How do you present the findings of your research in the style advocated by Narayan (2007) and Sharman (2007) while providing the academically necessary information for a qualitative research paper? Sharman advocates (2007:124) that writing ethnographies should evoke all the feeling of the experience; the narrative should be aesthetically pleasing and satisfying to the reader. When I wrote this paper I tried to illustrate a qualitative ‘between method’ research design which employs dialogical phenomenology and feminist ethnography within an indigenous methodological framework. The result is an interactive methodology which decolonizes the research and focuses on the words of three First Nations women carvers and illustrates the ethnographer’s challenge to foreground their stories. I have never been able to get this paper published; partly because I employ Coyote woman as an auto-ethnographic voice to guide both the reader and the writer to a place of discovery (too creative), and mostly because doing this places the paper on the fringe of academic acceptance.
Coyote Woman Helps Carve Out a Story; One Layer at a Time.
Coyote is the transgendered trickster, teller of tales, weaver of lies, teacher of lessons, and sometimes that nagging voice in the back of your mind. This article describes the ethnographic journey of a middle aged, white woman, wandering through Coyote territory. The path this research journey follows is littered with coyote tracks.
“Why am I re-visiting my MA thesis?” I puzzle aloud.
“You didn’t listen to me the first time,” she responded quietly.
“Oh, I heard you. I just couldn’t write the story your way. Academia has rules.”
“What do they know?” She flicked her hand dismissively in the air, “They keep everything in boxes.”
“I learned a lot from doing my Masters research,” I cried indignantly.
“Yes,” she chuckled, “but maybe you should have done your own.”
Shaking her head in disgust she said, “You learned so much and yet you know so little. You did the masters research and told his story, but not your own.” She trotted away, laughing at me over her shoulder.
As the closing questions came from the public at my Master of Arts thesis defence, the director of the First Nations Centre Dr. Paul Michel, asked,” What do you think coyote would say about what you learned on this journey?”, and suddenly, there she was, Coyote woman, sitting beside him smiling and nodding, waiting for my response. I had to disappoint her though. At the time I was unable to fully comprehend or answer that question. Methodological terminology and theory were still swimming in my brain, my emotions were running rampant, and clear or reflective thought was beyond my capabilities. Now, here I sit, some five years later, reflecting on that research journey and wondering why Coyote has chosen to wait all this time to speak to me again; only now, she is demanding an answer to that last question. Maybe it is, as my doctoral supervisor stated, “Coyote isn’t finished with you yet.” This article is an attempt to present the findings of my research in the style advocated by Kim Narayan in Tools to Shape Texts: What Creative Nonfiction can Offer Ethnography. Narayan (2007) gives numerous examples throughout the article on how to combine the material gathered in the field with strategically placed creative writing. Sharman advocates (2007:124) that writing ethnographies should evoke all the feeling of the experience; the narrative should be aesthetically pleasing and satisfying to the reader. With the help of Coyote Woman I attempt to tell the story of this qualitative research journey while trying to emulate the beautifully written ethnographic styles of Narayan and Sharman..
Skigoya (Victoria Moody) made this statement about carving while we talked together at her home in Haida Gwai; “So every layer that you chip away you see another layer or color…it’s like you’re chipping away at time” (Moody 2004). In carving, each layer of wood reveals something different either in grain or color. This article is about three First Nations women carvers. What I learned from these women carvers is that the beauty of the wood is revealed as each of these layers is carved away; you can’t look at a log and see the final product in its truest form. In interviewing the female carvers in this research project I had to leave behind any of my implied interpretations, to see and hear the stories of the art of carving as told by the artists. After all, it is not just the art itself, but the creative process of the artist that lends meaning to the finished carving. As I met each of these women I discovered that as each question was raised and answered I learned more and more about the artist hidden beneath many layers. So I will reveal these layers to you in careful stages; I have learned that if you take away too much in one layer you can ruin the overall design of the carving. The finished piece reveals all the beauty of a fine carving; rich with expression, color and stories. I will try to present these stories as coyote would have me do, remembering to include my own story of how and what I learned from these creative and insightful women. Let me introduce the First Nations women carvers as they introduced themselves to me.
Three Women Carvers
Valerie Morgan is Kwaguilth/Kwakwaka’wakw from Alert Bay, on her mother’s side and Gitxsan from Kitwanga on her father’s side. She is currently married to Gitxsan artist Ken Mowatt and they reside in Kitwanga with their two daughters and a “grand-dog”. She has been adopted into the Gitxsan Frog clan though her heart remains in her home community of Alert Bay of which she still has fond memories that sustain her soul; “… every once in a while, I get this overwhelming smell of salt air, and this little warm air that comes over and right off the bat I’m in Alert Bay by the water, watching the waves come in, and everything is really calm. So, I always know where I come from; that will always be with me” (Val Morgan 2004). Valerie divides her time between carving and her fashion design business. She is a soft spoken and insightful woman with many stories to tell.
