Salishan Landscape Examined in Gallery Exhibition

Keith Nahanee with one of his handwoven blankets.

A current display of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal craftwork alongside photographs of hereditary lands reveals local history in a fresh way.

Laid Over to Cover: Photography and Weaving in the Salishan Landscape runs until April 11 at Presentation House Gallery in North Vancouver. Meirion Cynog Evans and David Bellman, who have developed a close affinity with First Nations people over the years, are the guest exhibition curators.

The 75 black-and-white photos date from 1871 to 1904, when the Canadian Pacific Railway was expanding into B.C. said Evans. They document how the CPR was influencing changes in the province as well as how it unified Canada. He and Bellman looked at them anew and researched their history. The exhibition identifies the locations of the photos as well as reveals the true First Nations territory.

The Salishan landscape, between Banff, Alberta, and Vancouver, is defined by certain distinct language groups and their self-contained cultural/geographical boundaries—Coast Salish includes the Halkomelem Musqueam (Upper/Lower Fraser Valley) and Squamish nation; the Interior Salish includes the Shuswap, Okanagan, Upper/Lower Thompson, and Lillooet (Upper/Fraser River and Lower/Lil’wat).

The exhibit also features 49 artefacts that demonstrate the continuous tradition of cedar and wool weaving within Salishan territories. These include many fine examples of weaving in from historical and contemporary times—ceremonial hats, cradles, baskets for berry picking, fishing, storage and so forth. Melvin Williams of the Lil’Wat Nation in Mount Currie has been weaving for 30 years, since he was 14. He has several recent examples of his work on display. He creates many of these from looking at old photos or museum pieces.

Melvin Williams with two of his creations

“It takes a lot of thought,” Williams said, adding he must visualize the design before starting it plus he requires undivided attention. One gathering basket on display is based on an example from the UBC archives, which had been dug up. He said he studied it for three weeks before starting to weave it. Production also needs time, for example, a hat takes eight hours every day for about 10 days. When he was younger it was his main occupation but now Williams works mainly by commission.

Keith Nahanee is from the Squamish Nation. He has been weaving with wool for more than 20 years. He has a few examples of ceremonial blankets on display in the gallery, one of which is a replica of a 150-year-old blanket that was made of 80 per cent mountain goat and 20 per cent woolly dog. He said back then the weaver would have kept a pack of up to 50 of their own dogs, isolated on an island to ensure pure breeding, to provide raw wool. Blankets are used as gifts at ceremonies and for special guests. It takes about 10 days to two weeks of weaving full time to create one blanket. He uses a Salish three-bar loom to produce his blankets, which are also commissions.

Both Williams and Nahanee said there’s been a resurgence of weaving in their lifetimes. Williams said when he started as a young man not many people were doing basket weaving at that time. Nahanee said he’s especially noticed this amongst the Squamish for wool weaving in the last three or four years. He figures about 200 people have taken classes in that time period.

Presentation House Gallery is located at 333 Chesterfield Ave. in North Vancouver and is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12–5 p.m., Thursdays 12–8 p.m.

About Kerry Hall

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