Unsettling an Image: Behind the BC Studies Conference Poster

Unsettling British Columbia

In the call for papers for BC Studies 2017 we asked for “papers that explore relationships and tensions between the settled and the unsettled in British Columbia’s past, present, and future.” As historians, we looked to the Royal British Columbia Museum and Archives to find an image for the conference poster that would evoke these feelings and relationships, particularly as they pertain to Settler-Indigenous relations. 

“The picture of the King”[1] was taken at the top of Comiaken Hill, on the Cowichan Indian Reserve, May 27, 1913.  The occasion for the gathering and the photo was the arrival of the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs in British Columbia (also known as the McKenna-McBride Commission,) to Hul’qumi’num Territory.  The commission was Premier Richard McBride’s effort to gain access to reserve lands and resources that he and other Settlers believed were being ‘wasted’ by First Nations. By design, and in rejection of repeated requests from First Nations, the commission was not given a mandate to deal with treaty and land claim matters. Nevertheless, the commission repeatedly heard from First Nations leaders who expressed anger and frustration with the Crown’s failure to listen and address the ongoing theft of their territories (See for example “Our Homes are Bleeding”).

To understand why the picture bearer is holding an autographed portrait of the King it is important to know that Hul’qumi’num territories, as with the majority of First Nation’s territories in British Columbia, were never ceded by treaty. The Hul’qumi’num and Cowichan Tribe’s longstanding opposition to settlement and assertion of sovereignty has been well documented.[2] One of the more regularly cited examples of this resistance is the travel of First Nations leaders Joseph Kayapalanexw (Squamish), Charlie Tsulpi’multw (Cowichan), and Basil David (Bonaparte) to see King Edward VII in 1906. The three claimed to represent all First Nations of the province and were granted an audience with the King where they presented to him a petition outlining their grievances and appealed to the honour of the Crown. At the meeting, the King told the leaders that their grievances would be addressed and each was presented with an autographed portrait.

When the McKenna-McBride commission arrived at Comiaken Hill in May 1913, this portrait was brought forward as a reminder of the King’s promise. Chief Tsulpi’multw addressed the commissioners:

I am glad to see you gentlemen today, and I thank you for speaking favourably towards us. I went to the King a few years ago to try and get some settlement from the King, and when I got there, the King gave me this photograph. His Majesty promised to do something for us, and said he would send somebody out to look into the matter. The King told me that I need not feel very sorry about these things, as, if there was anything that he could do anything [sic] for me, he would do it. His Majesty promised to give each male Indian on the reserves, 160 acres of land, as the land belonged to us Indians. I hope you will take what I say into consideration, and do what you can for us.[3]

In the Daniel Marshall/Cowichan Tribes book Those Who Fell from the Sky: A History of the Cowichan People the image is captioned “Picture bearer retained by Chief Tsulpi’multw to hold a portrait of King Edward VII whom he had visited in 1906.”[4] Although the name of the picture bearer is not revealed, this caption, rather than “The picture of the King,” provides insight into the coordinated demonstration of sovereignty that took place that day. Other images from the commission’s travels, part of Series GR-3477 in the BC Archives, have been digitized and can be found online. Among the collection is an image of Cowichan Chief Suhiltun departing Comiaken with a Union Jack.[5] In her PhD dissertation, Sarah Morales writes about this event:

Furthermore, Chief Suhiltun took further action to illustrate to the Commission that the land question was still outstanding in Hul’qumi’num territory. The late elder Wes Modeste shared the following with me:

I come from a long line of hereditary chiefs. My greatgrandfather, Sahiltun, was a hereditary chief. He participated in the meetings that were held during the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission at the location of the historic stone church. During these hearings, Sahiltun removed the Union Jack flag from the Commission’s table to debunk the idea that wherever they planted the flag, the land belonged to the Crown.[6]

As these images and oral histories demonstrate, the McKenna-McBride commissioners were greeted with actions, stories, facts, and figures that challenged and unsettled their self-imposed authority. In this way, “The Picture of the King” is an important representation that continues to unsettle and confront a supposedly settled past. The complex relations and stories that exist within and between these perspectives will be the focus of discussion during BC Studies 2017, taking place May 4, 5, and 6, 2017on traditional Snuneymuxw territory at Vancouver Island University. We (myself, along with fellow conference organizers Timothy Lewis and Katharine Rollwagen) hope those with an interest in acknowledging and confronting such complexities will join us in Nanaimo for these important conversations.

Kelly Black
Adjunct Professor
Department of History
Vancouver Island University

Registration for BC Studies 2017 opens February 1st at ah.viu.ca/bcstudies.

Thank-you to Surge Productions for their assistance with graphic design work for the BC Studies 2017 poster.

 


[1] Image H-03662, Royal BC Museum and Archives.

[2] Christ Arnett, The Terror of the Coast: Land Alienation and Colonial War on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1849-1863 (Vancouver: Talonbooks. 1999); Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, The Great Land Grab in Hul’qumi’num Territory (Ladysmith: Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, 2007); Daniel P. Marshall, Those Who Fell From the Sky: A History of the Cowichan Peoples (Duncan: Cowichan Tribes, 1999).

[3] Quoted in Marshall, 1999, p. 160.

[4] Marshall, 1999, p. 159.

[5] For this photograph (Image H-03660/Royal BC Museum and Archives) the photographer has given the romantic and colonial title “King of an ancient race.” Again, the caption erases the actions of Chief Suhlitun and others that day.

[6] Sarah Morales, “W’uyulh: Fostering an Understanding of the Hul’qumi’num Legal Tradition” (PhD dissertation, University of Victoria, 2014), 187.

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