Nuu-chah-nulth carver Joshua Watts is reconnecting with his Lake Cowichan roots, tracing them through books, traditional tales, and objects from the past.
He’s carved a superb modern piece for the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s recycling station at Meade Creek, and is working on a traditional pole for Lake Cowichan’s own Ts’uubaa-asatx First Nation.
Watts shared some of his path to reconnection with a crowd at the Lake Cowichan library recently, part of a series called Indigenous Voices that’s being presented there.
“My family here in Lake Cowichan, the Livingstone family, saw that I was posting about [my work] on social media. Excitement kind of grew for the pole that I am carving on the lake for them. There’s a longhouse on North Shore Road, and with one project after another, they’re trying to create some sort of cultural community here.
“My granny — she’s actually the wife of my grandmother’s brother but she calls me her grandson and I call her granny — is Gina Livingstone. She has been teaching me a lot because I grew up outside of Lake Cowichan. I don’t know too much about the community here. But she’s been getting me back up to speed. From my understanding, we were moving out, back when logging companies were starting to settle here, when smallpox hit, and the population really dropped.
“There are about 20 First Nations members of this band. But now, we are at a time when our people are really searching for where they are from. There are a few who moved to the States but now they are reconnecting. It’s part of my motivation in working with the community here. I kind of want to give everybody something to come back to.
He then described the thought behind the CVRD piece.
“I’ve been carving for about six years, but it’s been on and off. That piece at Meade Creek: the concept behind that was the idea of recycling, to represent a really common First Nations philosophy.
“A lot of people know that sustainability and a sustainable lifestyle is a very indigenous/First Nations thing. Across the [B.C.] Coast, people have different stories but there’s often a tribe of the Salmon People.
“That’s what that art at Meade Creek is supposed to represent: a salmon’s fin. It’s an abstract thought to link that to a story that I will share. As First Nations people, we often have a legend that talks about returning the salmon bones or what is consumed in our bodies to the Salmon People to show them respect. For some Nations, it involves returning the bones to the river.”
(See http://www.harbourpublishing.com/title/SalmonBoy for information about Donna Joe’s book, Salmon Boy: A Legend of the Sechelt People, which deals with this subject and https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/972137.Raven_s_Cry for Christie Harris’s Raven’s Cry, which includes the story, The Prince Who Was Taken Away by the Salmon.)
According to Watts his art work “appreciates that relationship where [the salmon] sacrifice themselves and their bodies and for many nations, returning the bones to the river is appreciating that they sacrifice themselves that we can live and survive off their bodies. Recycling, in a way, is pretty similar. You return your bottles, metal, and other materials, to have a respectful relationship rather than just consume and dump in a pile and keep repeating that. That’s the idea behind that piece.”
Also, when it comes to objects, the Coast Salish culture of the First Nations peoples of the eastern part of the Cowichan Valley is a lot different, he said.
“Has anyone ever seen a woven blanket by a Coast Salish weaver? Compared to, say, a button blanket [from the northern part of the Island], its imagery is much more abstract; in Coast Salish art it’s harder to tell what it is. If you look at the book back there, People of the Totem, that’s a button blanket that that person is wearing, and it clearly has a form line depiction on it. It’s easy to tell that it’s a figure of something.
“Coast Salish is less about the form line and more about the abstract knowledge behind it. Susan Point, a Musqueam artist, is one of the giants when it comes to contemporary Coast Salish art. If you are looking for an example, she would be someone where you’d be easily able to tell: this is Coast Salish art.”
Asked about his own art, how he places his work in the historical timeframe of his people’s culture, Watts said, “I have a lot of influences from different tribes. I’m kind of a social butterfly that way. I check out what other people are doing, from all Indigenous cultures. My main motivator for creating my art is traditional art. That’s because of the feeling I get when I find out what a mask is.
“Just recently I was researching a mask for a month. It was an old mask, and it has huge ears. It’s not very appealing aesthetically but the sort of idea behind it has never been discovered. It would just be a mask. But, I have actually found out it’s depicting a spirit residing in the mountains that would watch everything 24/7. There’s a dance behind it, and a song behind it. That kind of stuff, that creates inspiration for me. That’s why I identify more as a traditional artist.
“But, that being said, I do watch out for the more contemporary artists, too. That piece at Meade Creek is definitely a more contemporary piece. I have talked a bit with the management there. I kind of want to do a 3-D piece there as well so I can expand that with a more traditional-appearing piece. When it comes to my art form I’m into expressing our connection with the past,” he said.
Watts brought out several books that he recommends to people who want to learn about Nuu-chah-nulth art and culture. Most are available through the public library.
“There’s a book called Cedar, an introduction to the First Nations’ use of cedar. It’s kind of hand in hand with our culture because without cedar a lot of our ceremonies, our structures, the life that we have, our relationship with the waters — cedar is kind of the backbone that helps us have a strong relationship with all those things. Even if you just flip through it, a lot of the illustrations are really engaging. They draw a lot from other books, so you can also find out where things come from.”
That book can be found at http://www.douglas-mcintyre.com/search?subject=&q=Cedar
He explained that the Lake Cowichan First nation is connected with the west coast of Vancouver Island, Nuu-chah-nulth territory. The Coast Salish, which includes Duncan’s Cowichan Tribes, is located on the east coast of the Island, and the northern tip of the Island is Kwakwaka’wakw territory.
“The cultures are really different. This book, which is called Nuu-chah-nulth Voices, History, Objects, & Journeys is probably one of the best books I’ve found about Nuu-chah-nulth culture. It’s also available in this library. It’s got oral histories, and names, if you’re interested.
“There’s an interview with Ron Hamilton. Have any of you met Ron? He actually carved that pole in front of the library here; he worked right over there. Ron’s actually a very knowledgeable man. He covers a lot of ground with his talk. He’s actually helping re-arrange a collection in the American Museum of Natural History in New York because they are planning on the re-doing of their set-up of their whole North West Coast collection.
“Anyway, Ron is playing a pretty big part. I believe he’s a co-curator of the whole exhibit. I’m doubly related to Ron. He’s an elder. We’re related on both sides of my grandparents’ family. I’d like to share that about him. I’m really inspired by his work.”
Watts explained that seeing the strong support for and success of Haida art has encouraged other First Nations artists along B.C.’s coast.
“That’s why this book about the Nuu-chah-nulth is really important to me. It has a lot of engagement in the oral histories, the cultural knowledge. The people that are really passionate about history and art definitely in this book. If you’re interested in factual information, this is the one.”
But for those who want to see the differences between the various cultures, he recommends Out of the Mist: Treasures of the Nuu-chah-nulth Chiefs by Martha Black.
“The main content of this book is pictures. If you’re looking for images of Nuu-chah-nulth art, this would be the book.”
He said he likes to refresh himself before starting a project by looking at books like these.
“I like to look at the old objects, archival images; that’s what really fires me up. The whole idea behind creating these objects is not just for show, it’s a connection with the ancestors. A mask is just a piece of the puzzle. There are various anthropologists that I like to check out their papers, and their notes. I’m still learning how to read really, really old-school handwriting. But there are a lot of volunteers at the museum to help translate the handwriting.”
See the second half of this feature next week.