The rehabilitation of Klatssasin through art and myth

Stan Douglas recalls that, when he released his exhibit Klatsassin, he wasn't a popular man among the Chilcotin people, who were suspicious of his intent. Later, he said, they seemed all right with it.

Little wonder. Once they got a look, they probably walked away shaking their heads. I suspect Douglas wants everybody to do that.

Four years later, his photos-and-film exhibit has made its way to Kamloops, opening this week at the art gallery. Anybody who would produce a 69-hour movie very likely doesn't want us to "get it."

Who, after all, would waste that much time trying to figure out what goes on inside an artist's head, though one reviewer professes to know, concluding that ". . . for all its technical sophistication and labyrinthine complexity, Klatsassin exploits a relatively simple binary opposition: a poetic tension between the repetitive precision of cinematic time and the fluidity of subjective experience."

Excuse me?

I'm with the Chilcotin - I don't get it either. Just as well, perhaps.

Chilcotin leaders are very protective of anything to do with Klatsassin, or Klatassine, a war chief who led a band of thugs on a rampage of murder and plunder in 1864, and was hunted down and hanged.

They worry that any new history or treatment will challenge the myth of the convenient hero figure who supposedly tried to protect his people's land against invasion.

What actually happened was that Klatsassin/Klatassine talked a group of Chilcotins into hacking a white roadbuilding crew to death as they slept so they could steal their stuff. They committed several other murders along the way, including that of my great-great-grandfather, whom they shot in the back.

At the time, it was known as the Bute Inlet Massacre (a more apt description) but let's stick with The Chilcotin War, which is what I used as the title of a book I wrote about it back in 1978.

Not until after he murdered his first unarmed white man did Klatassine start talking about territory and war (murder is such a nasty word, war is so much better). As many criminals do, he was smart enough to try to justify his actions with spin.

And, by the way, neither Alexis, the much respected chief of all the Chilcotin, nor the less admirable Chief Anahim, backed Klatassine - indeed, they co-operated with the colonial expedition that caught him.

The art gallery, in its promotional material, claims Douglas "defies the official version of events." Translation: let's not be overly concerned with the facts.

This "war," far from being a "little-known event in B.C.'s history" as some artistic types like to claim, is one of the most highly documented episodes of that time. Official reports, journals, contemporary interviews, ledgers, testimony and, of course, newspaper stories abound, providing a pretty clear picture of what took place.

Despite this, the romanticization of Klatassine has been so successful that, in 1999, the provincial government officially apologized for hanging him and his fellow cutthroats. It's curious to me that non-native society feels compelled to apologize not only for the many wrongs done to our First Nations peoples but also for an event in which innocent Europeans were slaughtered.

I can empathize with Douglas in one sense - when I published The Chilcotin War, I wasn't exactly Mr. Popular with the Chilcotin folks, either. What they have difficulty understanding is that Klatassine's depredations against whites make him as much the historic property of non-natives as of the Chilcotin.

If Douglas provides enough incentive to learn more about the Chilcotin War, he'll have done a service. So when you give up trying to figure out what Douglas is talking about, pick up a copy of Rich Mole's recent book and find something out about what really took place.

I was prepared not to like this book (it's published by Heritage House and sells for $9.95) because, for one thing, Mole uses the same title I did, albeit with subtext "A Tale of Death and Reprisal."

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it. This is a thin volume at just 140 pages, but it lays out the core facts of the situation very well and actually adds a lot of good stuff about the key players. I found myself learning new things from it, and, to me, that's what makes a revisit of a by now well-mined event valuable.

He accurately portrays colonial society and the project led by entrepreneur Alfred Waddington to build a new route to the Barkerville goldfields up Bute Inlet and across the Chilcotin Plateau.

Mole points out that, far from objecting to the presence of whites in their territory, the Chilcotin were generally accepting of the traders who took up residence there, and were even employed by Waddington's road crew.

While much is made of alleged trickery in getting Klatassine to surrender to expedition leader William George Cox, Mole explains that as winter approached Klatassine and his band on the run were facing starvation and had no choice.

Further evidence of the inability of normal people to fathom Douglas' message is the fact that reviews of his work all seem to borrow from each other for convenience, echoing near-identical lines about "recombinance" and comparisons to Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon. It's all so artsy-fartsy.

Looking at Douglas' version of the Klatassine story is a little like staring at a painting of a stripe and trying to fathom its deep inner meaning. Reading Mole's book is like looking at a painting of a stripe and saying, "Yup, that's a stripe."

Take your pick.



Independent curator Jacob Korczynski gives a talk on the work of artist Stan Douglas June 17, 7 p.m., at Kamloops Art Gallery.

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