Virginia Morgan, Valerie’s older sister is a mother of four and a grandmother of seven. Virginia is a school teacher who has taught at both the elementary and secondary school levels. She also attended the Kitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art for three years to learn carving and design which is where her husband, Gitxsan artist Vernon Stephens, currently teaches. Like her sister she is Kwaguilth/Kwakwaka’wakw from Alert Bay. Her mother is Mary (Cook) Morgan who is the daughter of Agnes and Herbert Cook of Alert Bay. Her father is Howard Morgan and he is the son of Martha and Wallace Morgan of Kitwanga. All four of her grandparents were high status hereditary chiefs. “Even as a young person I knew that my culture was important…with both parents being from different nations, I always asked questions about who I was and where I came from” (Vi Morgan 2004).
Vicki Moody was born and raised in Haida Gwaii. She has two names; Skigoywa which means Mother Goose and McDollie Llama. “In the old language to say Victoria was a very difficult word and they came out with McDollie and when they were traveling to Victoria they would sing the McDollie song. I also had seven Llamas in my yard because I was interested in their wool and I liked animals too so it just sort of came out McDollie Llama” (Moody 2004). As a young child she spent a lot of time with her father, uncles and grandfather on their fishing boats, traveling all around the island. Vicki learned about all the different villages and saw many totem poles decaying on the ground. “I got to see a lot of looting of graves and a lot of beautiful, beautiful land that was logged” (Moody 2004). Vicki was married at twenty-one and two years later she started her family which now consists of two boys and a girl. Vicki puts her family before all else; all that she has seen and experienced in her life as a daughter, granddaughter, mother and wife has shaped the woman and artist that Vicki has become today (Moody 2004).
Each of these women welcomed me into their homes and their creative world. From the first conversation to the last, I was enthralled. Sitting in the living rooms and kitchens they showed me their art and told me their stories. I grew up sitting around a kitchen table with a cup of tea listening to the stories of my older female relatives. As a child there was a sense of continuity and grounding that I felt whenever the stories would come out. The stories that these women shared with me were rich, creative and full of life. We shared stories of raising children, while trying to find time for our creative endeavours and how our life experiences influenced our art work.
Orality in Qualitative Research
George Marcus stated that “ethnography originates in orality and only makes the transition to writing with difficulty” (1986: 264). Orality is a method of transmitting knowledge in any culture but it is the primary method of transmitting knowledge in all First Nations including the Northwest Coast First Nations (Frey 1995). The written word is part of the colonizers’ European traditions, and to combine orality and written text is difficult because it is important not to lose the meaning of the speaker by filtering it through the preconceived interpretations of the listener or writer (Sarris 1993). It is therefore important to record the words and stories exactly as they are spoken and to limit interpretation. As I attempted to decolonize my research and honour the First Nations tradition of orality, I recorded the words of the women carvers as they were spoken. I have come to know something of how these oral traditions relate to the spiritual dimension of First Nations both through my education in First Nations Studies and through the stories that the five women carvers shared with me about their lives and creative experiences. There is a richness that can be obtained when oral stories are listened to; in the case of this research the stories are those of the women carvers and their creative journeys.
Creswell lists eight reasons for conducting qualitative research in his book Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design, and of these the last one stands out as the most important for doing research with First Nations communities; “…employ a qualitative approach to emphasize the researcher’s role as an active learner who can tell the story from the participants’ view rather than as an “expert” who passes judgment on participants” (Creswell 1998: 18, italics by Creswell). This research is based on a phenomenological ethnographic approach; describing the experiences of the women carvers within their individual First Nations culture groups. The combination of methodological approaches results in both an interpretive and contextual analysis which makes the perceptions of the women carvers the focus of the research process. This interactive methodology decolonizes the research and in this way puts the storytelling into the hands of the experts; the three women carvers who taught me. Though I shared the roles of artist, woman and mother with each of these women carvers, I learned that I had come into this research with certain preconceived, Western notions of artistic success. I acknowledged this and recognized the need to leave my preconceptions behind. While not layering my preconceptions over the words of the women carvers, I still embrace the idea of laying them out and dealing with them in the writing. Carolyn Kenny emphasizes that, “It is in the confrontation with our conceptual baggage that we face our dragons, clarify and communicate our ideologies and understandings” (2003: 201). While I do confront my preconceptions in the research, I place the female carvers at the core of the research which gives them the power to participate in creating their story; to share their lived experiences. However recognition of the role of researcher is key to the phenomenological approach which acknowledges the importance of the interaction between the researcher (in this case myself) and the women carvers. Thus the women’s story unfolds through central themes which came forward from each interview and from each participant in relation to questions I brought to the interview process. The connection between the women and myself was based on our mutual roles of women, artists, and mothers and the interactive phenomenological process was an exciting and emotional experience. I found that the interview questions were merely tools to initiate conversation and to prompt the women to enlighten me with more of their stories. As the interviews melded into relaxed conversation, I forgot about the list of questions and would only refer to them on occasion. However, in a rather strange and holistic way, the answers to all the questions made it into the interview transcriptions from each of these women along with some other relevant bits of information such as the question of “authenticity”. This area of discussion was not included in my list of questions; however some of the women chose to address this issue in their discussions with me regarding traditional and contemporary carving. Phenomenological methodology describes the meaning of lived experiences of the participants; in this research it is the answers given by these First Nations women carvers in our interactive and thought provoking interview experience that became the core of the thesis, and the women’s style of presenting themselves radiates out into the writing.
