One of the top contemporary indigenous artists, Beau Dick, famous aboriginal artists and  others recognize his reknown for accurate representations of ancient First Nations art, has passed away in 2017.


I came upon this fellow Beau Dick in a place where people are steeped in stories of soul travel and soul capture, and witchcraft, and that is the old way, they say, which just so happens to be kind of preserved one ferry ride beyond 'the last outpost.' At times in my mind "it's the only way" and even with all that goodness to draw upon, most have a yoke of modern beliefs around their neck, so they eschew their own medicine.

Beau Dick, Canadian artist of the Northwest Pacific Coast tradition, was a leading proponent of the collective experience of builders and artisans cooperating on big projects, a shared burden strongly reflecting the traditional way of life in the Indigenous communities of the Northwest Pacific Coast. “The time-line in the experience is all shared,” he explained, about working on cultural projects. Beau was a man with strong connections to the coastal past, born in 1955 and raised in Kingcome Inlet, B.C. (an inlet flowing deep into the mainland coast) there to grow up with a lot of culturally-grounded individuals.

Beau lived his first 10 years surrounded by extended family including Elders, uncles and aunts, and others who maintained the society of Big House Potlatch culture rooted in history. They lived in personal contact with pristine surroundings of Kingcome Inlet, sustained by hard work and thriving culture in manufacturing various forms of arts and crafts. His early years were spent fully immersed in Kwakwala, the language of the nation. Beau sat amongst carvers, father, grandfather, and uncles, and listened to histories, legends, laws, jurisdiction, in Kwakwala, and learned the way things came to pass and what is to come. Beau was vigilant about maintaining and passing along that knowledge for the rest of his life.

When Beau was 10 years old the family sent him to Vancouver to live with an aunt and uncle so he could get some serious book learning. He described it as a culture shock that lasted for a few adolescent years. Upon return to the Pacific Northwest the family was separated from Kingcome Inlet and Beau settled in Alert Bay, B.C.. His early life lessons began to percolate and he passed along cultural lessons. Beau was a hereditary chief in the Kwakwaka’wakw society called Homatsa. It is the warrior class in coastal clans that held jurisdiction in this part of the world.

In 2009, Beau was at a culture camp on Yukusem (Hanson Island) a semi-remote site 15 km south of Alert Bay, B.C. accessed by boat. It was a project supported by a lot of volunteers from the beginning of July through the month of August.

The island’s other occupants on the 4 sq. km. include the year-round CMT anthropology study area in the island's heights occupied by David Garrick. Also, Orcalab whale research station occupies the south-east corner; and a logging license is held over 70 hectares on the east side around Dong Chong Bay. At the Yukusem culture camp international kayak tours stop at a lightly used campground in the surroundings of Deep Bay and by the time the tourist season arrived the Yukusem Culture Camp was in full bloom with lessons to teach adventurous world travellers.

The culture camp on Yukusem was the brain-child of Beau Dick and the product of many hands. "It's a lot of teaching, cajoling, and inspiring, and convincing people that the way forward is found by going through the phases of knowing the past," explained Beau, willing and able of describing his own extraordinary connections to the coastal past. He worked with many carvers of international reknown, Bill Reid included. 

Beau became a world recognized carver of the Kwakwaka'wakw tradition, and had the right to carve a Haida coat of arms and other styles because of his bloodlines from Tongass, Alaska. His great-grandmother was a highest ranking hereditary chief of the Tlingit and married a Hudson's Bay Factor who took her to Port Rupert. 

Oolican fish is an important fish that First Nation people use for many purposes, dietary and often for healing. The oil is something they call 'gweena' and those of coastal bloodlines often have a bottle of the oolican grease. "My grandmother inherited the right to first harvest of the oolican up Kingcome Inlet," said Beau, one balmy afternoon in the centre of the culture camp on Yukusem. "My great grandfather had inherited the right to 'first fish' from this river because his great grandfather brought the oolican to Kingcome Inlet." 

Brought the oolican to Kingcome? Beau's forefather took two canoes and went out to sea and paddled all the way to Bella Coola in the north. Once there he obtained oolican fry and eggs which he carried in his second canoe, and returned south (and east up the distinctively remote Kingcome Inlet) to seed the river with oolican. That gave the family rights to the first fruits in perpetuity, and a valuable asset. The claim is recognized and the large copper in his possession was the physical statement.

