our sacred teachings, artwork was done in secrecy. Only members chosen to learn these skills were allowed to witness their teachers at work. To the Kwakwaka’wakw, especially the artwork of creating masks, regalia and designs for ceremonial use are sacred and only brought out during the appropriate ceremonies.

We as Kwakwaka’wakw honour our neighbouring villages and tribes and do not duplicate or create artwork that does not belong to us or have not received proper permission from the rightful owners to do so. All Kwakwaka’wakw artwork represent crests and designs that belong to specific families who have inherited the right to create and wear these ancient symbols.

Our beginnings predate the Great Flood when we first transformed from our supernatural forms to our human state as we are today. We are taught that before the deluge, it was the mythical Raven named “Umeł”, that was the first supernatural creature to give us our first ceremony; and taught us how to make the regalia that is necessary for us to carry out this scared dance. We are still carrying on this tradition and our neighbouring tribes do not imitate or copy the rights and artwork that accompanies the dance. This is out of utmost respect for traditions that are scared to us, and were given exclusively to our forebears by the Creator.

Our ancestors were blessed with a beautiful art form that was bestowed upon us by the Creator. We find it necessary to inform people that there are other people not from our nations that imitate and duplicate our artwork especially for the commercial market. We want to encourage these people to search into their own traditions, as we would not disrespect them by copying their artwork and cultures. All people on this earth were given teachings and traditions that make us all individual and unique. When we are able to fully understand our roots and our own history, we are able to find “oness” within our spirits and souls; it is only then that we will be able to find balance and live in harmony with all things in this great universe.

We are respectfully informing people that there are traditional Kwakwaka’wakw artists that have been groomed and have the inherent right to carry on the legacy of creating authentic Kwakwaka’wakw artwork. We must protect these gifts and gifted people that we now call “artists”. Our art was given to our ancestors for us to express ourselves and identify who we are as Kwakwaka’wakw. Only we can truly continue this tradition, as we are the Kwakwaka’wakw.

He’am / That is all.

Chief Waxawidi - ‘Namgis Artist, Singer, Composer and Story Teller.

The U’mista Cultural Centre encourages all Collectors and Gallery Owners to refer to the following list of artists as those we verify as authentic Kwakwaka’wakw artists.

U’mista – the return of something valuable to the rightful owner.