“Strange and holistic…silly way to describe it.” Shaking her head and sighing Coyote woman said, “I was there you know, I heard everything that was being said and I even asked some questions of my own.”
Turning to look at Coyote woman, I snapped, “When did you get here? You’re always sneaking up behind me and looking over my shoulder.”
Chuckling to herself she sagely replied, “You looked over my shoulder for two years. Now it’s time for you to try it on your own.”
“Try what?” I foolishly responded.
“Storytelling of course; what do you think I was trying to teach you five years ago? All this academic stuff might be interesting to some, but it’s not the important part of the story. You’re getting off the topic,” Coyote woman growled. “Get back to the story.” She paced in a restless circle waiting for me to get back to the story, and as the keyboard started tapping out the words, she settled into the chair beside me.
The First Layer of the Carving
My journey began in Wet’suwet’en territory, Moricetown, B.C., where my supervisor had arranged for me to stay with a family for the first two days of my research trip. From there I would travel to the homes of two carvers in adjacent Gitxsan territory, and return to Moricetown in the evening. This story has many layers and on my first afternoon in Moricetown, the first layer was revealed and my education began. The youngest son in the family, a ten year old, offered to take me out to show me around before dinner. This amounted to a brisk educational and historical walk through his family’s land, pointing out landmarks and telling me stories as we went through the bush to the Bulkley River. There he spoke of the fishing he had done with his family, and where his favourite spots were. He also pointed out a large rock, situated off shore, out of reach across a fast moving channel of water, which he called “idiot rock”. He explained that some people thought there was better fishing if you stood on that rock. His quiet laughter spoke volumes. I was thoroughly entranced by this small boy and his stories about the land. What amazed me even more was that with all the academic reading I had done, I thought I understood the First Nation’s connection to the land, but this bright eyed ten year old taught me more than I had ever learned from all the journals and textbooks I had diligently read. After dinner I sat at the table and spoke with the boy’s father and told him about my research and the academic journey that had led me to where I was today. He was patient and kind as he answered a multitude of questions, and I hope I showed the same respect in return as I listened and tried to take it all in. Lying in bed that night it dawned on me; this is what field work is all about! There is no amount of textbook or journal reading that will teach you what you need to know about doing research with First Nations communities. The course structured literature review is only a small sample of reality. You need to get out there and experience it for yourself. Only then does your education begin.
I heard the low rumblings of suppressed laughter from beside me, and as I turned in my chair to face Coyote woman she looked at me with her head cocked to the side in a moment of contemplation. Then nodding she said, “Yes, yes, yes, and so it begins. Now the real story will come out. The little one told you stories as you walked on the land. He calmed your fears, and set your feet on the right trail.”
The Second Layer is Revealed
The first two women carvers I interviewed were Virginia and Valerie Morgan, who have a rich heritage of carvers in their family both on their father’s Gitxsan side and their mother’s Kwakwaka’wakw side. Their father Wallace Morgan was a hereditary chief and some of the totem poles of the Gitxsan belong to his house.
Valerie takes her role as a carver, very seriously; especially in terms of influencing future generations. Inspiring youth is important to Valerie as is teaching them the different art forms important to their culture. Valerie feels that you should teach the children all that you can and make sure that you leave them with some of this knowledge; “You don’t want it to die” (Val Morgan 2004). She has taken up cedar weaving, pine needle weaving, Chilkaat weaving, carving and clothing design and she shares all of this knowledge and skill with her children and any other members of the community who want to come to her home and learn: “I work with a lot of youth in Kitwanga and I work with a lot of the ladies, young women with kids, and I’ve opened up my home downstairs where they can come around and they sit and they sew” (Val Morgan 2004). This provides opportunity for the young people to sit with other women and share stories and experiences. Valerie remembers her grandmother sharing stories when she was young:
It’s through their stories that will continue to keep us as natives strong, as women especially because we are the women that will carry on the generations through having our babies, so that makes us even more powerful. To go through the pain of giving birth is just a small portion of all the things that we go through in our life and struggles…sit back and count them…what we go through all adds up to who we are today (Val Morgan 2004).
Valerie continues to emphasize the importance of this power and how combining it with your artistic gift can produce a very powerful statement. She makes a strong statement of women’s power through her carving and is aware of the differences in her carving to that of male carvers:
When I had my stuff in the gallery people would come through and view it, and they’d notice themselves; “there’s softness” they’d say and then they’d find out it was by a woman and they’d say that’s why. Women, we were born to be soft, we were born to be there and be who we are and be very accepting, and nurture and take care, so you put all that into your carving (Val Morgan 2004).
