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Exhibit weaves tapestry of culture lost and found

Curator and team of researchers breath new life into dismantled heritage


What: S'abadeb -- The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Arts and Artists

Where: Royal British Columbia Museum, 675 Belleville St.

When: Continues until March 8, 2010 (catalogue $50 at the Museum Shop)

Growing up in Toronto, I thought all Indians wore feathered headdresses and lived in teepees. When I came to the coast I revised my thinking, and believed that all natives carved masks and totem poles, and used black and red "formlines." Now it's time to shed my ignorance and become aware of the Coast Salish, the remarkable First Nations on whose ancient lands I have come to dwell.

The Coast Salish have been here for thousands of years. When we erase our colonialist borderlines, the Salish Sea is an extraordinarily rich waterway. Rivers (now named Fraser, Skagit and Cowichan) supported ancient communities at their mouths, where people could find both fresh water and salt water ecosystems. People were carving stone bowls here in ancient times; in historic times they gathered here to feast and dance in thick woollen blankets; and today the Salish people continue to live here, reminding us of our obligation for the stewardship of this land.

Unlike the more northern nations, the Salish are not warlike, and their ceremonial life has been kept secret. Living in the areas prized by settlers, they adapted to the white man's ways sooner. They have been marginalized and misinterpreted. Only in the past few years have the young people of the Salish world begun to take up their heritage with appropriate pride.

The show is handsomely and creatively installed, but without some help I wasn't ready to appreciate baskets, weaving and small stone and bone carvings. A casual visitor to the gallery show might miss much of the pleasure and education of this experience. Fortunately, I met a few Salish artists and am somewhat familiar with their homeland. It is thought-provoking to see museum artifacts of ancient lineage from nearby localities like Saanich and Chemainus.

I patiently examined the artworks, but in the exhibition my attention was caught and held by a 45-minute film entitled The Living Archive (Alex Schweder and John Grade). The film introduced me to more than a dozen artists and elders who talked about their practices, their families and their world view. The Salish people are still here, a proud people who have not forgotten the incredible richness of their past. Rootless immigrants like me would do well to consider what was going on in this place just a few decades ago.

Greater depth was added tomy experience by a careful reading of the accompanying catalogue. Although the book was written for the Seattle installation, it is an invaluable introduction to the Victoria show. Here is an opportunity to study the works on display with the best Salish artists and committed anthropologists. In essays and commentary, the elders of the community drew my attention to the beauty of the imbricated baskets, the regal bulk of twined and twilled yarns, and the mysteries of figures that were buried in middens centuries ago.

Through the many essays I discovered the tapestry of a culture lost and found. I learned of the work of linguists holding onto fading languages (Coast Salish is made up of 14 distinct languages) and of researchers discovering treasures stored in museums in Scotland and London (collected by the Vancouver Expedition of 1792). And most thrilling are the words of artists of a new generation who are reviving the suppressed visual power of Salish patterns. If nothing else, I now can identify the special motifs of this place, a unique language of circles, crescents and "trigons," defining space within an outline.

Adaptability has been a hallmark of Salish art through the years. The Musqueam weavers near Vancouver and Simon Charlie of Chemainus reinvented Salish art in the 1960s. Dazzling new directions are the highlight of the show. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria introduced us to many of our contemporaries in the Transporters show two years ago -- Maynard Johnny, lessLie, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Charles Elliott, Floyd Joseph, and John, Luke and Jane Marston among them. The horizons are wide open for Salish art.

I have been enriched by the people I met through S'abadeb -- Musqueam artist Susan Point, Upper Skagit elder Vi Hilbert, Puyallup/Tulalip artist Sean Peterson and so many others. They seem modest, generous, persistent and talented -- the embodiment of hope.

With curator Barbara Brotherton, anthropologist Wayne Suttles and archeologist Astrida Onat, among others, they have picked up the pieces of a dismantled culture and breathed new life into it. This book, and the exhibition, mark a major step in the way forward.