Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922-61
November 4, 2013
Review By Megan Smetzer
THE HISTORIOGRAPHIC trends in the scholarly literature pertaining to First Nations material and visual culture have leaned primarily towards stylistic analysis, connoisseurship, and tracing the rise, decline, and “renaissance” of this production. Ronald Hawker’s book, Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922-61, takes a refreshing and much needed new approach to twentieth-century First Nations art in British Columbia. By focusing on the virtually ignored mid-twentieth century and using discourse analysis, Hawker reveals a wide range of objects and situations that challenge the validity of the “renaissance” narrative. Through the close examination of several “representational projects,” Hawker analyzes the shifting, and often contested, meanings attributed to material culture both inside and outside of First Nations communities. Hawker argues that, “during this era, Northwest Coast objects functioned in a complex and multifaceted manner, at once asserting the integrity and meaningfulness of First Nations identities and resisting the intent and effects of assimilation” (5).
Hawker challenges the modernist trajectory that relegated First Nations peoples to a timeless past by offering an examination of the ways in which First Nations objects were used to create a provincial and national identity through the institutionalization of indigenous “culture.” The well-known events surrounding the raid of the 1922 Cranmer potlatch serve as the author’s starting point. He suggests that the reconfiguration of potlatch regalia from contemporary ceremonial use to ethnographic artefacts in museums enabled local and federal governments to frame First Nations and their objects as pre-history, and place them at the beginning of a narrative about Canada’s national history. Hawker illustrates other aspects of this theme through a series of events that took place during the 1920s, including the relocation of Kwakwaka’wakw poles to Stanley Park, the relocation of Gitxsan poles along the Canadian National Railways line, and the National Gallery of Art’s 1927 Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern. These events, in turn, erased local Salish histories and replaced them with a more generalized notion of “totem pole people,” corn-modified First Nations objects for tourists, and used First Nations objects as a basis to create a unique “Canadian artistic style” (61).
Hawker proposes that, while colonial power relationships enforced a certain reading of these events, the First Nations involved were not entirely victims and had multiple reasons for participating in the sale of objects. For example, he interprets the relocation of Kwakwaka’wakw poles as a way for certain families to gain a wider audience for lineage and ownership concerns. Hawker names the ambivalent reading of these events the “modernist paradox,” in which a culture appears to disappear even though its members continue to exist.
The second portion of the book examines the shift in the 1940s and 1950s (as a result of the Depression) from Canadian assimilationist policies to those of integration, along with associated projects initiated to combat First Nations poverty and other social ills. Concerned individuals such as George Raley and his Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and Alice Ravenhill’s British Columbia Indian Arts and Welfare Society believed that using recognizable aspects of First Nations culture would facilitate the assimilation of First Nations into dominant social structures and, at the same time, educate the non-First Nations public. Raley and Ravenhill focused on the commodification of First Nations art, both the creation of objects based on older Northwest Coast art forms and the encouragement of new forms.
Hawker points out not only the ways in which these paternalistic projects masked the often horrific realities of First Nations lives but also how they were used by some First Nations as a means for resisting assimilationist policies. Artists such as Mathias Joe, Mungo Martin, and George Clutesi used government-sanctioned events to highlight their Aboriginality and to make public statements about political issues such as land claims and identity. Moreover, in contesting Peter McNair’s argument that mid-twentieth-century objects represented a decline and Martine Reid’s belief that these objects had no cultural meaning, Hawker suggests that shifting cultural practices gave these objects cross-cultural value and meaning in ways that were just as important as were those displayed and recognized in nineteenth-century masterpieces.
Finally, Hawker discusses the institutionalization of Northwest Coast objects in the 1950s and 1960s. He focuses on the totem pole salvage expeditions sponsored by the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Provincial Museum. The relocation of poles from abandoned villages to museum collections placed an institutional value on the objects and contributed to their reinterpretation as art. Hawker uses the specific case of Gitanyow (Kitwancool) to illustrate how this First Nations community strategically used institutional practices to record histories of land ownership in exchange for copies of poles. Throughout the book, Hawker reinforces the complexity of these situations, underlining the conflicts over control and the multiplicity of meanings. The major criticism of this book is its lack of contemporary First Nations voices. While Hawker successfully utilizes published First Nations sources, he states that his narrative would become too complicated with the inclusion of reminiscences about the past. On the one hand, Hawker’s decision seems practical, but on the other, research on First Nations should always be complicated by contemporary voices. As Hawker himself notes: “these objects and images, and the ideas they represent continue to exert a strong influence on the world we share” (179). It has rightly become an ethical responsibility to work collaboratively with First Nations individuals and communities. This criticism aside, Hawker’s book is a valuable and significantly new approach to the material and visual production of the Northwest Coast.