In terms of recognizing work that is done from the heart and soul of the artist and work that is “…just a chopped up piece of wood sitting on a wall” (Val Morgan 2004), Valerie feels that there is a difference in the art buying public. Some select their art to match their furniture and they don’t really care to take the time to know what went into the piece. Others just want it to put on their wall so they can say “…oh you know, I support those people” (Val Morgan 2004). Val stated that to understand the art, you have to listen to the story that the artist tells about her or his work and how a particular piece was created in the surroundings and happenings of the artist’s everyday life (Val Morgan 2004):
If you ever took the time and sat with that carver and listened to the story behind it and the feelings that went into it, and where they were at the time they were putting it together, then you would realize the connection…that there was something going on with that person somewhere along the line that connects them with that piece. That pulls it all together (Val Morgan 2004).
She feels that you may find one out of a hundred people who will connect with a piece because they have taken the time to understand and get to know the piece. She puts herself as a woman of both Kwaguilth and Gitxsan heritage into each of her pieces; from a rattle to each of her beautiful carvings sold in galleries. Valerie defines success as an artist with being happy with herself. “If I can be happy with who I am, then everything else that is produced through me will be just fine” (Val Morgan 2004). She doesn’t worry too much about her acceptance as a woman carver, but feels that if her work is good then word of mouth is really powerful. Valerie has experienced many successes in the gallery world and in one other unusual area.
Disney came calling, looking for a carver to do props for the set of White Fang II, which included a transformation mask (Figure 1 – header image of this article). Valerie had a very short time in which to do this piece and she started out with a big piece of green wood. The traditional way to dry the wood would be to cover it with brown paper and keep rotating the paper until the moisture is all sucked out of the wood. “…well today if you move along with the times you run all over the countryside looking for the biggest microwave, because a microwave will suck the moisture out evenly. So, this was supposed to be a little bit bigger than it is, but I couldn’t find a microwave big enough” (Val Morgan 2004). As a result the mask had to be taken down a bit in the back so it would fit, but the end result was still fabulous.
Valerie walked away from the gallery system when it became clear that her work was not being respected for its cultural significance, the meaning behind the work, and also for the time and creative effort, all which were very important to her as a First Nations woman artist. The very relevant point that Valerie makes in her story is the lack of understanding of the Western art buyers; her carving is not only aesthetically beautiful, but also culturally significant.
Virginia Morgan and I sat in her living room, surrounded by her carvings on all the walls. As she told me her story and regaled me with richly descriptive tales of her grandchildren and their many escapades, I was immediately put at ease. Our conversation did not have the feel of an interview, and even though I had some technical issues in photographing some of her masks, her sense of humour prompted me to see the humour and to just enjoy her company and the experience. Virginia and her sister Valerie are in the first generation of female carvers in their family. Virginia recognizes both Freda Diesing of the Haida nation and Doreen Jensen as carvers from the previous generation, but states that in their community, carving in previous generations was done mostly by men; “Only men were hired by the chiefs to carve for them” (Vi Morgan 2004). Yet Virginia notes that times have changed: Virginia has been asked by chiefs to do a chief’s rattle, a head dress and a mask. “I feel that we (women) have come a long way, and so have the men, as far as appreciating the artistic abilities that we have and share” (Vi Morgan 2004). Virginia recognizes that there are very few women carvers but that this is changing. “I feel that there are many women born with artistic abilities, and that they are now encouraged to enhance those abilities and gifts. I think it is the fact that we can carve, and that we are becoming recognized for the work that we do, that more women are getting into the carving field” (Vi Morgan 2004). To be asked to carve those pieces for the chiefs is a high form of recognition; to be a woman in this position is telling of the changes taking place in this society.
For Virginia, carving has become her primary source of creativity. “I love carving portrait masks, mostly because of the different facial features. Carving comes from your soul, it is a matter of bringing out what you think and see from within. The end product allows others to see what you see and feel inside” (Vi Morgan 2004). During the school year she teaches a small group of high school students’ basic First Nations design and carving as she works on projects alongside them. This gives them an opportunity to learn by observing her in the carving process; this is how young carvers learned before there were schools and classrooms. She has a strong sense of the cultural significance of carving and she uses her carving to spread the message of the Gitxsan culture.
