First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia

Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch at Tsaxis (Fort Rupert), 1894. Detail of photo by O. C. Hastings - Smithsonian Institution


Potlatch at Tsaxis (Fort Rupert), 1894.
Photo: Smithsonian Institution (O. C. Hastings)



There is a need to re-iconize historic pictures of native peoples, such as those in works by Franz Boas and Edward Curtis. Many of the iconic photos of First Nations people are explicitly or implicitly invested with denigrating meaning as is salvage ethnology. Exposing this by deconstruction and shaming the colonizers and settlers would draw renewed attention to the ignominious demeaning of First Nations. Instead, the pictures should be reclaimed and reinvested with different meaning by using them in a new context, supportive of indigenous cultures and land claims.


"Hamats'as of the Koskimo in a Feast."
Painting by W. Kuhnert (click to enlarge)


A striking example is a photo taken during a potlatch at Tsaxis in 1894 (above, left), a time when the Koskimo - Kwakwaka'wakw people were under threat of annihilation. The same scene was illustrated by the German artist Wilhelm Kuhnert in his painting "The Hamats'as of the Koskimo in a Feast" (left), printed as Plate 46 in the classic Kwakiutl Indian study by Franz Boas. Kuhnert had never visited BC and the visual accuracy of his work relied on documentary photos by O. C. Hastings, who had been hired for this purpose by Boas. A number of paintings by Kuhnert, each prominently signed, are printed as illustrations in the study by Boas which was published in the Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1895.


"The Walas'axa'."
Painting by W. Kuhnert (click to enlarge)


A second painting by Kuhnert also illustrates the 1894 potlatch ceremony at Tsaxis (left), titled "The Walas'axa'." The potlatch photo by Hastings and the two paintings by Kuhnert may have been accurate recordings of native life and such factual illustrations especially lend themselves to re - iconization. The iconography can be taken out of the context of the original colonialist representation which intended to disempower the indigenous people. The potlatch was a crucial form of native government that was banned in Canada (from 1884 to 1951) and the early pictures of the elaborate ceremonies may help today in reconnecting the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples to their cultural antecedants.


As is widely recognized, photos by Edward Curtis contributed to the white perception of the North American Indian as a vanishing race. In his 1914 volume on the Kwakiutl, Curtis included the striking portrait (right) titled: Koskimo Woman. The woman exhibited the type of "sugar loaf" artificially deformed head that caused much interest among European scientists. In 1881 the director of Berlin's Museum of Ethnology even sent his collector, Adrian J. Jacobsen, to Vancouver Island to bring back some people he described as "longheads" for display in Europe. According to Boas, it was the reverence for animals, as seen in totem pole iconography, that caused the Kwakiutl to shape their skulls to resemble that of a mammal or bird.

One way to re - iconize the Curtis photo is to recognize that cranial deformation was common among Northwest Coast tribes as a way to mark aristocracy and elite status and the Koskimo woman is certainly of noble origins. Many of the people photographed by Curtis appeared in an earlier series called "West Coast Natives" by the settler B. W. Leeson. See subchapter: Quatsino. One woman, seen in a photo entitled "Lady Wacas," may have been a host to Jacobsen. She may also be the same woman in the unidentified "Koskimo" portrait by Curtis (right). Kwakiutl photographer David Neel condemns Curtis for his hypocritical attitude in relation to his Indian subjects: "At the same time that the culture and people were being systematically uprooted, [Curtis catered to the] need for images affirming primitive humanity in touch with the natural world" Our Chiefs and Elders (1992).


"A Koskimo Woman," 1914.
Photo: Edward Curtis


Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, 1890.
Photo: Edwin Bailey


Another instance of an archival photo which can be re - iconized is the studio portrait of Coast Salish "Princess Angeline," taken in Seattle by Edwin J. Bailey in 1890 (left). The Snoqualmie patriarch is posed beside a painting of Snoqualmie Falls, 30 miles east of Seattle, which is in the traditional territory of her people. As the eldest daughter of Chief Sealth (c 1786 – 1866), the legendary warrier for whom Seattle is named, Princess Angeline ("Kikisoblu") had a legitimate claim to her ancestral land and following the forced signing of the Port Elliot Treaty in 1854, she refused to be removed to a reservation.

In 1898, not long after the photo of Princess Angeline (left) was taken, Snoqualmie Falls was transformed into a massive power plant to supply the burgeoning settler populations. No rights were given to the indigenous people for whom the falls had been a sacred site for millenia. Today Puget Sound Power and Light continues to divert the Snoqualmie River and Falls for electrical production for much of the year and the entire watershed has been destroyed by deforestation due to Weyerhaeuser and its Snoqualmie Lumber Mill. None of the huge wealth generated by the stolen forest resources of the Snoqualmie ever benefited them during the 70 years that the mill operated. Instead Weyerhaeuser left the land stripped of its magnificent ancient trees and salmon creeks and polluted the river which had provided sustenance for the indigenous peoples.

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