Nature & Politics: Aboriginal Art in Vancouver
For my next article I would like to talk about the relationship between salmon and Aboriginal communities in Vancouver. In Cease Wyss’ video, she tells her people’s story of the disappearing salmon. In the story, a young woman was by the river when she saw a bunch of ghosts walking in and out of the water. They looked like salmon, but they were transparent, frail and old. She asked them what was wrong and they explained that the cultural tradition in which the earth people brought the bones of the salmon to the river after they feasted and offered them back to the Salmon People as a way of showing their love and appreciation was not being practiced. The people no longer brought the bones back to the river and the Salmon People were disappearing. Traditionally, the Squamish people believed that by returning the bones it guaranteed the return of the salmon. This story inspired my interest in Aboriginal spiritual beliefs regarding salmon and water and how they have been impacted by changes to the city’s waterways.
Many Coast Salish Communities such as the Musqueam and Sḵwxwú7mesh First Nations lived and prospered by the water. Therefore, water and salmon were an influential part of their communities. It is fascinating to learn about the traditions, ceremonies and legends that have been passed down from one generation to another. For instance, the Sechelt First Nations don’t break the neck of the first salmon of the run because they believe the salmon won’t return if they do1 and the W̱SÁNEC people believe that “salmon are our relatives” and practice a First Salmon Ceremony for the first sockeye caught each season. 2
I am interested in the consequences of European settlers who came to Vancouver and claimed Aboriginal territories along the water. When early settlers came to Vancouver they negotiated with Aboriginal populations regarding rights to the land and water. Since then, many of these rights were infringed upon and Aboriginal groups have had to fight for their land and traditions. Prior to colonization, thousands of salmon spawned in Vancouver’s streams every year. As the city developed, many of the fresh water creeks were covered and salmon were unable return. In water that still allowed for salmon runs, traditional methods of fishing were rejected and industrial fisheries took control of the water. In some areas the water was over-fished and the salmon populations became depleted.
Aboriginal Fisheries and the right to fish are but one of the ongoing legal battles in Canada concerning the inherent rights of Aboriginal peoples. Early discriminatory legislature and legal practices such as the Indian Act disregarded Aboriginal rights and their communities, traditions and culture suffered as a result.
There are many Aboriginal artists in and connected with Vancouver who use artistic expression to show their culture, language and stories. Many express the resilience of their culture despite the laws that threatened their communities. Through my research I came across some amazing artwork by artists that reflect the importance of water as well as the conflicted Aboriginal history.
Susan Point is a Musqueam artist whose public works incorporate Coast Salish art into the city. Her piece, Memory, is a manhole cover found throughout Vancouver. The covers depict the metamorphosis of four frogs. They show the Coast Salish belief that all life stems from water and are a reminder that water and wildlife lie beneath the surface of our streets. http://www.spiritwrestler.com/catalog/index.php?products_id=2754
Kevin Lee Burton is a Cree First Nations filmmaker. In his award winning film, Nikamowin (Song), Burton experiments with his ancestral Cree language. The film is set in the front of a boat moving along the coast and a speaker is confessing that he can’t understand his native tongue. The video expresses the loss of First Nations language and culture while exploring the traditional and changing landscape along the coast. http://www.beatnation.org/kevin-lee-burton.html
Sonny Assu is an interdisciplinary artist from the Ligwilda’x w (We Wai Kai) of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations. His work explores Indigenous issues and rights within contemporary culture. In his piece, Indigenous Trail, Assu created a street marker that was installed on both sides of Kingsway. The marker informs people of an ancient foot trail that connected the Fraser River with the Pacific Ocean. Similar to projects that show Vancouver’s hidden streams, Indigenous Trail uncovers a hidden pathway that was once used by Indigenous communities. https://ourcityourart.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/pop-culture-meets-aboriginal-art-on-the-along-the-kingsway-trail/
Tania Willard, an artist from the Secwepemc Nation, invited her community to participate in Fish Prayer Flags, Calendario. In this community engaged art project, participants screen-printed eleven fish and their Sewepemc names on to colourful prayer flags while Willard shared her culture and knowledge of swawlic (fish). The flags were ordered according to the annual arrival of fish to local streams and carry a prayer for the fish in the Splatsin valley. http://artstarts.com/exhibitions/timescapes/fish-prayer-flags
Marianne Nicolson is a member of the Dzawada’enuxw Tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation in Kingcome Inlet. Her artwork, The River Monument, is displayed at the Vancouver International Airport. The installation consists of two blue glass poles that represent the Columbia and Fraser River. The Fraser River pole is illustrated with fish, and the Columbia River pole, which was more impacted by industry and dams, is illustrated with men. Nicolson’s work addresses historical and contemporary Indigenous issues and the piece speaks to the industrialization of BC’s rivers and the loss of Indigenous homeland. http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2015/01/16/marianne-nicolson-yvr-takes-a-chance-on-challenging-art/
1. Joe, Donna. Salmon Boy. Harbour Publishing, 1999. Print.
2. “Aboriginal Fisheries in British Columbia.” Indigenous Foundations. University of British Columbia, 2009. Web. http://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/home/land-rights/aboriginal-fisheries-in-british-columbia.html