Artist Mike Dangeli gives his son, Hayetsk, a shoulder ride on Oct. 4. (Mike Dangeli/Instagram)

Artist Mike Dangeli gives his son, Hayetsk, a shoulder ride on Oct. 4. (Mike Dangeli/Instagram)

Skeena Voices | ‘The culture and the art saved my life’

Terrace-based artist shares stories of the journey that brought him here

Mike Dangeli is a Tsimshian, Nisga’a and Tlingit artist and community leader.

He recently carved a memorial totem pole for missing and murdered Indigenous women, and he lead the raising ceremony for the totem pole on Kitsumkalum territory on Sept. 4.

The 47-year-old father of three lives in Terrace with his wife Mique’l and their son Hayetsk, who is nearly a year old. Dangeli has two older sons, Nick and Michael, who are in their twenties.

Dangeli has been immersed in Northwest Indigenous culture and making art since he was a boy, but he walked a long path before becoming an established, full-time artist.

He was born in the tiny village of Stella, Missouri, near an army base where his biological father was stationed. His family only stayed a few months there — they moved often due to military obligations. When his parents separated, Dangeli moved with his mom to California, Washington State and finally, southern Alaska.

Growing up, he spent time in southern Alaska and northern B.C., having family roots on both sides of the border.

In the summers, he spent countless hours on a boat fishing with his Nisga’a grandfather, who instructed him in Nisga’a adaawk (oral history) and ayuuk (laws and protocol). He also learned from his grandmother, who was a gifted artist.

“Not only did she do beading and weaving and leather work, but she also was a landscape painter as well as a portrait painter,” he said. “Her and my mom were my first art teachers.”

Relatives also instructed him in the Tsimshian and Tlingit cultures. On the Tlingit side, he learned to make drums, which he traded for regalia, knowledge or tools.

As a teenager, Dangeli played varsity football in Alaska and continued his cultural education on both sides of the border.

When he was 17, he enlisted with the United States Army (to his mother’s dismay), inspired by a long family history of military service. Many of his uncles served in Vietnam and Korea, including his uncle Bill, a marine who fought in the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Both of Dangeli’s grandfathers fought in the Second World War. A great-grandfather on his mother’s side was a member of the Alaska Territorial Guard.

Dangeli served 10 years and did four tours of combat. He served in the Army Airborne, the Army Air Assault, and the Army Rangers. Those tours were through the UN’s involvement in the Somali Civil War, during the First Gulf War and at several other locations he cannot discuss.

Confidentiality agreements prevent him from publicly speaking about much of his time in the military, but he left with an honourable discharge.

Dangeli has grown critical of his time in the military.

“I tell my sons, I’ve been shot and stabbed and chewed enough dirt on foreign soil and fought enough that they don’t have to,” he said. “I look at where I was deployed and who sent me there, and it’s always rich politicians who are sending poor people off to war. I think that’s the way it’s been since the beginning of time. But I just don’t agree with the politics of where they’re sending us as soldiers, and I don’t think we’re really fighting for freedom and everything like we’re being told we are.”

“I still support our troops, because it’s not their choice. They’re not wanting to go do this. They’re just following orders.”

Being in the military meant missing out on some of his oldest son’s early years, something Dangeli regretted.

“I had him so young and then of course being deployed or away so many times, I felt like I missed a lot. And as a father, you know, that’s a pop in the chops,” he said. “I was able to reconnect and having some amazing time with him as a young pre-teen and teenager and all the way up into his adulthood.”

Returning to civilian life was a difficult transition for Dangeli, as it is for so many soldiers. He carried a lot of pain home, but culture and tradition kept him grounded.

”Knowing who I am, as far as being a Nisga’a/Tlingit/Tsimshian man, and practising my people’s traditions from an early age, being immersed in them … I really feel like helped me survive all of that,” he said. “Even when I came home with lots of baggage, and was angry about some of the things I had to do in combat. The culture and the art saved my life.”

Dangeli used the American GI Bill to go back to school in Alaska. He worked as a fisherman and in tourism. He transferred to school in Washington State where, for a time, he was intent on becoming a history teacher. He did an intensive carving apprenticeship under David Boxley, a Tsimshian artist from Metlakatla, Alaska.

Then he went through a difficult divorce. Hurting from that, and still bearing some pain from his years of service, Dangeli planned to return to the Nass Valley to lick his wounds. But first he stopped off in Vancouver, where he needed to earn a little cash.

He was asked to complete a totem pole that had been abandoned halfway through the carving process. The original carvers, who seemed to struggle with addiction issues, took an initial payment for work on the pole and then disappeared. Subsequently, the totem pole was stolen twice, ending up on Vancouver Island at one point. It was beaten with a baseball bat. Somebody spray painted a racist name for Indigenous people on it.

Dangeli related to the beat-up pole.

“It just was abused, so I saw it as a physical manifestation of where I was at,” he said.

He ended up getting a grant to have 12 youth work with him on the totem pole project. He taught them how to hold a traditional pole-raising potlatch, how to make gifts for the potlatch, and other protocols.

As many as 500 kids from the Vancouver area came by to help work on the totem pole itself.

“It ended up being this really beautiful moment,” Dangeli said.

After that, the friendship centre where he had been carving invited him to stay a while, to hold some workshops and things of that nature. He ended up living in the Lower Mainland for 20 years.

He met his wife, Mique’l, when they both apprenticed under the same master carver. Among many other activities over the years, they traveled the world with their dance group Git Hayetsk. They danced all over North America, including on Broadway, and they danced in Germany, Japan and Malaysia.

A few years ago, Dangeli and his wife were both invited to work and teach at ‘Na Aksa Gyilak’yoo School in Kitsumkalum, so they moved to Terrace. They’ve been here since.

Normally the family are quite busy, working on various art projects, teaching or speaking engagements, or cultural activities on both sides of the border. But with COVID-19 and the border closure, they are having a relatively quiet year.

Dangeli wished he could have seen his older sons more this year, but he relishes being able to spend quality time at home, especially with his son Hayetsk being at a formative age. Hayetsk has been immersed in his father’s artwork this year, participating in carving in his own way. The little guy is already beginning to learn the cultural lessons that saved his father years ago.

”He loves coming in when I’m in my painting studio, coming and looking over things,” Dangeli said. “It’s pretty amazing to see this little toddler emulate so much of what is going on in his life.”