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First Nations art envoys weave life into Royal B.C. Museum exhibits

When First Nations artist William White’s fingers weave coloured wools into patterns, they create vessels waiting to be filled with spirit through dance.
Artist Willliam White, a member of the Tsimshian people, weaves a dancing apron at the Royal B.C. Museum.

When First Nations artist William White’s fingers weave coloured wools into patterns, they create vessels waiting to be filled with spirit through dance.

And when White speaks of the moment his woven capes, aprons or blankets are granted that spirit or life, they are never merely worn, or used as costumes. They are always actively “danced.”

“It needs to be born, to have life breathed into it,” he said in an interview at the Royal B.C. Museum. “It comes off the loom and you dance it into this realm, because until that point, it’s only existed in the realm of the mind.”

“It’s also a gift,” said White. “When a weaver presents something to the dance floor and the fringes fly up, it spreads its good energy and collects good energy from the people.”

The 57-year-old White, a member of the Tsimshian people, spent time at the museum as the first visiting Aboriginal artist to join the effort to refresh the museum’s First Nations galleries. As he worked at his loom, he talked with visitors and answered questions. Being a teacher is part of what he sees as his artist’s role.

Lucy Bell, of the Haida people and now museum head of First Nations and Repatriation, said the musem’s refreshment process has begun and will likely take years.

Bell also said she was happy when White agreed to his visit, since she knew him as a good ambassador for First Nations artists and great person to kick off the revamp.

White is enthusiastic about the refreshment efforts at the museum, especially if it can bring a new life to the exhibits.

After all, he never tires of explaining that First Nations culture and tradition extend back many hundreds of years. And it has never died off. It remains in place, firmly attached to land, sea and place, and living within First Nations peoples.

“Our culture is alive and vibrant and it continues,” White said.

He still recalls the precise moment he decided to become a weaver. He was eight years old with his older brother on their weekly visit to the Museum of Northern British Columbia in Prince Rupert and looking at First Nations art.

“I said to my brother: ‘I want to weave one of those. Can I make one?’” he recalls. “He just said: ‘Yes, of course you can.’ ”

“So that was it, my older brother said I could do it and he knew everything,” said White, laughing. “After all, he was 12.”

Nevertheless, even with the permission of his much-admired brother, White didn’t seriously begin to pursue weaving until he was in his early 20s and he began with baskets.

He has since studied with family and established artists as far away as Alaska. White says he even sought — and received — special supernatural permission to pursue and teach an art form traditionally reserved for women.

White is now working on two pieces for the collection at the Royal B.C. Museum. One will be a traditional northwest peoples’ geometric design. The other will be a Chilkat design, depicting the mythic figures and people seen in the artwork of people such as the Haida.

But he said before either piece enters the museum’s collection, they must be danced.

“I’m sure my cousins will dance them for me,” said White. “I want them to be danced as part of a living exhibit.”

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