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Two Wolves at the Dawn of Time

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Two Wolves at the Dawn of Time

 

 

Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve.

 

Any artist who paints a Creation Myth balances precariously

between heaven and earth, whether the scaffold swings beneath a

ceiling in Rome or bangs against a rock cliff above an inlet of

the North Pacific. In 1998 Marianne Nicholson created the first

tribal pictograph to be painted in seventy years. Twenty-eight

feet wide by thirty-eight long, on a cliff a hundred feet high,

the pictograph testifies to the continuing vitality of the

artist's home, the Gwa'yi village at the entrance to Kingcome

Inlet. Its design brings the two wolves from the Dzawada'enuxw

origin myth into the frame of a huge "copper", the shield-shaped

icon of the traditional economic and social systems of the

Northwest coast.

 

Trained as a "contemporary" artist, Nicholson relearned the

traditional pictograph techniques of her people. Her research

lead her to non-Native artist/scholar Judith Williams, a long-

time frequenter of the coast and investigator of its culture.

Williams became an enthusiastic witness to Nicholson's

pictograph, documenting its progress and exploring its context

and the human relationships which make it meaningful.

 

One hundred metres from the site, at Petley Point, another

pictograph looms, painted by another woman artist, Mollie Wilson,

in 1927, in defiance of the Potlatch ban. Between the two sites,

Williams traces a lively line of intersecting, interacting

histories which have not yet reached their end.

 

Two elder couples befriended Williams. Dave Dawson was for

many years elected chief of the Dzawada'enuxw; his wife Flora

still speaks fluently the Kwak'wala language, but recalls that

she enjoyed her time at the residential school. The Dawsons and

others who wander in and out of the pages bring out stories and

objects, for instance, the family copper, in a musing,

reminiscing, speculative manner. No one claims the last word.

 

Alan and Mary Caroline Halliday also belong to Kingcome. In

1894 the Halliday brothers Ernest and William, of Scottish stock,

staked claim to land on the inlet delta. Ernest homesteaded,

building a house which sheltered his family for a century.

William Halliday became Indian Agent, doomed to inflict anguish

on neighbours and would-be friends, all with the "best" of

paternalistic intentions. In a position to see where regulations

had been made too rigid, he served a bureaucracy with no

allowance for rule bending. He did not entirely oppose the rules;

he genuinely believed the continuing of the Potlatch Ceremony was

morally and economically injurious to the Native people. His boss

in the federal hierarchy, Duncan Campbell Scott, whose poetry

appeared in all Canadian anthologies of my schooldays, receives a

bad press these days. The culture he thought dead is outliving

him. William Halliday could only judge what he observed "against

the template of his own belief system." On the other hand, Rev.

John Antle of the Coast Mission argued against the ban, "The

ruthless tragedy upon ancient customs comes not too well from a

Christian nation."

 

In the U'Mista Museum at Alert Bay, Williams thinks that

even now the rescued and protected ritual objects "rest uneasily

on pedestals." Pictograph and petroglyph sites can not be so

readily decontextualized.

 

The reader wanting absolute truth or even a clear battleline

between good guys and villains had better leave this book alone.

We meet hospitable Interfor loggers who share food, information,

and thoughtful, concerned opinions. We are appalled to find the

Nature Trust offering to sell to the Gwa'yi people the land which

had been theirs all along. And we share the wrath of the late

Beth Hill, doyenne of rock art studies, when young tree-planters

trash the Halliday house. Alan Halliday comments: "Writing about

it all, they make it something different from what it was. It was

just ordinary life." Williams shows ordinary life still being

lived.

 

Her book includes a number of archival and documentary

photographs, including several striking views of the two modern

pictographs. But, since she has written herself so energetically

into the story, I regret the absence of anything she sketched or

painted during the progress of the pictograph. What happened, I

wonder, to the watercolour she "looped onto paper" when camping

in the Halliday house?

 

from the British Columbia Historical News. V.36 No.2,

Spring, 2003.

 

TWO WOLVES AT THE DAWN OF TIME; Kingcome Inlet Pictographs, 1893-

1998. Judith Williams. Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001. 240 pp.

Illus. $29. paperback.

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