Canoe Cultures :: Ho’-ku-melh
War Canoes and the Gifts They Carry Forward
On view September 16, 2021 to August 15, 2022
Ho’-ku-melh is a Chinook Jargon word that means “to gather.” This exhibition is a gathering of Indigenous artists and knowledge holders. Twenty Indigenous artists share their gifts in this multi-sensory journey. Through the war canoe, the artists explore climate change, food security, displacement and ongoing colonialism.
The exhibition also showcases Canoe Cultures, a program that promotes canoe pulling. The Canoe Cultures program builds new canoes through an apprenticeship program. Seventh-generation canoe builder Mike Billy Sr. who has the Squamish name Lemxacha Siyam leads the apprenticeship program.
Curated by Roxanne Charles, Canoe Cultures :: Ho’-ku-melh celebrates the resilience of Indigenous communities. It also honours the long history of canoe culture on the West Coast. Indigenous communities have travelled the highways of their ancestors since time immemorial. The canoe is a vital element to coastal Indigenous life and to mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Tremendous exploitation of unceded First Nation territories continues to take place today. As environmental concerns grow and Indigenous rights continue to be disregarded, the need to share Indigenous ways of knowing and principles of stewardship has become urgent.
The war canoe or racing canoe carries gifts and teachings forward for future generations. Through war canoe stories, this exhibition honours the beautiful culture of Salish peoples. It recognizes the strength, resilience, stewardship and generosity of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations and acknowledge the traditional village site of Sen̓áḵw. The word Sen̓áḵw means “The place inside the head of False Creek.”
The Salish cultures represented in Canoe Cultures :: Ho’-ku-melh speak numerous languages. Chinook Jargon is a trade language that was used in what is now known as Alaska, British Columbia and Oregon. It would have been spoken by all cultural groups represented in the exhibition. The Chinook language unique to Nootka Sound grew to incorporate other Indigenous languages as well as French and English words. Indigenous knowledge, language and technologies such as the canoe were key to successful trade along the coast. So it is fitting that a Chinook Jargon word is used for this exhibition.
The section of the museum holding the exhibition has been transformed. Visitors enter the exhibition under a cedar archway into a series of vibrantly coloured rooms. They are greeted by the scent of cedar shavings from the work of the Canoe Cultures program in a room filled with art. The pieces include triptych of feltings by Cease Wyss that represent Indigenous life prior to contact and an illustration called “Ôsi :: The Canoe” by Caleb Ellison-Dysart, which explores his personal connection with the canoe and references the story of how Rabbit came to be on the moon.
Other highlights include:
• A mural by Jessey Sue Tustin that addresses the loss of personal connection to history that many Indigenous people experience
• A beautiful jacket with canoe-themed adornments by Christie Lee Charles
• A massive photograph of the delegation of Indigenous chiefs who petitioned the British King and the Canadian government to repeal the restrictions imposed through the Indian Act.
• A poem by Wil George celebrating the canoe
• Mitzi, a 70-year-old racing canoe from the Squamish Nation North Van Canoe Club. Mitzi has gone through many developments over the years and was the first dugout racing canoe on the coast to receive a carbon-fibre coating.
While Canoe Cultures :: Ho-ku-melh is a feast for the senses, it doesn’t shy away from confronting the issues. The exhibition includes a room dedicated to the ongoing challenges Indigenous cultures face from industry and climate change. It also explores historic wrongs such as residential schools. The room features information and artistic responses to issues, such as a weaving by Caitlin Aleck titled “Creator, take us home” in which the artist interprets the events surrounding the remains at residential schools and how the children can now travel back to their Creator in canoes.
Before visitors leave the exhibition a display invites them to consider how they can act as an ally to Indigenous people and communities.
The combination of evocative art and historical background tells an inspiring story of the strength and resilience of Indigenous cultures. And the use of the canoe as the focal point makes this an accessible and enjoyable exhibition.
Curator Roxanne Charles is a mixed media artist, contemporary storyteller and a member of Semiahmoo First Nation in Surrey, British Columbia.
Thank you to the CBC for media sponsorship, and to Fortis BC, Concord Pacific, Vancity and London Drugs for their support for this exhibition.