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I once heard someone claim that “aborigine” was a racist term for First Nations people. By analogy to “abnormal,” he interpreted “aborigine” to mean “not of the same origins,” and refused to believe me when I said it was simply Latin for “from the beginning” – that is people who have always lived in a land. However, after doing a little digging, I believe that he may have been right for the wrong reason.

I had always assumed that “aborigine” was a word coined by the builders of the 19th Century European empires. Recently, however, I found that the word was used by the Romans themselves since at least the start of the common era.

The best known use of the word is by Virgil in the Aeneid to refer to the original inhabitants of Italy. As you may know, the Aeneid gives Rome’s ruling class a heroic ancestry, making them the descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who fled the sack of Troy by the Greeks and lengthy wanderings and adventures, settled in Italy. The Aborigines were the local people Aeneas found there, fought with, and eventually dispossessed.

Besides this myth of origins, “aborigine” also seems to have used outside of literature to refer to the city states and cultures around Rome that were conquered during republican times. Eventually, these cultures would absorb Roman culture and receive full rights as citizens, but as late as the last days of the republic, they were considered not quite as good as those born Roman. For instance, the lawyer and orator Cicero may have been a senator and even served in the highest offices of the government, but he was always known as a New Man, meaning someone not born in Rome, or with any pretense to nobility.

In both these useages, the innocuous-sounding word takes on a more unpleasant connotation. In both Roman literature and history, “aborigine” did not refer only to the first people who lived in a country. More specifically, it was a word applied to those conquered by the Romans.

When the word was revived in the days of European imperialism, anyone with even a few years of education was likely to have studied Latin, so this connotation would hardly have been missed. In using the word, the Europeans were comparing themselves to Rome, and the peoples of North America and Australia to those conquered by the Romans. If any were not conquered, they were eventually destined to be. Such a designation for other people is hardly unusual – after all, “Wales,” the English name for Cymru, originated in the Old English word “wealh,” meaning “slave.”

The word is inaccurate, of course. Especially in British Columbia, the First Nations were never conquered, instead being decimated eight or nine times over by disease until they could no longer resist Europeans settling in their lands. This fact remains a basic premise in dozens of lands claims.

However,even more importantly, the word implies that the First Nations are inferior. At the very least, it suggests that they are unfit to govern themselves, and should be controlled by others. As a racial epithet, it might be slightly better than “nigger,” but only because few people today are familiar with Latin, making the insult less obvious.

Still, the insult exists even if largely unknown. I strongly suggest that people banish “aborigine” from their vocabulary except when explaining the connotations, and use “First Nations,” as most of the people denoted prefer. Describing them as aborigines is no more accurate than calling them Indians – and even more insulting.

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Yesterday evening, as I stood shivering at the corner of Robson and Burrard in Vancouver in the middle of a flash mob, the insight struck me: The people who refer to the Idle No More events as protests have the wrong idea. The events are not just protests – they’re at least as much celebrations.

Not that politics don’t enter into what the Canadian First Nations are doing. Most of the people at last night’s event could cite at least Bills C-45 and C-27 among the half dozen bills that the movement is protesting. A political pamphlet, obviously hastily made, was being handed out, and the organizers speaking to the media could talk knowledgeably about the issues.

However, politics were no more than half the story. Political signs were scattered throughout the crowd (My favorite: “We want to speak to the Crown, not the court jester,” a reference to requests for the Governor General to intervene, and a dismissal of Prime Minister Stephen Harper), but there were also Canadian and British Columbian flags, as well as variations on the flag that the Iroquois Warrior Society flew during the Oka Crisis. One man carried a flag with a Northwest Coast copper in the center. Others had tied flags around their shoulders that proclaimed, “Idle No More” in large letters.

Even the organizers didn’t spend much time on the issues. Two or three made some obviously unprepared remarks for the cameras before moving on to the drumming and dancing as soon as possible. In fact, of the entire ninety minutes of protest, no more than fifteen were concerned with talking politics.

