Archive for February 23rd, 2011

Organizing a meetup group, I’ve discovered, is a good way to find new things to worry about.

When I first started the Northwest Coast Art Meetup Group in Vancouver, I worried that no one would show up to the first meeting. I tried to minimize the worry by asking artist and dancer Mike Dangeli to be the first speaker. Then Mike sent out an invitation to all his Facebook friends, and I worried whether the space I’d booked – the lobby of The Network Hub – would be large enough for everyone who said they planned to attend.

However, I shouldn’t have worried (although I did, of course, being the sort of person I am: About whether the third floor of a building without an elevator was too high for anybody, or too inaccessible; whether the food that co-organizer Nathan Bauman brought would be eaten, whether everybody enjoyed the talk; you name it, and I worried about it).

I counted eighteen at the meetup’s first event yesterday evening – fewer than I had expected or feared, but better than most first meetup events can manage from what several people told me. I suspect that predictions of snow kept the numbers down.

Mike had agreed to talk about “Art and the Potlatch.” It’s a subject that he is well-equipped to discuss, having given fifteen potlatches, and given away hundreds of thousands of dollars in art at them.

I knew in the abstract the importance of potlatches in First Nations cultures, and the importance that art played in them. However, it is one thing to understand something in theory and entirely another to see overwhelming proof of it. As Mike talked, I gained an appreciation of the wide variety of events covered by the term. Births, puberty, betrothal, marriage, the assumption of titles or responsibility – listening to the passing mentions of all the different occasions, I appreciated in a way that I hadn’t really before just how many rites of passage were contained within that simple word from the Chinook jargon. A single word didn’t seem enough to cover so many different occasions.

In fact, it occurs to me that this poverty of expression helped to hide just how devastating the banning of the potlatch from 1884 to 1951 actually was – and why they continued to be celebrated in secret. The same missionaries who urged the banning of the potlatch would have been outraged had anyone tried to ban their own baptisms, marriages and funerals. Yet either they didn’t notice or they didn’t care that that was what they were doing by passing the anti-potlatch legislation.


Another impression I took from Mike’s talk is how closely the art of the coastal First Nations is connected to these rites of passage. Not only the amount of art given, but the sheer variety – paintings, hats, masks, robes, jewelry, dancing regalia – on Mike’s slides impressed this point. Since that was what I hoped would come from his talk, I was glad to feel that realization sinking into me, and I hope that others at the meetup did as well. I didn’t want the group to be a bunch of dilettantes, but to provide a real understanding of the art’s roots and connections – and there’s no doubt that Mike started the meetings off the right way.

No one had any questions at the end, but few were in a hurry to leave, either. Most stood talking for the next forty minutes, and seemed enthused by what they had just heard. One or two, who were artists themselves, or the recent recipients of gifts, showed their own pieces of art. Many thanked me for starting the group.

I’d call the evening a moderately successful beginning. Now, I want to arrange the next event, and see if a bit of a community can’t be organized from the group.


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