A Limited Edition Print
by artist Robert Bateman
20 ¼" x 13 ½"
A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting a now empty village on an island off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. Because it was a foggy summer day, we were navigating by compass and radar over the glassy water, occasionally glimpsing the gray-green shoreline, barely aware of the muffled purring of the motor of our big, old wooden boat. First the houses on the village outskirts materialized from the mist, then the lonely outline of a frontal pole. It was all that remained of a traditional native house where a noble family would have lived and held its potlatch feasts, a ceremonial festival accompanied by ritual dancing and lavish gift-giving which the guests would later attempt to surpass.
Of all the aboriginal inhabitants of the northwest Pacific coast, the tribes of this area clung most tenaciously to the potlatch even after it was banned in 1885 by the Canadian government. Despite repeated attempts by local Indian agents to eliminate potlatching, which was regarded as immoral and wasteful, these feasts continued to be held quite openly into the second decade of the twentieth century. One of the biggest potlatches on the central coast took place in the winter of 1921-22 at this now-deserted village. By that time, however, the Indian government had decided to crack down hard on the potlatch using newly granted summary powers that enabled the Indian agent to act as both judge and jury. But the potlatch simply went underground.
As we explored the village that day, I thought of this wrong-headed attempt to suppress native culture and lamented how much had been irretrievably lost. In the mist, the deserted, decaying buildings seemed to echo with voices from a time when this was a vibrant community with ancient roots.
In addition to the two totem poles still standing (they have since fallen), three smaller poles lay close together in various stages of returning to nature. One of these - the least decayed - displayed a magnificent wolf carving, representing a mythical ancestor of the pole's owner. Interestingly, one west coast native group regards the wolf as the land equivalent of the orca, claiming that the first killer whale was a supernatural white wolf who transformed himself into a sea creature. -Robert Bateman
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