For the past 14 years, I have been living in Bella Bella, a reserve in the Heiltsuk Territory. Before that, I lived in Tsi Del-Del, in the T'silcot'in Territory, and before that, Tuktoyaktuk, in the Inuvialuit Land Claims region. Make no mistake about it, I do not identify as indigenous. I came to these places for work, but I stayed because I love the place, and I love the people. The kindness and generosity of spirit I have found in these places, particularly Bella Bella is humbling. When I say, particularly Bella Bella, I am not diminshing the other places, but I have stayed here long enough to put down some pretty deep roots.
A couple of years ago, the Heiltsuk opened new Big House. This stunning building is the cultural heart of the community. Before it opened, ceremonies were generally held in the hall, which is really just a gymnasium. It was bright, lit with halogen bulbs, and had an echoey quality that made drumming and singing difficult to listen to. The new big house has a sand floor, and cedar walls, with a fire pit in the middle, and softer light. The roof is supported by four carved house posts by Ian Reid, and the entire front is decorated with a painted image that was designed by Larry Campbell, and painted by Max Johnson, and crew. I was privelaged to have been invited to by Ian to participate in helping (in a very small way) with carving and decorating the house posts, and by Max in painting the front. In each case, there was a crew of about a dozen people, so my contribution was small.
A few months after the opening, I was approached by one of my former students, who graduated about 10-11 years prior, to make an oil painting commemorating the opening of the big house. He was very specific about what he wanted--the big house, sunset, surrounded by trees (the actual building has a few trees, but also other buildings around. I have to admit, I thought about it a while before I accepted the commission. My concern was that I might be appropriating the image from the Heiltsuk people. I agreed to do the painting, on the basis that it was a commission requested by a member of the Heiltsuk Nation, and not something I made from the standpoint of a cultural tourist. The person I made the painting for is a single parent of two children, and so I gave him a very reasonable rate.
The painting was successful, so I decided to make a set of 50 giclee prints. My plan was to gift the prints to anyone involved directly in the opening of the big house, and sell the rest at a reasonable price, in order to cover the cost of printing. I set aside some of the prints as gifts, and advertised the rest on my website. Between gifts and sales, the edition was gone in a few days.
I tell this long story, because two years after the fact, I have been questioned about my possible role in appropriating a Heiltsuk image as my own. At the risk of sounding defensive, I have a few specific thoughts about this. First, I have never, and would never, present another person's art as my own, under any circmstances. However, I walk past that big house every single day. I have seen it under every kind of light. It is part of my surroundings. It is a beautiful building. I can't help being affected by it. Second, I did not paint it on spec, with the intention of selling it later to the highest bidder. I made the image to the specifications of a Heiltsuk person. Third, while, in my studies, I have gained a strong understanding of the forms of coastal art, I have never created a Heiltsuk-style image, claiming it as my own. I have used formline art in pieces that I was making for the school, or in working with students, but I am always careful not to take work from Heiltsuk artists. In the case of this painting, I was not attempting to make a piece of Heiltsuk art. I was making painting that included an image of a local landmark. I see this as a piece of landscape art. I understand that some people might consider this as splitting hairs, but in my mind, my intention was clear: to honour artists and builders who created this amazing building by commemorating a historic event.
Notably, when I gave the prints to the local artists, and cultural leaders, including Ian, Larry and Max, they seemed genuinely touched by the gesture. I certainly did not hear any objection to my making the image. Likewise, almost all sales went to local people.
I understand that cultural approriation is a huge and important issue. I also understand that, as a non-indigenous person, I may lack some key understanding of indigenous art, and its place in the culture. However, I have done my best to be respectful, curious, and uplifting of Heiltsuk peope and culture.