Beau recounted a couple of stories passed down by generations in relation to first contact with Europeans on the coast of the Pacific Northwest. One of them described the fate of the first domesticated feline, and another the chiefs reaction to the rum custom of the British Navy.

The Spanish sailed up the outside coast of the Pacific Northwest islands and archipelagos as early as the mid-1500s. But the domestic cat made its first appearance at a Kwakwaka’wakw ville in the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1700s when the Spanish landed inside the Kwakwaka'wakw nation to begin conducting business.

This nation of houses, clans, and villages occupies the mainland, several islands in an archipelago, and the top of Vancouver Island, both sides. When the Spanish sailed up to one of the well-populated villes they were immediately visited by the chief who greeted the ship’s captain with a cordial welcome to the Kwakwaka'wakw nation. At this first meeting the chief saw a cat capering onboard the ship.

The Kwakwaka'wakw chief was enthralled with the creature and the animal was brought before the chief for his closer inspection. After playing with the cat for a spell the chief believed he had received possession of it.

Beau ascribes the captain’s devotion to his pet as enormous, and the captain of the Spanish ship refused to relinquish the cat. A couple of intrigues later the Kwakwaka'wakw chief was in full possession of the cat.

The infuriated captain of the Spanish ship soon unleashed a cannonade on the shore at the Kwaguilth community blowing apart several war-canoes parked on the beach in front of the bighouses. Canoes were never in short supply in a Kwakwaka'wakw community and a few minutes later a flotilla coursed toward the Spanish ship.

The Kwaguilth surrounded the Spanish ship and returned the cannon balls. They demanded that the Spanish perform this excellent feat once again. (They were not, however, returning the cat, said Beau.)

The Spanish sailed away and left the chief in possession of the curious animal and he announced a special event to be held in his bighouse. Soon a gathering of chiefs and important clan members and associates had been assembled and the stage was set to unveil the cat.

The chief reached into a large cedar basket and grabbed the terrified cat and threw it some distance against a wooden post where it stuck. Everybody oh'd and ah'd while the cat did a couple of frantic loops and took off never to be seen again.

The Spanish spent a number of years exploring and mapping their explorations into the Kwakwaka'wakw nation, said Beau. They left the territory with a legacy of sketches of people, villages, ship’s log entries, and a few Spanish place-names.

Soon the Spanish were usurped by the British who brought something other than a cat. Beau said the British Navy began snooping around the territory occasionally gunning the Spaniards out of the region and often stopping at houses of the chiefs of Kwakwaka'wakw communities.

The British had a custom of ending each occasion with the certain protocol of a shot of rum. At first the chiefs were kind of 'taken' but not all were happy with the custom and some were offended by the British insistence at imposing the bitter tasting liquid on these special occasions. Indeed a large argument ensued among the chiefs about whether to allow the British to stay. The argument that prevailed was, "Ah, let them stay. What harm can it do?" 

"Lineage is the most important part of our social structure," explained Beau. On Yukusem conversation was fully supported by a chorus of nature. "Talk about jurisdiction, I can describe the great divide. The Hudson's Bay Company conducted it's slaughter of the Haida people in the mid-1800s with poisoned blankets when the upper classes of England were amusing themselves by eating mummies," the remains of dead Egyptians.

The efforts of the ‘blanket merchants’ failed to kill off the people and small pockets of the culture and the Potlatch law continued to exist in tiny enclaves like Kingcome Inlet. By the 1930s when the Kwakwaka’wakw were repeatedly being jailed for holding Potlatches in their hidden Big House societies, "My people were real rebellious. The Kwaguilth branch was tenacious about keeping their ways alive.”

The rebellion would take dramatic form at times, for instance when Beau's uncle Jimmy Dawson raised a totem pole for King George the 5th, "as a celebration of the king’s coronation. And at the time of the event, the question was simple, What are the authorities going to do about that? Nothing. There was nothing they could do."

He credits his forefathers for being adept at the art of deception and for using double entendre to send a message, “The pole stands beside the Anglican Church in Alert Bay today,” he said, “along with the commemoration plaque for the English king.”

