September 19, 2007

Statement against the Cultural Appropriation of the Kwakwaka'wakw

This comes from a good friend of mine in Yalis (Alert Bay, British Columbia). He holds the hereditary position of the oldest clan of the 'Namgis people. Me and him come from the same clan, but different houses. I have great respect for his words, before and more specifically now. I unfortunate was never taught much about my northren side, but I work dilligently to decolonize myself and retrace my roots on both Skwxwu7mesh and 'Namgis sides of my idenity. Below is a strong and articulated worded statement for our artistic/design forms. Gilakas'la Waxiwidi.


Gilakas’la Nał’namwiyut / Welcome Friends

I have been asked to write a statement on behalf of my fellow artists and Kwakwaka’wakw “Kwakwala Speaking People” relations. Our nation would like to share our feelings about people who imitate our traditional art forms and label their work as coming from our respected tribes.

Kwakwaka’wakw artwork, which includes carving, painting, designing, weaving, singing, dancing and story telling, are traditions that have been passed on amongst our nations from generation to generation from the beginning of our existence. The teaching of these “talents” or “skills” or as we call them “gifts”, are through mentorship and only select people are chosen to apprentice. Young people, who are recognized as carrying “natural talent” or gifts, are often selected or taken to a master in the specific art form and groomed to fulfill that role. Only chosen students, especially in earlier times, are allowed to learn these skills that we as Kwakwaka’wakw consider sacred.

As with many of our sacred teachings, artwork was done in secrecy. Only members chosen to learn these skills were allowed to witness their teachers at work. To the Kwakwaka’wakw, especially the artwork of creating masks, regalia and designs for ceremonial use are sacred and only brought out during the appropriate ceremonies.

We as Kwakwaka’wakw honour our neighbouring villages and tribes and do not duplicate or create artwork that does not belong to us or have not received proper permission from the rightful owners to do so. All Kwakwaka’wakw artwork represent crests and designs that belong to specific families who have inherited the right to create and wear these ancient symbols.

Our beginnings predate the Great Flood when we first transformed from our supernatural forms to our human state as we are today. We are taught that before the deluge, it was the mythical Raven named “Umeł”, that was the first supernatural creature to give us our first ceremony; and taught us how to make the regalia that is necessary for us to carry out this scared dance. We are still carrying on this tradition and our neighbouring tribes do not imitate or copy the rights and artwork that accompanies the dance. This is out of utmost respect for traditions that are scared to us, and were given exclusively to our forebears by the Creator.

Our ancestors were blessed with a beautiful art form that was bestowed upon us by the Creator. We find it necessary to inform people that there are other people not from our nations that imitate and duplicate our artwork especially for the commercial market. We want to encourage these people to search into their own traditions, as we would not disrespect them by copying their artwork and cultures. All people on this earth were given teachings and traditions that make us all individual and unique. When we are able to fully understand our roots and our own history, we are able to find “oness” within our spirits and souls; it is only then that we will be able to find balance and live in harmony with all things in this great universe.

We are respectfully informing people that there are traditional Kwakwaka’wakw artists that have been groomed and have the inherent right to carry on the legacy of creating authentic Kwakwaka’wakw artwork. We must protect these gifts and gifted people that we now call “artists”. Our art was given to our ancestors for us to express ourselves and identify who we are as Kwakwaka’wakw. Only we can truly continue this tradition, as we are the Kwakwaka’wakw.

He’am / That is all.

Chief Waxawidi - ‘Namgis Artist, Singer, Composer and Story Teller.

The U’mista Cultural Centre encourages all Collectors and Gallery Owners to refer to the following list of artists as those we verify as authentic Kwakwaka’wakw artists.

U’mista – the return of something valuable to the rightful owner.


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