As a woman her art is influenced by a lot of things. She is a wife, a sister, a mother and a grandmother and all these roles have played out in her life and can be seen in her art. She feels it is important for her daughter’s son to know where he comes from. “His grandmother on his dad’s side (Nuu-chah-nulth) exposes him to their style and I expose him to ours” (Vi Morgan 2004). She is currently working on a Wolf mask for him as that is his dad’s crest and clan. The Nuu-chah-nulth are a patrilineal society as opposed to his Gitxsan heritage which is matrilineal. During a visit last summer, Virginia experienced a reinforcement of why it is important for her to carve, and to share her culture with her family:
Last summer, my daughter and two of our sons came to spend some time with us. While here, my grandson Xavier used all of my animal masks in a dance called the ‘Animal Kingdom’ dance. It was just awesome. He brought the masks to life through movement, and that is what those masks were meant to be used for. He sang the song with his deep voice; I had a lump in my throat and tears of joy in my eyes. It was truly amazing. I was honored to have him wear my masks, and perform a dance that comes from his Nuu-chah-nulth culture. I am carving a Wolf head dress for Xavier…it will be in the Gitxsan style as I feel it is important for Xavier to know where he comes from (Vi Morgan 2004).
The importance of women sharing their culture with their children and grandchildren is at the forefront of this story, but it also relates to an experience that will become a part of the mask that she will carve. Virginia’s masks have a little bit of her heart and soul in each piece. The facial expressions on her human masks come from her memories of people that have passed on and some of her masks are just an expression of her children or grandchildren. She feels that her work has a different look from that of a male carver, softer with color washes instead of bold colors, “I find that I am looking for a gentler look, something more feminine, it’s not a bold statement. The finishing touches are quite different. It might come from within. Females have always been taught to create art or trinkets that look feminine. Males have been taught that bold is beautiful. But I can’t say all of the guys are like that. I have seen some phenomenal pieces carved by men and the finishing touches are exquisite” (Vi Morgan 2004). However, Virginia feels that even if a piece was carved with the same story in mind the carvings would look very different. As a woman and an artist Virginia creates with her heart and soul but “I need to think with my head in order to imagine, to design, and to carve. I use my heart to direct and guide me. The things I have learned and witnessed all play a part in who I am and where I come from. This all comes out in my art” (Vi Morgan 2004).
Virginia is contributing to the resurgence of the Gitxsan traditions. For her it’s all about the stories that she has grown up with and remembering the people that have been and still are in her life. As a woman, an artist and a teacher in the Gitxsan community she shares these stories with the youth and encourages them to learn their culture. She has also noted resurgence in the use of regalia, stories and dances. Virginia explained that with the different dances, they would use masks to portray mother earth such as a sun mask, a moon mask, or a wind mask. This mask has pursed lips and long hair and it is painted in the traditional blue-green color used by the Gitxsan which represents “spirituality and the wholeness of the person or even the culture itself and transformation, how anything can transform from one thing to another” (Vi Morgan 2004).
Virginia has sold some of her work to galleries but finds the whole process very impersonal. Selling out of her home is Virginia’s preferred method; she enjoys it when people come to visit. “They get to know me as a person, and an artist. They have the opportunity to ask questions, and gain a better understanding of my work” (Vi Morgan 2004). She also likes the opportunity to get to know the people who are taking her pieces home. Virginia has refused to sell her pieces if she isn’t comfortable with the buyer. For this artist the money is not the reason she does her carving. Success for Virginia is when she has sold a piece to someone who has taken the time to get to know her and her work, and that they leave her home with enough knowledge to really appreciate and enjoy her work:
My success comes in knowing that I have achieved one of my life’s goals, although I know that there is still so much to learn. My success comes from knowing that our chiefs recognize my work. My success comes from getting to know people who take a part of me to their homes. My success comes from knowing that my work is being used to promote the understanding of our stories and culture. My success comes from knowing that I am passing on knowledge to my children and grandchildren of such a rich heritage (Vi Morgan 2004).
Another Layer is Revealed
After two days of visiting Valerie and Virginia Morgan, and spending evenings with my billeting family, I left Moricetown, heading for Prince Rupert, and the ferry to Haida GwaiI. I stopped in the city of Terrace to meet and spend some time with Dempsey Bob, a very busy Tahltan carver of much renown, who knew and worked alongside Freda Diesing throughout his carving career. When I went to meet him, he asked if he could hitch a ride with me to Prince Rupert, and we could talk along the way. Dempsey offered to show me some of Diesing’s work in Terrace before we left. We toured Terrace, while Dempsey told me about the plans for a First Nations art school which would be named in honor of Freda Diesing. We also looked at Diesing’s dedication plaque in the public library as well as the totem pole at Kitsumkalu; one of many that she had carved in her lifetime. As we started our drive I was concerned that when I sat down to do my field notes later, I would forget what I asked or even his responses. I asked if I could tape record our conversation. Dempsey explained the difficulty he had with having his words recorded and perhaps used later out of context. His past experience and indeed the experiences that many First Nations people have had with anthropologists and other researchers were at the foreground of his refusal. Keeping the words of Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999), on knowledge, intellectual property rights, and ethical research protocols firmly in mind, I offered to share a transcript of the conversation with him for his approval, before I used any part of it. At this concession he agreed, and the conversation flowed from there. Dempsey regaled me with stories about Freda Diesing and his deep respect and love for her, as a carver, a friend and a strong First Nations woman. He missed her presence now that she had passed away; Diesing passed in 2001. Hearing the story of his carving career and how it was influenced by his friendship with Diesing was amazing, but hearing the story of Diesing’s career as seen through his lens was even more enlightening. This was a story of profound respect for her skills as a carver and for her deep desire to share her artistic skills and knowledge with others. When I asked Dempsey about the implied gender roles of carvers, he was thoughtful for a moment, but his answer was very clear. The gender divisions were a colonial invention which had upset the balance of First Nations communities. There were female carvers in pre-colonial times and he saw no reason that women could not be carvers just as Diesing had been. His statement concurs with Diesing’s own words on the topic as recorded by Slade (2002) in her dissertation, “Diesing states that her Grandmother and her Grand-Aunties were capable carvers and often did their own bowls or bentwood boxes or assisted their husbands when needed” (137). When we arrived in Prince Rupert, Dempsey asked if he could hitch a ride back to Terrace when I returned from Haida Gwai, and I whole heartedly agreed. When I went to my hotel that night I sat quietly for several hours contemplating all that he had said. Although I had read much about Diesing’s work, speaking with someone who knew and loved her, and who respected her gift as a female carver, taught me more than I could ever have learned from a book.