Those days and weeks spent with Beau at Yukusem were highly instructive. I had visited the era before, and I left the area and did not return for a few years. When I did, I found myself living like Bakwis, wildman of the woods, and perhaps I had become one of those. I stayed with a politically astute fellow named George, on Atli Road. Atli means bush or forest. George explained that the entire community exists under a communications embargo, what George calls, 'Coercion by economic sanction.' 

I stayed a few nights with George, which dragged into a couple of weeks but repeated visitations by a few party animals wore me down. That's when I took another refuge with Beau Dick, and stayed in his house/carving studio/classroom/crossroads on the beach. Instead of night owls and other faeries, I hung around artisans and culture mavins. They continue to carve out a language that says a couple of things to God in statements that have no meaning to anybody but Him anymore. So the statements are not exactly meaningless, but who knows the mind of God?

One guy out in the territory has some insight. The study of Culturally Modified Trees (CMTs) is the study of human beings organizing around rainforest resources. What David Garrick, anthropologist, uncovered on Hanson Island (Yukusem), is the "transgenerational" management of forests by First Nations at the north entrance to the Inside Passage. This management of forests was comprised of a complex arrangement. Preserves came under carefully defined jurisdiction managed to maximize and distribute essential resources. Social groups conducted horticulture within specific groves of cedar trees on Yukusem’s 16 sq. km., on a grand scale.

One aspect was shaping cedar trees to modify the tree to produce surplus bark while maintaining the integrity of a living tree. They maximized cedar bark production and did so in a way that left the cedar tree to heal, thrive, and produce more surplus bark. It was a strategy of development related to cedar bark as a staple product. This product was used in an apparently endless array. The rule for centuries, even millennia, was to cultivate giant cedars to make trees produce surplus cedar bark into a raw material for production of manufactured goods. The people of Yukusem living 1,350 years ago cultivated a specific grove of trees to furnish Beau Dick with raw material for various projects many centuries later. 

Beau's studio involves a lot of interaction with local artists and carvers. A couple of these artists are devoted to Jesus. I might explain to someone that I do, really, believe in Jesus. In order to steal this continent and launch this genocide you needed an inside job. That's how Jesus enters the picture. He's the inside job. Beau finds it amusing but my friendship with Wayne becomes illusive at the point iwhen I am revealing my heresies about Christianity in a couple short, disturbing arguments. I rarely feel the friendship in the morning hours until Wayne has at least a gallon of coffee to derail his brain from doing anything demonstrative. 

Nevertheless there is considerable interaction and especially rancorous moments arise during my heresy. I can't get divinely inspired by the manager of a sheep abattoir, I say. Wayne replies about ghosts not supposing to have voices, while he's painting messages with all kinds of themes, he uses language like a sharp detailing knife. Wayne informs that I will inhabit the vicinity with a ghost-like demeanour.

During those drunk (and smoke fuelled) evenings, George called the area's communities part of a League of Autonomous Collectives, once tightly organized, competitive, industrious, and oriented toward acquisition by trade. And warfare, according to Beau, who informs me at his studio that the organization was codified in a written form called Wakashan, messages composed in a legalized motif were artfully rendered as a language that emanated coast-wide (which Wayne describes as “the longest coast-line in the world.”)

The archipelago was home to people cultivating immense riches. They were growing populations, well-educated masses, thriving on abundance. I am tempted to surmise that the Wakashan language was on the verge of a continental breakout. As for the moment we were in, "There is a strong desire to build something but an awareness that others have standards that may be too high to be met by the revival of a cultural experience," Beau explained.

The culture camp on Yukusem had been a growing collective of builders and artisans but living was rustic, practically remote, and, says Beau, "The question was, are you a camper? Camping is by definition a completely interdependent experience. The burden is shared and activities are shared. The time-line in the experience is all shared."

Beau returned to story-telling, "The Bella Coolas were primarily Salishan people who over a period of time had occupied the area," up Burke Channel, halfway along the B.C. Pacific coast, "and after this came a period of encroachment upon the Kwaguilth territory," Beau explained, for the Bella Coolas had long been envious of Kingcome Inlet resources, he said.

It was therefore predictable to the Homatsa society that a large party of Bella Coolans would arrive at the entrance to the territory at Gilford Island. The arrival of the lead Bella Coolan party was made in peace and bearing gifts, a disarming presentation that drew the Homatsa society into a lull, while a second party descended and destroyed the Gilford Island settlement and left many heads on sticks and took the Kwaguilth women away to Bella Coola.