That’s not surprising. The flash mob was the third Idle No More event that day, and many in the crowd had gone to all three events. They must have had every opportunity they could wish to hear about the politics, and almost everyone in the crowd must have made up their minds long ago.

Anyway, you could tell it wasn’t a political crowd by its composition. A crowd bent on political action is usually young, and predominantly male. It doesn’t consist of grannies and elders on scooters, or mothers carrying toddlers and families with strollers.

Unless I am very much mistaken, the people I saw had come to celebrate being First Nations, to feel good about being survivors and the descendants of survivors of disease, neglect, and abuse. Some were wearing traditional button blankets. Others were wearing T-shirts that talked about Haida Gwaii, or simply declared an cultural identity like Haisla.

But, more than to support any cause, they had come to show their pride in being aboriginals in a modern world, and most of them couldn’t get enough of the idea that their identity was something to proud of. For some, especially the senior citizens in the crowd, that might have been a new idea they were still exploring.

But you could tell what they were there for: the drumming and the dancing. They couldn’t get enough of either. At first lone singers with drums played at scattered points through the crowd, the drumbeats echoing stirringly among the tall buildings above them. Then many of the drummers formed up in two facing lines, each line trying to outdo each other in volume and enthusiasm until it seemed only a matter of time until a few drums were broken from the pounding they were taking. Around me, people swayed and shuffled to the music, clapping hands and whooping as each song finished.

Later, as the crowd moved to block the intersection, many didn’t walk so much as dance. As the drumming and singing continued, several chains of circle dancers formed, continuing for at least twenty minutes.

I remember sitting on a fire hydrant through part of the intersection blockade, watching the police diverting traffic to make sure they were continuing friendly, and my eyes kept continually drifting back to the dancing. It seemed a little tentative, as though some of the people couldn’t quite believe what they were doing, but they were enjoying it anyway.

I remembered the early twentieth century anarchist Emma Goldman saying that if there was no dancing at the revolution she wouldn’t be attending, and found myself thinking that, with that attitude, she would have loved what I was seeing.

Even when the crowd moved back on to the sidewalk and started breaking up into twos and threes and drifting away, there were some who couldn’t stop dancing. I had seen one teenage girl with “Idle No More” painted on her face who was already dancing half an hour before the start of the event; I saw her at the end, and she was still dancing, seemingly tireless.

Then the last echo of the last drum beat faded. The dancers continued for a few seconds before stopping to clap and cheer, and the noise of the traffic suddenly seemed unusually loud.

To all appearances, nothing happened or didn’t happen because the intersection of Robson and Burrard was blocked early in a winter evening. But it would be a mistake to imagine that the event served no purpose. The event ended with the participants feeling good about themselves and their cultures – and I suspect that it would be an even greater mistake to dismiss that result as having no consequences.

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If you believe the media, Canada is the model of a modern multicultural society. The official story is that Canada is a place where people of different cultures meet and interact without much friction. You sometimes hear about people being stopped by the police for “driving while black” or the recent allegations that the niqab is a security risk, but these are generally seen as exceptions caused by a dwindling minority of bigots. Most of us, the official message reassures us, are not like that.

Recently, however, I’ve become increasingly aware that at least one group (or, more properly, one set of groups) for whom face to face racism is a daily given – the First Nations.

In some ways, this realization doesn’t come as a surprise. The media is quick to depict First Nations people as uneducated, rural hicks, and victims. You rarely hear about the small but growing professional classes among the First Nations, people who balance urban life and upper middle class expectations against a wish to remain rooted in their own cultures. For the most part, First Nations cultures are barely acknowledged, except when they can add quaint experiences to tourism. You have to search long and hard to find any media depictions of the First Nations as people rather than stereotypes, so in one sense it seems understandable that non-First Nations people should respond to the stereotypes while ignoring the realities.