“So, you set out on this trip with the idea in your head that you were not going to interview any male carvers. I had to interfere; life isn’t all one sided you know. You needed to hear his story about Freda and other women carvers.” Coyote woman emphasized her point with a flick of her tail. What could I say? It was true. When I planned this research trip my intention was to only record the words of female carvers; to give them the power to tell their story. I did not expect to hear a respectful rendition of the career of a female carver from a male carver’s perspective. What I expected to hear was derision at the idea of females in the carving genre. Hearing the other side of the story was enlightening. “My eyes were definitely opened,” I replied respectfully. Coyote woman nodded her head in response to my acknowledgement of the need for balance in my story.
A Fourth Layer is Carved Away
I travelled on the overnight ferry to Haida Gwaii, over the extremely turbulent water of Hecate Strait. When I arrived in the early morning, nothing was open, so I found a sunny spot in the corner of the tourism parking lot, curled up in my car and tried to catch up on some of the sleep I had lost on the trip over. While waiting for a decent hour to call Victoria Moody and let her know I had arrived, I drove around and took in the scenery. To my amazement the numerous birds flying overhead, just off the beach were not a flock of seagulls, but a group of mating eagles. Time floated away as I sat on a rock and watched the beautiful sky dance of the mating pairs and listened to their cries of joy as they frolicked in the wind. I eventually made it to Vicki’s home, where we sat at her table and talked.
Vicki’s carving experience started when she was selected from a group of applicants to work with Ron Wilson (Guujaaw) on a large project which involved the carving of six totem poles to be carved and erected at Qay’llnagaay (Second Beach); the current site of the Haida Gwaii museum. She was the only woman working on one of the six poles. Vicki appreciates the opportunity given to her to express herself, “… I don’t know, in Skidegate anyway, of any other women carvers other than an elderly lady, her name is Melanie and she’s ninety and she used to drive a truck on the dirt roads and carve argillite” (Moody 2004). Vicki stated that in Haida history, Freda Diesing has been the only notable female carver, although she was more recognized outside her community as she lived on the mainland and traveled and taught throughout the Northwest Coast during her career (Moody 2004).
Vicki’s husband Garner Moody was hired as a master carver on the same project. When I asked Vicki if the other male carvers were accepting of the fact that there was a woman carving with them she laughed a bit and stated that she recognized it was uncharted waters for them and that everybody was curious as to whether she could pull it off. She is a relatively small woman and had to straddle the pole and climb all over it to do her carving work. Vicki takes her role as a mother very seriously and she wants to pass her knowledge to her children when they are ready. When she applied to work as a member of the team doing the totem poles she noted on her application form that she was a mother and that came first for her above all else. Because of this statement, Vicki did not feel they would invite her to join the group, but in fact they did. She was surprised, happy and thankful to be given the “…opportunity as a woman to express myself in a huge way” (Moody 2004).
Vicki chose art as a healing tool in her life as her artistic soul was demanding release. She has since found that cedar gives her the creative release that she desires whether it be in carving or cedar bark weaving. She was awed by the immensity of the totem pole carving project and yearns to do another. It took a full year to carve, paint, and erect the totem poles. Vicki worked on the T’aanu pole which honours her grandfather and she remembers many an hour of contemplation working on the pole:
I really have a love affair with that totem pole but at the same time have such great respect for it, it almost frightens me with the power of it…your mind goes into the space and time of how long that tree has been alive. So every layer that you chip away you see another layer or color…it’s like you’re chipping away at time. (Moody 2004)
The wood demands your full attention and respect and you need to be focused on what you’re doing at all times. At one point she was sent home from the site because her mind was not on her work. “…you could easily make a huge error if you were to go in too deep and knock a chunk off and make a huge hole; which really gets you thinking about where you stand and how much you do know” (Moody 2004). This is a strong statement that measures the fine line between creative time and family time.
