CHRIS PAUL GREETS ME AT HIS STUDIO DOOR with a canister of Sani-wipes. I am visiting the Coast Salish artist on the Tsartlip reserve in Brentwood Bay. It is Monday March 16, 2020, and folks are being encouraged to stay home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But here I am, not quite believing the facts as they are unfolding.
The Legacy Gallery commissioned Paul to make a circular artwork for their now delayed show, To Fish as Formerly: A Story of Straits Salish Resurgence. The exhibit, curated by XEMŦOLTW Nicholas Claxton and the Legacy’s Community Engagement Coordinator Katie Hughes, will tell the story of SX̱OLE (the Reef-Net Fishery), inviting the non-indigenous community to learn about future possibilities from former knowledge and practices.
The project came about when Hughes, who is completing her masters degree in the University of Victoria’s department of history, was connected through her graduate supervisor John Lutz with Claxton to collaborate on her academic research project. As part of her final graduate work over the past year and a half, she has been researching, managing and curating the exhibition, connecting with all the artists, other academics and community members. This was all above and beyond her role at Legacy.
Other artists in the show include: Charles Elliott, son Chazz Elliott, Dylan Thomas, Sarah Jim and Colton Hash. Historical artifacts will also be on display.
At 51, Paul’s successful career includes a variety of media: limited-edition prints, wood carvings, glass sculptures and installations, plus silver jewelry. In the summer, his studio becomes a satellite classroom for UVic’s Indigenous Education Department. He teaches drum-making and carving, taking students on cultural excursions.
Chris Paul is not overly fearful of COVID-19; he’s philosophical. “Indigenous people still live under the shadow of genocide,” he says. “But we are survivors, so feel more resilient.”
European contact brought epidemics of smallpox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, influenza and measles, decimating BC’s Indigenous peoples. Paul acknowledges that his community is at-risk regarding health issues. Indigenous people have a higher risk of illness and early death. Chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes are prevalent. Tuberculosis among the Inuit is far higher than the national average.
“Before contact, we were in two canoes,” Paul says, “now the world paddles in one canoe.”
NICHOLAS CLAXTON, co-curator of To Fish as Formerly: A Story of Straits Salish Resurgence, will be back in his canoe once COVID-19 recedes. When we spoke in March, the UVic assistant professor was preoccupied with getting his students on-line. UVic had just cancelled face-to-face instruction.
As Chief of the TSAWOUT First Nation, he’s also busy checking that all members of his community are safe and comfortable.
Claxton has a vision for the future—one that relies on the past. He wants to revive the practice of reef net fishing in his community. In 1916, the Canadian government banned reef net fishing. In 2014 Claxton defended his PhD thesis on reef net fishing, explaining the complex technical skills and ceremonial aspects of this age-old practice.
As part of this thesis, a modern reef net, measuring 40 feet by 35 feet was assembled on the soccer field behind the Tribal School on Tsartlip.
They received technical assistance from Lummi First Nation from Washington State. In July 2014, members of TSAWOUT First Nation fished off Pender Island in the 40-foot traditional cedar canoes used during Tribal Journeys. “The fishing venture was a positive experience,” says Claxton, “in spite of no fish entering the net.”
Claxton’s mission is to revitalize the practices and knowledge systems connected to place. These practices and systems encompass many areas: treaty and land claims, natural resources, sustainable fishing, and governance of land and water. The Legacy exhibit is important, he feels, because it presents an opportunity for people, including non-Indigenous, to learn more about our cultural history. “I especially want our youth to experience reef-net fishing so they can carry on the traditions.”
MY NEXT STOP ON TSARTLIP is the old school house to talk with respected elders John Elliott Sr and Charles Elliott.
Charles Elliott has over 40 years of experience in creating wood carvings, artworks and totem poles, using both traditional elements and contemporary designs. Charles shares his knowledge freely, and mentors emerging and established artists. A print by Charles called “Salish Renewal,” from the Legacy collection, will show at the exhibition.
“Salish Renewal” (1994) by Charles Elliot
John Elliott Sr has worked for four decades on research and revival of the Saanich language (SENĆOŦEN). In 1994 he co-wrote Reef Net Technology of the Saltwater People with Earl Claxton Senior. The authors describe the gifts of creation as clean water, pristine lakes, beaches full of shell fish, dense first-growth forests, fish-filled rivers, and huge herds of deer and elk. The freedom to roam over land and sea created a bountiful, honourable and sustainable way of life in Saanich for many generations.
During our visit, John Elliott tells me the origin story of the SX̱OLE (the Reef Net Fishery) explaining the ceremony and rituals. The salmon are honoured as relatives of the Saanich people. Each family belonged to a fishing location passed down along with family names. The elder who carried the family name was the captain of the location, having special rights and responsibilities. John’s carving of a Reef Net Captain is included in the exhibition.
“This was the way our families worked together,” John says, “to ensure a sustainable harvest.” A reef net had a small hole in one end that allowed some fish to escape and rebuild stocks.
“Now factory ships and seine trawlers take all the fish,” says John, “and sell the catch off-shore for large profits.”
I learn there is no word for “greed” in the Salish language.
In their father’s memoir Saltwater People, Dave Elliott Senior, born in 1910 at Tsartlip, recalls travelling to his family’s traditional reef net fishing location, Henry Island, at age 10: “I remember when we arrived in the dark, and there were so many salmon jumping that it made a continuous splashing sound like a turbulent river,” he wrote. Henry Island is located in Haro Strait just across the Washington State border.
Charles Elliott (left) and John Elliott Senior on the Tsartlip reserve in March 2020, holding Saltwater People (1983) an historical memoir told by their father, Dave Elliott Senior
In 1926, US authorities ordered Elliott’s family to leave Henry Island. When the US-Canada border was created in 1846, bisecting Haro Strait, it left much of Salish territory in the State of Washington. The 1852 Douglas Treaties had assured the Saanich people they would be allowed “to fish as formerly,” but this promise was never honoured. In fact, in 1916, the Canadian government banned reef net fishing.
Diseases resulting from contact and the residential school system further damaged the cultural fabric of the Coast Salish peoples.
Reviving the past in the middle of a global pandemic brings up some ghostly memories for BC’s Indigenous people. In Saltwater People, we also learn about the epidemics that decimated indigenous populations. In 1862, over 10,000 people from Tlingit, Haida, Tshimshain, Kwakiutl and Bella Coola nations were camped around Ogden Point. They came to trade and seek help for the devastating effects of smallpox, first encountered during the the late 1770s.
When smallpox broke out in the encampment, authorities set fire to the tents. The sick and dying were forced to flee the area, spreading the disease as they went.
Today, of course, we have our own tent cities that shelter the homeless in Victoria. Unable to self-isolate, there is much concern about the spread of COVID-19. We know our world is distressed, and change is essential, but where are we headed?
Perhaps looking back offers a key to the future.
Dave Elliott states in his memoir: “With land claims, it’s not just a matter of getting land back, but a whole system we can share. We have come through a great disaster and are in a state of shock—our memories have left us. Youth need to be told their history to give them a future.”
To Fish as Formerly: A Story of Straits Salish Resurgence has been delayed from its original April 25 to September 5 run. Please check the Legacy Gallery website for updates.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.
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