However, as I explore Northwest Coast art and become friendly with some of the artists, I’ve come to understand that casual racism is part of many First Nations people’s daily lives. Even the artists – gifted people who deserve respect for their accomplishments – have to endure it. Almost every First Nations person I get to know has a story or two about racism, and some people bring them out as a sort of test, to see how strangers will react and to judge their trustworthiness.

For instance, one First Nations instructor says that people regularly compliment him on how well he speaks English. What do they expect? That in 2010 he speaks broken English, or maybe Chinook? Since he teaches, he must have at least a master’s degree, if not a doctorate. What would be surprising is if he didn’t speak well.

Similarly, an up and coming artist tells me that a client who commissioned a carving by him told him at length how “his people” were so spiritual and connected to nature compared to the rest of industrial society. The client had never met him, and did not even know what nation he was from – let alone his clan – yet she was convinced that she could tell him all about his culture. Probably, she thought she was complimenting him. Still, at least she was paying for the privilege (personally, I would have added another few hundred dollars to the price).

Still another artist who is scheduled to inherit a chieftainship, told me that during the Olympics torch relay, an official asked him if “you could get your people to line up on the side of the road to hoot and holler.” A big man, he looked down and said calmly, “We do not hoot and holler.”

Another First Nations man says that he doesn’t receive much open racism because he is tall and stocky, and was raised in an upper middle class family. But he does receive all sorts of covert racism – things like bank clerks lingering just a little longer than necessary when checking his I.D. or cashiers treating him as though he was brain-damaged. Similarly, one artist tells me that when he tried to deposit a large cheque, the teller asked if he was a drug dealer. And, because of similar experiences, another artist has a note on his bank account, explaining what he does for a living in the hopes of keeping bank officials from jumping to conclusions.

I could go on and on, but the point should be clear enough. First Nations men and women regularly endure treatment and comments that are sometimes lacking in epithets but is hardly less vicious for that lack. Often, the remarks are made with a false heartiness that means that taking offense will put their recipients socially in the wrong.

I suppose that to some extent, they get used to the casual abuse, and perhaps they feel they have no choice except to endure, because they will be blamed if an argument or a fight breaks out — the law, quite clearly, is not on their side.

All the same, I wonder how they do endure such comments. I sometimes think that, in similar situations, I would show considerably less restraint. But then, as the descendant of English people, I am used to being treated more politely.

Still, I no longer wonder, as I used to, about a Metis classmate of mine who never mentions her ancestry and dyed her hair blonde. If you can escape from such situations, why wouldn’t you be tempted to try? Even pride and determination must become awfully thin defences after a while.

On some level, I am not surprised by this realization. I know all too well that there are official versions of reality created by the government and the media that have little to do with what has actually happens.

All the same, I can’t help feeling some righteousness anger over this realization. I shouldn’t be surprised or upset to discover yet again that the official version is a lie – but, all the same, I am. And I realize, too, that experience of other groups is undoubtedly as ugly as that of the First Nations. In some ways, this official story is as offensive as the racism itself.

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The stories of Raven stealing the light or Raven prying open a shell that contains the first people continue to inspire great art, and have the advantage of being no single family’s property. But they are only a fraction of the stories and themes that could be told in Northwest Coast art. That is why, when I buy art, I am always interested in less often heard subjects – the change is interesting to me, and, I hope, a change of pace for the artists as well.

A case in point: “Healing Ring,” the second of the rings made for us by up and coming artist Gwaai Edenshaw (the other ring was “Raven and Crows,” which I blogged about earlier).