While working on the pole Vicki was also very aware of the spiritual aspects surrounding her. There were a lot of deaths surrounding this project, involving family members of the artists who were carving and also the knowledge that the site they were working on had previously been a village. While clearing the site they found bones and Vicki could feel the presence of spirits at times, especially when she was working alone. Vicki lost one set of grandparents, Annie Mill and Nathan Young “who was a chief of T’annu, which was very significant to me because I had the honor of working on the T’annu pole” (Moody 2004). Vicki worked through her grief while carving on the pole and in fact at the bottom of the T’annu pole is a human image in a state of grief and Vicki stated that it represented her.
For Vicki, the completion of the totem poles at Qay’llnagaay (Second Beach), gave her a sense of accomplishment and success. I looked the site up in the Haida Gwaii tourist guide and it talks about the museum and the poles but only the master carvers were mentioned and there was no acknowledgement of Vicki as the sole female amongst the carvers. Her response was revealing in that Vicki had no desire for recognition:
I might as well tell you this part about me right now while it has jumped out there because I never went into my art work for money or fame or anything like that. (Moody 2004)
Along with the family deaths that she had to deal with and the gruelling physical labour of carving the pole, Vicki was eventually physically struck down with Fibromyalgia. Before her work on the pole, Vicki learned the art of cedar weaving and produced many beautiful items one of which is a full cape or robe, of which the likes has not been seen in her territory for over two hundred years. Woven with mountain goat wool and cedar her ‘Transition Robe’ was destined for a show in New York in the fall of 2004. As an artist, Vicki is talented and devoted; but Vicki would measure her own success in terms of whether she had been a good mother, wife, daughter and granddaughter. The health of herself and her family and whether she has done what she can to further promote Haida culture is the means by which Vicki measures her success as a person and an artist.
Each of the women interviewed had their own way of delineating or differentiating between traditional and contemporary native art work, with Vicki adding a catch-all category she called new-traditional. Newhouse refers to it as “re-traditionalization” in a modern society: “Native art has become a distinct discipline where Aboriginal artists are continually reinterpreting the world and creating new ways of seeing it” (Newhouse 2000: 406). Contemporary First Nations women’s participation in carving is also part of this re-traditionalization. To Vicki, all Indigenous art is changing and evolving with the times. “Change is inevitable, and to be a new traditionalist, you can see the changes in people; younger generations of artists are coming forward and throwing in something else to the art, and yet keeping to the guidelines or rules…”(Moody 2004). By ‘rules’ Vicki means the traditions of the art itself, such as the purposes and the stories. Young artists are changing and adding to those traditions, given their own experiences and their space in time. Traditional and contemporary are intertwining. What once was contemporary is now traditional and the contemporary of today will become the traditional of tomorrow.
Vicki experienced a firsthand education on the differences in understanding traditional and contemporary carving when the time came to paint the totem poles at Qay’llnagaay. The controversy within the community stemmed from the use of a turquoise color on the poles. Vicki knew that the color had been used as she had seen it in pictures of her grandmother’s family, a high ranking family in the Masset area. “They are the Niku people and they are famous for their color…there were hats that were done in that turquoise color” (Moody 2004). Ron Wilson, the project leader, took it upon himself to research this use of color and he found the actual stone on Haida Gwaii and the historical information on how the color was processed and used. Even though it was a traditional color, it had not been used for a long time and thus it had been forgotten over the generations.
Revealing the Final Layers
From all of these women carvers I have discerned a common thread of discussion and agreement. Purpose does not define whether the piece is traditional or not. Traditional carving is defined by its strict adherence to the basic design principles as established in northern Northwest Coast art forms, such as the use of ovoids and U-shapes. Contemporary pieces make use of these same traditional principles but allow the artist a freedom of creative expression in her choice of materials, different finishes or artistic touches. When carving pieces requested by chiefs for ceremonial purposes, there is little room for creative license, as the chief will decide exactly what they want and they will want it depicted just as it has been in their family for generations. “To do a traditional ceremonial piece, you have to stay within the confines of the art form, and within the instructions given by the chief. A contemporary piece is taking a story or an idea and illustrating it, staying within the confines of the shapes, but stretching the imagination and carving something outside the confines of the art” (Vi Morgan 2004). So although there is a difference between carvings done for the gallery which allow for more creative freedom and carving done for ceremonial purposes, such as House or Clan business which tends to adhere to the wishes of the chiefs who are ordering the pieces, all the work is done in the traditional design style.
All these women are creating ‘authentic’ carvings whether they are for commercial galleries, classroom storytelling, or ceremonial feasts, and as their words demonstrate they would not appreciate being asked whether their work was authentic. Yet to the uninformed buyer of First Nations art, authentic equates to traditional. As Valerie Morgan stated, sometimes these buyers come looking for the artists who are still living in tepees’ as they feel this makes the work ‘more’ traditional or ‘authentic’(Val Morgan 2004). Yet even when ignorant of Northwest Coast or other First Nations traditions, the buyers often are attracted to the piece because art speaks across cultures in a language that transcends words.
