Today saw the release of the final Truth & Reconciliation Commission report on the treatment of Aboriginal people in Canada. There is much to learn and much to do as a result of this report and I will leave a lot of that to wiser people than I. Much of it however is a reflection on the theft of children, their placement in residential schools, their horrific treatment and the subsequent long term damage to their (and our) culture.
I want to offer an experience Kim and I had almost 6 years ago now as perhaps one very small lesson of what we as white immigrants to these lands can learn from and perhaps do to support Aboriginal peoples, especially Aboriginal artists.
Kim and I were on a business trip in Vancouver in mid May of 2010. We went a few days early because it also happened to be Kim’s birthday. We decided to have a walk around Gastown and look to pick up something for Kim’s birthday present. There are many “Native Art” galleries in Gastown and since Kim is interested in such things, that’s where we headed. We visited several places and while we were impressed by some of the work, a lot of it felt very overpriced and, frankly, not of great quality. There were a few things that Kim liked.
Now, it’s been several years and I honestly can’t remember what happened. Did I look something up on my phone? Did i overhear someone in one of the shops? I just don’t remember. But I do remember learning somehow that these galleries paid very little to the artists whose work they showed. Far less than what a regular gallery paid an artist. Was that even true? I don’t know. In any case, we left the last gallery around 1:30 prepared to head back to the hotel, without a purchase.
Just down the street, there was a man, an artisan, just setting up on a bench. We stopped to see what he was doing. He looked to be carving feathers out of cedar. We asked if he had any to sell, but he said no, he was just getting to work, but if we came back in about an hour, he would have one done.
Now this is the thing; instead of walking away and coming back to buy a piece of his art, we asked if we could stay and watch. He did a bit of a double take and repeated “It’ll be an hour or so…” We said that was fine with us as long as it was fine with him.
Over the next hour, we talked with Alec. We found out about his family, both from his home Mamalilikulla on the northern tip of Vancouver Island and his Vancouver family, his wife and children. He told us of his struggles in the city, but above all, his desire to use his art and culture to help his children. All the while, we were watching him create a beautiful wood carving called Raven Feather, Moon.
Alec Mountain probably made dozens of these feathers a week on that bench in Gastown. But the reason it sits in a place of honour on our mantle is the time we spent with Alec. Listening. For us, our time with Alec is an inseparable part of this piece of art.
And that’s all I know about reconciliation at the moment. It starts by listening and honouring those who speak.