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First Nations art, resistance and governance in Canada

Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, in a red button-down shirt, stands next to a carved Coast Salish pole.

March 18, 2021

Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, Art History, developed a micro seminar for graduate students – ART H 597C: First Nations Art, Resistance, and Governance: Haida and Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw Art Against Extraction. The seminar explores, in part, how art of the Northwest Coast functions within the political realm of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in the face of extractive industries on unceded territory and the devastation they can bring to Indigenous lands and sovereignty.

In 2008, Canada created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to chronicle the trauma of Native children who had been separated from their families and sent to residential boarding schools. In both cases, visual artists and other cultural agents revealed the limitations of official state-authorized investigations and the importance of including everyday people in the work of memory and protest. Specifically, artists helped reveal how the historical nature of the Truth and Reconciliation gaze (or “reckoning with the past”) made it difficult to see the ongoing acts of violence including the work of extractive industries on Indigenous lands.

This course looked at the experiences of the Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw Nations in using art to defend their land and territories from the social and environmental harms of extractive industry. The class also enjoyed a visit from Rande Cook where he discussed his art and political activities. In conjunction with his visit, students watched his mini-documentary, Tree of Life and talked to the artists about the intersections of chiefly responsibility, logging, and visual art.

The class watched the film SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of The Knife), a 2018 Canadian drama film co-directed by Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown. It is the first feature film spoken only in the Haida language. Set in 19th-century Haida Gwaii, it tells the classic Haida story of a traumatized and stranded man transformed into Gaagiixiid, the wildman. SGaawaay K’uun won Best Canadian Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Gwaii Edenshaw also visited with the class to discuss the film.

“I signed up for this seminar with the intention to learn about Canada’s First Nations by exploring art as the vessel that can reconcile the colonial past of North America,” noted Sandra Paola Bonequi, Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow in French with the Center. “This seminar was insightful in understanding the importance of acknowledging the damage colonization has caused and the need to reexamine our relationship with the land, nature and society. I was inspired by the stories of survival, struggle and the way art can be viewed as a process that channels a message.”

The course enabled students to engage directly with First Nations artists from British Columbia to gain an understanding of how artwork functions within a political and cultural context. By the end of the quarter, students were able to articulate the history and ongoing responsibilities, both personal and institutional, of relationship with the Indigenous people in our region and their tangible and intangible expressions of identity and heritage.

Undergraduate students in ART H 233: Native Art of the Northwest Coast also benefitted from these artist visits. You can read more about the class and the art featured in this University of Washington Magazine article.

Katie Bunn-Marcuse is an assistant professor in Art History, Curator of Northwest Native American Art, Burke Museum and director, Bill Holm Center, Burke Museum.