Coyote sat up and stretched her spine, pointing her nose to the sky. After a long stretch and a good shake she turned and looked at me. “So, woman,” she paused and cocked her head, “the carvers told you their stories and you listened, but what have you learned?” she queried. That question alone opened floodgates of memories for me as I thought back over my research journey.
To be a woman and an artist is like a piece of beautiful wood with many different layers. If you include motherhood, family and community into this you can create a beautiful carving, rich with experience, tears, joy and pain. Each of these women has experienced the pain and joy of childbirth and child rearing, and all have said that it has impacted the way they do their art. In my own life, I have found that balancing all of these roles can be very difficult at times. This is a familiar lament for many creative women in the same position and it has strong roots. Historically, women have been made to feel guilty for taking time away from family to pursue other interests. Harris states that in Victorian times, “misplacing the role of wife and mother for a career in the arts, she was effectively destroying the sanctity of the family and ignoring her God-given or natural destiny as wife, mother and guardian of the home” (1976: 56). Just as in this earlier era, female artists today struggle with balancing their time but some also have the additional stresses of balancing the economic and time pressures of supporting a family with the ‘cost’ of their creative output. Each of these three women carvers acknowledged that there is a trend that predates colonial contact; women have an important spiritual role in nurturing and caring for their family. It is this role that makes it difficult at times for them to immerse themselves in artistic creativity; however they each have found a way to balance their lives as they feel that part of their nurturing role is sharing the art forms of their culture with the youth in their community and family just as their mother’s and grandmother’s did before them.
While the three women carvers spoke of balancing family life and creative time, it struck me that they did not correlate any of this to success as an artist. Success is defined differently for everyone and to judge one person’s success by a single or Western measure such as a portfolio or resume of shows and sales would not reflect these women’s concept of success accurately. For these women, success does not equate to having their work shown in Euro-Western galleries as opposed to First Nations or Aboriginal galleries nor does it relate simply to economic gain. By listening to their stories and viewing their art, I came away with an education on the differences of valuing art on a Western based aesthetic ideology and on the holistic and spiritual ideology of First Nations culture. In summary, success is defined differently for each of these women and it doesn’t always come down to a monetary measure. For all of these women, success was measured in their ability as women, to share the art forms of their culture with the youth in their community and family. Valerie Morgan summed up this important task in an interview following the Vision Keepers show in 1999 at Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria:
There’s a lot of power in getting women together, because it’s the women who carry on the culture – through the house groups [clan affiliations], and through teaching. A lot of our elders are passing away and it’s really important to teach our kids, so I do all different art forms. And while I work I teach and tell stories. I know that after they’re grown, it’ll all come back to them (Owens 1999: 20).
The Finished Carving
My research questions focused on learning about the experiences of female carvers and their knowledge of the history of carving in terms of female participation. Each of these women articulated that female carvers before their generation were basically unheard of with the notable exception of Freda Diesing, who remembered women carvers in her own family long before the generation of the three carvers I interviewed. I had hoped to illuminate the gender lines that separate male from female in the First Nations world of creativity and to help understand whether these lines have been put in place by colonial influences or if they have always existed. It was not as straight forward as I had presumed. In general, the women I interviewed did not recognize colonial induced gender divisions as factors and thought that it was perhaps due to the generational differences and views of gender equality. From Dempsey Bob, a male carver and teacher I learned that the gender divisions of art and labour were indeed colonial artifices that today’s generation of women carvers need not accept. I have learned not to define whether a piece should be considered traditional based on process, form or materials and that the final piece will always be traditional even with the use of contemporary methods or materials in the creative process.
First Nations women are carriers of tradition and culture. In centuries past, children learned about their culture at the side of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties as well as around the fires of their uncles, grandfathers, and fathers. Any opportunity to pass this knowledge on today is seen as vitally important; as is sharing the art forms of their culture with the youth in their community and family.
Looking squarely into the eyes of mother coyote, I stated with resolve, “My journey started, listening to the stories of a child who had obviously benefited from hearing oral stories and living on the land. He prepared me for the journey ahead by anchoring me to the land. As I met and interviewed each of those fabulous women, I learned that while there are some similarities in our stories, it was important to acknowledge and accept both the similarities and the differences. As women we shared the challenges of balancing family life and creativity; but for these three women there is the added responsibility of passing down very important traditional knowledge. I also learned that success is measured individually and not by one set of standards. Finally, in the listening and the telling I understood the power of women in both creation and creativity; the telling of all these stories has generated a powerful statement in itself.” Coyote woman gently loped down from her chair and headed for the door. “Wait,” I exclaimed in panic, “Is that it? Is that all?” With the wisdom of the elder female she looked back at me and stated very simply and clearly, “There is nothing more to say.” With those final words she left my life and my dreams.
References (…to satisfy academic rigour)
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