Here’s how Gwaai Edenshaw himself describes the ring. He was talking with us as he wrote and using a soft pencil, so I have had to guess here and there as I transcribed:

[The] centre of the ring is Fungus Man, made famous in the story of Raven and the First People. The only [one] of Raven’s helpers that was strong enough to face the feminine energy/sprit, and bring it to humanity. This character was likely Fomitopsis Officinalis. This is a shelf fungus that is analogous to a Chinese medicine (in fact one of Chinese Medicine’s most prized medicines). It was almost definitely used by Haida shamans. Samples of it have been found among shaman’s effects (this was thought to be wooden carvings until a recent test of the wood revealed it to be Fornitopsis. Fungus Man appears out of a bush of K’waay K’ia (Indian Hellebore), a very important medicine to us. Like many medicines it has potential for toxicity, but in the hands of the right practitioner it is a true marvel.

Also called Laricifomes officinalis, the fungus is almost extinct in Europe, but is found in old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. In various locales, it has been used to treat tuberculosis, pneumonia, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, infection, and smallpox, and to ensure long life.

I believe that the appearance of the fungus on the ring is one of the first instances in which Edenshaw has combined his interests in Haida botany and art. In fact, aside from what appears to be tobacco leaves and European-influenced floral designs in some argillite work, flora of any sort is rare in Haida art, although some mainland nations have floral crests, such as the Gitksan Fireweed clan.

Edenshaw continues:

On the reverse side is a pair of herons. These are the helper in a number of stories, notably the Gunarsiargit story where they play a small but critical role in the story’s namesake fulfilling his destiny.

More specifically, a heron often dwells on the edge of the village, some distance away from the inhabited houses. This locale reflects the heron’s often lone habits, but might also suggest a shaman, since shamans often lived and certainly were buried separately from everyone else.

For me, these are the kind of details that, when combined with artistic skill, can make Northwest Coast art so satisfying to me. They offer not only aesthetic pleasure, but, for a European ethnic like me a small window into the cultures that produce them. And Edenshaw, besides being a gold smith with a genuine feel for the metal, is also clearly someone deeply knowledgable about his culture as well.

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When you first hear of birch bark biting, it seems so unlikely you might assume that someone is having a joke at your expense.

But the truth is, birch bark biting is one of the most intricate and least known of First Nations arts. Concrete knowledge of the art is hard to come by, but, according to Jadeon Rathgeber of Half Moon Studios, whose mother and sister are two of the last practitioners, birch bark biting was widely practiced through North America for centuries, and very likely millennia. Rathgeber and his family are trying to revive the art, both in education and in business.

birch bark

Birch bark biting is exactly what it sounds like: The making of patterns in bark through careful bites. Traditionally, it is an art done by women, in which the artists fold the bark so that it can fit in their mouths, and visual a pattern as they create it with delicate bites, at times one tooth at a time.

“What I’ve found out about the art is that anywhere they had birch trees, they’ve had birch bark biting,” Rathgeber says. “It could have a ten thousand year old history. Nobody really knows. When Contact happened, it sort of got lost along with all our other ceremonies because it was outlawed.”

What is known is that three century old Chippewa examples are in the Smithsonian in the United States. Rathgeber has heard of a recent dig in Shuswap territory that unearthed samples that may be three thousand years old. The art is definitely known to have been widely practiced in eastern and central North America, and there are even rumors of it being practiced on the northern coast of British Columbia. A student at the Freda Diesing School, for example, reports hearing his teachers list birch bark biting among the lost local arts.

Exactly what samples of the art were used for is equally undocumented. However, Rathgeber suggests that the art may have been used to create hunting and fishing maps, and to pass cultural and ceremonial secrets between generations.

“I call it the first Indian printing press,” Rathgeber says.

Examples of the art may also have been used as the equivalent of wampum belts to commemorate exchanges between different groups. Among the Cree, it was also used in historical times as the pattern of bead work, laid directly over the leather the beads were sown to.

The best-known biter in modern times was Angelique Merasty of the Cree Nation, who lived much of her life in Beaver Lake, Manitoba. Rathgeber’s mother, Pat Bruderer (also known as Half Moon Woman), knew Merasty for over two decades, and sometimes assisted in the sale of her work. When Merasty died about fifteen years ago, Bruderer began teaching herself the craft. Bruderer is now regarded as the foremost birch bark biting artist. Perhaps three or four other biters exist, but none approach her skill.