Beau continued, "These women retained their names and their titles, but only gradually did the truth about their origins begin to emerge." He explained that status in a coastal nation is paramount and the hierarchy that composes the society is immutable. "Eventually the elevated status of those women and their offspring emerged and altered the face of a Salishan principality."

Mamalillikullu and the Haida were accustomed to crossing the Kwaguilth waters every year during the summer to conduct a trade mission with the Cowichan and Salishan nations. When the Hudson Bay Company arrived and a fort was established at Fort Rupert the HBC immediately set about usurping Kwaguilth jurisdiction. This made peace untenable, says Beau, once Haida traders arrived at Fort Rupert and bypassed the traditional protocol of stopping at the clanhouses of the Kwaguilth chiefs. Instead they opted to gather around the HBC fort and ignore the customary exchanges with the Kwaguilth.

In response to this diplomatic snub the Kwaguilth messengers spread the word and soon the Homatsa society arranged their own reception. The Haida were intercepted as they continued their southward journey through the Inside Passage. The interception occurred at modern day Kelsey Bay deep in the present day Johnstone Strait. It was here they were surrounded and slaughtered. The heads of the Haida chiefs were taken back to Fort Rupert to the women who stood on the beach holding out their aprons.

As the Kwaguilth rowed past they tossed the heads ashore, says Beau, onto the aprons of the women. The head of one Haida chief tore through the apron of his wife and rolled along the beach, and the story is told, he was still trying to get away from the Kwaguilth.

The language was extinguished in the onslaught of flames. The systemic racism remains intact via education. Dissidents are held inside internment camps and the gulag reservations are filled with dissident elements of a remaining population, some of those governed by a re-constituted national identity that expunges traditional values, others suffering the lash of authority but defying all descriptions of servitude.

The friendships for me are illusive but people on this Indian Reservation come in waves to visit and work and confer with Beau Dick. It is a multi-user art studio, Wayne's, Marcus', Sean's, and tonight Thomas Bruce paints here. I once stayed at Beau Dick's two or three months a year previous. I had been here several times. I've been hanging around since the 90s. Several people are acquainted with me. Sean carves and paints a modernistic version that Beau Dick encourages as avant garde, and they are saleable pieces.

As I sit around, Sean tells me he is leaving shortly to spend Christmas in Port Hardy, a neighbouring town, while Wayne inhabits the workplace daily, but with the permanence of a sphinx. Beau Dick produces several pieces at a time, ruminates on new ones, uses a vast library and historical record in his designs. The library includes Beau Dick and Wayne's own knowledge that is orally transcendent when accompanied by the images.

I am making my fifth, sixth, journey to the territory. It is now December 23. My activities this visit included scrapping with George's company (testing my aptitude for listening), but Beau Dick and his immense Homatsa knowledge keeps the warcanoe on an even keel, his strength, and endless rounds of conversation in a circulating fashion in the studio, makes the stay worthwhile, such as when Wayne says, “There are six species of wolf on the north west coast. They can swim. They eat brains.” I restrain myself from saying something stupid, like, "I guess you're safe."

On this Christmas Eve I am ending this visitation to the Indian Reservation. Beau's been aloof my whole visit. This last evening was one of the rare occasions we were alone in the house. I am leaving in a short time. “I had a dream the other night and in this dream I was in Kingcome. I held a spear and several of us were holding spears. We had a big black cat in front of us. Eight of us circled around this cat, and we weren't attacking it. We were cornering it to put it in a cage.” 

"One night in the 1970s," I replied," I did a hallucinogenic drug and 'transformed' into a puma." I had been injured the year before and the experience stuck with me, because, "Ya know, Beau, a wounded animal wants to kill every living thing."

Beau went to another room in the tiny house and came back with a t-shirt, and smiled broadly when he held it up, “This is you.” It says, 'Ruined.' We laugh together under a cloud of smoke. I leave a minute later to catch the last ferry of the night. It was the last time I saw Beau Dick. He was my friend. May he Rest In Peace.

The End

Beau and Yuichiro

Born: November 23, 1955, Kingcome Inlet
Died: March 27, 2017, Vancouver

Hawk and Beau

Goodbye, My Friend, Beau Dick

We will treasure your First Nations Art 

Beau's Daughter Kerry