Guiding the Gallery: Elders, Community Members and Indigenous Experts
Every night, after the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) closes its doors to the public, staff place a red blanket over the display case protecting Qelemteleq — a seated stone figure with a living spirit. As an ancestor of the people from Katzie and Kwantlen First Nations of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, he is treated as we might a respected relative, and a blanket helps him feel secure and warm during his stay at the Gallery.
Qelemteleq is one of close to 200 Indigenous artworks on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. Over the course of creating the displays, the Gallery’s curators sought to break away from the practice of treating Indigenous artworks as nameless anthropological evidence. This often meant artists were not individually recognized, with text labels being often vague and only indicating an artist’s nation or region. To change this practice, two Indigenous Advisory Committees were created to counsel on the importance of welcoming, displaying and caring for each of the works, and on how best to consult with the various communities and understand their specific protocols.
To mark respect for Indigenous peoples in Canada through language, the Committees advised the Gallery to include texts in First Nations languages, Inuktitut dialects and Michif. More than fifty exhibition texts were translated into seventeen Indigenous languages and dialects from across the country. In recognition of the Gallery’s location on Anishinaabe Territory, the Algonquin language, Anishinaabemowin, was included in Gallery exhibition texts wherever possible.
The Committees also recommended that a welcoming ceremony be performed for each cultural ceremonial item. Many historic art objects, particularly if they are made from natural materials from the land, are considered as having a spirit and (or) are considered as our ancestors. Welcoming ceremonies are an important way to recognize that spirit and ancestor. Some items — such as the Beaver Hills Petroglyph (c.1000), on loan from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, and the Potlatch regalia (1999) belonging to Hereditary Chief James Hart — were quietly welcomed, while others included a ceremony with community participation.
In a welcoming ceremony for the Raven Rattle (c.1850) from Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, knowledge-keepers from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation joined local Haida community members, including children from the area. Nika Collison of the Haida Gwaii Museum, who was in Ottawa, attended the ceremony. Of Haida descent, Collison shared stories about the sun, otter and raven featured on the rattle, playing an important role in the transfer of Indigenous knowledge from elders to children.
A ceremony was also held for the contemporary work Transformation Mask (n.d.), which is on loan from the Canadian Museum of History. Although the mask was not intended to be a ceremonial piece when it was created, Nuxalk artist Marven Tallio (b.1966) approved of the ceremony. Local knowledge-keepers joined members of the Gitandeau Tribe of the Tsym Syen First Nation at the Gallery. Elder Terry McKay Suu Wii Lax Ha (Another Great Storm) took part with his two young grandsons, passing his knowledge of the raven stories and the story of the transformation mask from one generation to the next.
In May 2017 Qelemteleq had been honoured with a traditional ceremony. It is among other ceremonial objects found in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island. Carved between 1,500 and 5,500 years ago, these objects were created to represent a story or to perform a sacred ritual. In 1920, while clearing land in the Fraser Valley, homesteader Arro Skytte found Qelemteleq buried beneath the roots of a Douglas fir tree. In 1954, the Skytte Bowl, as it was then called, was donated to the Museum of Vancouver, which holds the figure in trust on behalf of the Katzie and Kwantlen First Nations.
During the ceremony, knowledge keepers from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation welcomed Stó:lō elders and advisors from Katzie and Kwantlen First Nations. A traditional smudging ceremony of burning sacred herbs was performed by Verna McGregor of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation and her son, Sheldon McGregor, the community's fire keeper apprentice. The resulting smoke was meant to cleanse the spirits of those present. Dressed in regalia that included headbands and blankets, elders and chiefs were then formally introduced to one another and to Qelemteleq. Stó:lō elders Helen and Herb Joe confirmed the protocols of the ceremony, and Chief Marilyn Gabriel from Kwantlen First Nation and Chief Susan Miller from Katzie First Nation presented Qelemteleq with a red blanket to keep him safe each night. After songs and music, elders conducted a ceremony to honour his spirit, recognize the territory from which he came, and give him is Halkomelem name.
The National Gallery of Canada is committed to engaging with Indigenous communities across the country. As staff work to interpret and protect the art of this land, the education department and curatorial team continue to rely on guidance from both Indigenous Advisory Committees, including youth involvement at an advisory level. Initiatives include workshops with Indigenous artists, educational programs, Indigenous art-focused tours, and self-guided tours offered in Anishinaabemowin.
All the works are currently on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada. The regalia of James Hart, on loan to NGC, has been temporarily returned to him to be worn and danced at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, British Columbia. See also the listing of events marking National Indigenous History Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day. Among the projects, see Resilience, the National Billboard Exhibition Project. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.