The making of a piece of birch bark biting begins with the gathering of the raw materials. In Rathgeber’s family, the gathering is usually done by his step-father. The bark is taken by trees of the right size that are free of knots after a tobacco ceremony in which the harvester asks forgiveness for what he is about to take. Large strips are sometimes taken, but never enough to kill the tree.

When Bruderer receives the bark, she sorts out the most suitable pieces, and peels them away until they are only one layer thick. The peeling is a delicate craft in itself, in which one rough motion can destroy a piece of bark. Perhaps that is why, when Rathgeber says, “No one can peel birch bark like my Mom can,” he speaks with such obvious pride.

birch bark2

Bruderer has her own ceremony to put here in the right mood of calm alertness to work. According to Rathgeber, she does not need absolute silence in which to work, but prefers a setting that is quiet where she will not be distracted. She folds the bark up to sixteen times — “like a xylophone,” Rathgeber says – and works using different teeth for different effects, with one tooth for drawing lines, her incisors for shading, and another for large details. She can use only very light pressure, or else the bark will tear.

Even so, she sometimes does as many as five or six pieces before getting one that is up to her standards. Rathgeber reports that his mother has as many as five hundred rejects that he hopes one day to use in collages. Each piece takes a couple of hours to complete, and is usually done in one session, since it would be next to impossible to resume work after quitting.

When a piece is finished, Bruderer flattens her pieces using a secret twelve step technique that is one of the hallmarks of her work. Another mark of her work is the singeing the edges of her work to give it give it a border. Her work is either framed by itself between two pieces of glass, or else incorporated into other work, such as boxes by other artists.

For many years, the family sold Bruderer’s work for two hundred dollars and upwards. However, now, as Bruderer talks of retirement and focusing on preserving her skills by teaching thems to another generation, the family is starting to husband her output more carefully, limiting sales and raising prices considerably.

More importantly, Rathgeber is also searching for a museum or teaching institution to display the best of her work as well as Bruderer’s collection of Merasty’s pieces. He hopes that by making some of this work public, he can encourage academic study of the art – study that might, for example, help to determine how bite patterns differed culturally, or even through the ages.

When I talked with Rathgeber, he had just heard that the Bill Reid Gallery’s gift shop and the Path Gallery at Whistler had agreed to take some pieces of birch bark biting for sale.

Should you see any pieces, you should have no trouble identifying it for what it is. Mysterious and meticulous, birch bark biting is like no other art you have ever seen.

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March 19, Prince Rupert, British Columbia – The Museum of Northern British Columbia is prolonging a dispute over the carving shed, an artist’s work space on museum grounds, by refusing to negotiate, says Tsimshian master carver Henry Green. In fact, the attitudes of curator Susan Marsden and the museum directors has outraged local First Nations residents to such a degree that some are talking about reclaiming artifacts currently held by the museum.

The behavior of museum officials may also be in violation of British Columbia human rights, labour, and commercial tenancy statutes.

Over the thirty-nine years of its existence, the carving shed has provided work space for many prominent First Nations artists. However, in the last year, relations between the artists using the shed and the museum have deteriorated, due to a concerted attempt by the museum to exert greater control. A carved sign directing visitors to the carving shed was confiscated by the museum and not returned for eight months, a phone was removed from the shed, and members of Green’s family have been harassed and barred by Marsden and her staff.

Once, when the locks on the shed were changed without warning, Green was forced to wait four hours to retrieve his personal belongings, including his unique set of carving tools. “During this time I was berated and talked down to,” Green says.

