Through art, Kitselas looks to correct the historical record

The story of a 1926 portrait of a Kitselas chief is just the beginning of the nation's plan to repatriate art from all over the world

A digital print of Edwin Holgate’s 'Tsimshian Chief (Samuel Gaum)'. The 1926 original is part of the National of Canada’s collection in Ottawa. The headdress is at the Northern Museum of British Columbia in Prince Rupert and is made of tightly weaved cedar

In late summer and early autumn of 1926, a delegation that included Canadian government officials, artists, researchers, and anthropologists toured the lands along the Skeena River. The trip, conducted by railway, included meetings with west coast representatives and was an opportunity for officials to experience what was, thanks to the railway, becoming one of the more popular tourism routes of that era.

But at least one anthropologist, Marius Barbeau with the National Museum of Canada, was there to document what he believed were the “vanishing races” of Canada – First Nations.

That hypothesis would, of course, turn out to be incorrect. But the documentation he and others collected on that trip, along with information collected several decades earlier, would play an important role in northwest B.C. First Nations looking to reclaim their culture and assert their rights decades later.

“These are like our bibles,” says Cyril (CJ) Bennett-Nabess while leafing through first editions of history books, some dating back to the 1800s, at the Kitselas Treaty Office on Queensway Drive. “They thought we were going to be extinct. They recorded these because they thought the culture was going to be lost and put into a museum, and then to their surprise, 112 years later we’re still here.”

The irony is not lost on Bennett-Nabess, a recent graduate of the Freda Diesing School of Art at Northwest Community College. He’s providing context to the print portrait of Kitselas hereditary chief Samuel Wallace (Sm’ooygit Guam) that’s hanging in his office. The original of that print is part of what is sure to be a steady push to return Kitselas art to the area as Kitselas gets closer to treaty completion.

The print is one of 10 produced for the Kitselas after a researcher on Vancouver Island alerted them to the original portrait’s whereabouts – the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where its been part of the permanent collection since 1927.

The sketched portrait depicts the chief, who was leader of the raven clan and the Kitselas (Gitselasu) people in the early 1900s, in dark charcoal with red accent on parchment. It was one of several works created by Edwin Holgate – who would later go on to become a member of the Group of Seven – during his trip to the area as part of the 1926 delegation.

Along with the portraits, Holgate painted landscapes and totem poles in Gitxsan territory, and, according to an essay by art historian and Holgate expert Sandra Dyck that was part of the 2005 Holgate exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the artist later recalled that he and other artists “cruised back and forth freely” while in the area.

Their passage was also free – secured by Barbeau from the government with the promise that the artists would produce “commercially exploitable images that would generate support for his wider vision of developing a distinctive national art” and promote the area as a tourist destination, Dyck writes.

The “appropriation and commodification” of northwest B.C. First Nations culture during this trip paralleled the groups’ “struggle to preserve their sovereignty,” says Dyck, noting another parallel – that the economic benefits of the trip would also not be realized by the First Nations.

She details tension during the 1926 trip – the artists were banned from the village of Gitanyow, and in Gitsegukla, residents were critical of government attempts to restore totem poles – totem poles that just a few years earlier had been cut down. Residents were prohibited from raising more.

Indeed, in one group photograph of chief Wallace and others – dressed in their best Sunday suits, not their ceremonial dress – a totem pole stands amongst the group. Bennett-Nabess tells me that that totem pole was cut down and had been propped up for the picture.

It’s hard to imagine the group willingly hosting offshoots of a government that had dismantled and nearly destroyed their culture – but Bennett-Nabess says the chiefs welcomed them with respect and ceremony, as they would welcome noble chiefs and matriarchs from any other nation and as they had been doing for thousands of years.

The group photograph was taken at the beginning of the delegation’s tour, not far from the area Wallace was from – Gitlax’dzawk, which means people of the fortress, down river from Gitaus, people of the sandbar, and Ts’unyow, the landing place, at one of the arms of the canyon where the water changes.

The group would stop at various spots before landing in Port Essington where the Skeena broadens out to the Pacific Ocean. It’s here Holgate would draw the portrait of Wallace – and where initial negotiations between the government of Canada, Kitselas, and Kitsumkalum would take place that same trip.

“It was the beginning of the Tsimshian land question,” says Bennett-Nabess.

Now, many years later, Kitselas and Kitsumkalum are nearing treaty completion with the expectation of holding votes on respective final agreements within two years.

And that means wheels are in motion to identify and repatriate artwork from all over the world, like Holgate’s portrait.

Some might argue that because the sketch was by a Canadian artist, as part of a national research delegation, it’s not true Kitselas art. But Bennett-Nabess says that because of the context in which that artwork was created, it is part of the historic Kitselas record.

Bennett-Nabess says court decisions back up this view and “give further ownership over our intellectual property. Intellectual property is a sketch of our chief that was done in 1926 … I know some people would say otherwise, but just like how people interpret court decisions, we’re interpreting court decisions to take an ownership over anything that has an image of Kitselas, or anything to do with Kitselas or our entities.”

But a Kitselas museum to showcase any reclaimed artifacts is still some time away. After the Nisga’a signed their treaty in 2000, it took over a decade until money was made available for one.

Until then, prints like the one of Wallace – and talks to have the original loaned to the Museum of Northern British Columbia in Prince Rupert – are enough for Bennett-Nabess and other leaders.

“We’re very happy that we got these back,” he says. “It will allow our people to know who Sm’ooygit Guam was better, to be able to see his face and see his frontlet and see the look of strength and nobility on his face because of the house he came from. It’ll almost give our people a sense of community pride.”