The powerful beauty of this exhibit was multi-fold. It first came from the heart of a family wishing to express and honour the retained and lost culture of the Indigenous people during the 67 years of the Potlatch ban. The fact that 67 years had also passed, since the lifting of the ban in 1951, is also the reason for the timing of Potlatch 67-67: The Potlatch Ban- Then and Now exhibit at the Comox Valley Art Gallery, during the summer and early fall of 2018.
In the last few weeks, more than 1,300 students from district 71 and 72 have visited the exhibit. The difference between my own Canadian history classes in the 1970s and their custom designed curriculum based on the true history of this event is striking. It is also a testament to the strong desire of this Indigenous community to educate the public about their very tragic family histories. Many contributions were made by non-profit organizations, business people, municipal governments and individuals to ensure the success of this exhibit. They stepped forward with both financial and emotional support to continue a most needed dialogue of healing and bridge building in our community.
The copper of the exhibition is not a Potlatch copper. It has no name, no commercial value and does not belong to a family. It is a symbol being used for educational purposes only and to invite people to consider the concept of Hiltsista’am (The Copper Will Be Fixed) as a way forward for healing in the Indigenous communities. Although there are unique differences between our cultures, the common thread is the same. The desire to validate and witness the existence of our respective human experience. In an age where Facebook and our compressed monthly calendar has even modified the time dedicated to this traditional activity from weeks to a very busy weekend, we can all understand the need to retain what defines them as a people, a group, a family and as individuals shaping our everyday interactions within our larger community.
The symbolism of the Potlatch as an ancient form of gathering for the celebration and sharing of abundance, among its many other unique lineage elements, should be relatively easy for all of us to relate to as an ideal, but not often achieved, goal in our modern society. The concept of mutual support with regards to food, housing and wealth may seem almost foreign to our Western lifestyle of consumerism today, but our deep yearning for connection and to be accepted by those we live with is still very present in each one of us.
The need for a continued dialogue with and an awareness of the Indigenous people, in their ceded and not ceded territories across the country is necessary, not only for the survival and celebration of their traditional ways of life through their languages, songs, dances, oral legends and histories, but also for the ultimate survival of this nation. The students of our local districts have now become, in great part because of this exhibit, youth ambassadors for the kitchen table dialogues they will have with their parents and siblings during this holiday weekend.
The energy and intention of this exhibit has planted a seed. It is up to each one of us to nurture its hope for the present and future of the 4 % of the population that wishes to experience equal rights and respect. After having suffered greatly through the decisions of many elected governments and ultimately, our complete misunderstanding of their daily reality, they still have the incredible grace to continue to ask for our collaboration in building a better community.
This week we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. The quote that I have chosen to honour his legacy could just as easily apply to the beautiful spirit of the Indigenous population of Canada. ‘Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will”.