Matters came to a head in late January, when the museum gave the carvers one week to vacate the premises, despite the fact that moving several large carvings was impossible on such short notice. The museum claimed that it wished to renovate the dilapidated carving shed, although no plans had been filed at Prince Rupert city hall. Museum officials also claimed they wished to use the shed as a teaching tool for local students, although Green and other users of the shed have taught and given demonstrations for years.

Museum employee Sampson Bryant implies that another motive was to collect rent from those using the shed. However, since the shed is owned by the City of Prince Rupert, the museum’s right to rent the space is questionable. Even if that right is upheld, the behavior of museum officials may violate commercial tenancy law in British Columbia.

Green and other artists have repeatedly requested to talk to museum officials, but with little success, since meetings of the museum’s board of directors are not publicized — nor, for that matter the names of the directors.

A meeting brokered by Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussalem and John Helin, an official representative of the allied Tsimshian tribes, broke down when Wes Baker, chairman of the museum board, refused to cooperate or compromise. Mussalem did promise to find alternate work space for the artists, but, meanwhile, the museum has insisted that the artist vacate — before the time in which the city had promised to find accommodation, and before the board meeting at which the artists have finally been given time to discuss the situation before the board.

“This behavior is completely against the spirit with which users of the shed and museum officials have always interacted,” Green says. “We have never had an official arrangement, but the relationship has always been to the benefit of everyone. The museum gives artists a place to work, and the artists attract tourists to the museum.”

A separate web page for the carving shed that includes a photo of Green (http://www.museumofnorthernbc.com/pages/06carving/06index.html) suggests that, until recently, the museum shared this attitude.

Also at issue is the question of whether the museum is guilty of violating labour laws and human rights statutes. Section B5 of the Ethics Guidelines of the Canadian Museums’ Association states that museum workers are defined as “individuals responsible for any aspect of museum operation….paid or volunteer,…occasional or contract,” as well as “privately or self employed persons practicing one of the related museological fields.” In other words, if the museum has control over the carving shed, then it has certain obligations to the artists, and could be guilty of wrongful termination and dismissal without cause as defined under B.C. labour law.

While these events have unfolded, support for the carvers has quickly spread, thanks largely to a Facebook group called “Expression, not Oppression” started by Morgan Green, Henry Green’s daughter and apprentice. The group now has almost a thousand members, including such prominent First Nations artists as Lyle Campbell and Ya’Ya; local Tsimshians, and art lovers from across the country.

The group has been used by Bryant to denounce and threaten Green and the other artists. However, most members of the Facebook group have expressed the conviction that the behavior of museum officials shows a disrespect for local First Nations, particularly in the treatment of a prominent artist like Henry Green.

“I am quite disgusted with the Museum for their lack of cooperation in this matter,” Breena Bolton writes. “[They are] all adults, yet they have to hide information, and try portray the artists in such a negative manner.”

Similarly, Christine Parnell writes, “I think that the museum has to remember it is our Artifacts that bring in the money to that museum. I think if they continue to not only disrespect the carvers but our Allied Tribes voice that we, as Tsimshians should look at repatriating our artifacts back to their rightful owners.”

In response to the situation, supporters of the artists have scheduled a peaceful protest at the carving shed today at noon in order to express support for the artists.

“I don’t know why the situation had to come to this,” Green says. “Carvers in the shed have had differences with the museum before, but they were resolved by discussion and negotiation. But, for some reason, now museum officials have a win-at-all-costs mentality. They seem to have forgotten that the museum’s mandate is to form respectful relationships with the Tsimshian nation.”

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Over the years, the Museum of Northern British Columbia has gained a reputation for working with the local First Nations in Prince Rupert. But now, unless appearances deceive, museum officials seem willing to throw away that reputation just so curator Susan Marsden can flex her muscles in her ongoing struggle to assert her authority over Tsimshian master carver Henry Green and his apprentices. The conflict is being fought over the carving shed, a popular attraction where Green and the other carvers have been working, but what’s really at stake is the consistent disrespect shown by the museum and city officials.

According to the chronology provided by Green on Facebook, the carving shed has been in existence since 1980. While hardly a comfortable place – it has no washrooms, running water, nor working furnace — in the last twenty-nine years, it has been a workspace for many of the biggest names in Northwest Coast art, including Alvin Adkins, Edward Bryant, Heber Reece, Lyle Campbell – and, of course, Green himself, who has worked there on and off since it was built.

The carving shed has not always co-existed peacefully with the museum, being a place where artists came and went without ever being employees or having much regard for museum hours. But, when relations were uneasy between the museum and the carving shed in 1993, Green says, communication helped to reduce the tensions on both sides. Mostly, the shed has continued to be an important attraction despite minimal promotion by the museum.

However, since last summer, relations between the museum and the current crop of carvers have steadily worsened. The phone was removed, amidst allegations that it was being used for long distance calls, a claim that Green denies. Then the locks were changed, including the ones on Green’s private storage. Green says that he had to wait four hours to get into the shed to get his tools, and that “during this time I was berated and talked down to.”

In another episode last summer, the artists erected a carving sign directing tourists to the carving shed. When Green’s partner and his daughter investigated, they found the sign locked away by the museum, on the grounds that private signs could not be put on museum property. Not only has the sign not been returned, but, as a result of the incident, Jennifer Davidson, Green’s partner, was banned from the carving shed by Susan Marsden, while Morgan Green was told that she would have to apologize before she could return. Marsden’s claim is apparently that Morgan Green kicked and swore at her – charges that Morgan denies.

Matters came to a head in January, when all the carvers were given one week to vacate the shed. Considering the number of carvings in the shed, including some two meter poles, this is a next to impossible demand. The artists requested at least a month to vacate. Meanwhile, they are worried that their tools, many of which are highly specialized and specifically created by them or for them, will be confiscated by the museum.

The carvers have tried to talk to the museum’s board of directors, but all they have heard is secondhand accounts that the shed will be renovated, then assigned to groups for specific projects. The implication seems to be that the current group of carvers will not be among them. Moreover, since it is February and no permit for renovations appears to have been taken out, the carvers are more than a little skeptical of the claim.

The situation remained unpublicized until Morgan Green started a FaceBook group called “Expression Not Oppression” four days ago. Since then, over four hundred people have joined the group, including many local first nations people and art-lovers.
Prince Rupert mayor Jack Mussalem insists that supporters have heard only one side of the story. However, when he phoned to give it to me, he demonstrated no understanding of what upset both the carvers and their supporters (who include me).

Nobody is questioning the right of Marsden to evict the carvers, not even the carvers themselves. But what bothers people is the disrespect. If what I have heard about Marsden’s behavior is even remotely true, she seems to have abandoned common courtesy.

Even worse, Marsden, Mussalem and other officials of the museum and Prince Rupert seem to be acting with a total disregard for the sensitivities of the first nations. Considering the history of the last century and a half, many among the first nations are understandably sensitive about anything that suggests the arbitrary abuses of power, particularly by people of European descent. And when you add the fact that first nations artists are leading figures in preserving the cultures, insults directed to an internationally-known figure like Henry Green are easily seen as insults to the community itself. You can see these attitudes being expressed in the comments in the Facebook group.

Art-lovers and collectors feel much the same way. Witnessing a conflict between artists whose main desire is to continue working undisturbed and empire-building bureaucrats, you want to guess with whom they’ll side?

Possibly, there are mitigating circumstances that would explain the behavior of officials. Yet, if so, they have not bothered to explain those circumstances. Instead, they have simply asserted their right to act as they have chosen, and refused to address the question of their behavior.

Very likely, they can get their way in the short run. However, in the long run, their petty victory in what seems no more than a bureaucratic turf war threatens to be won at the expense of all the good will from the first nations that the museum has built up over the years. And, if that happens, the museum could take decades to regain that good will – assuming that it ever does.

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