The First Nations, as indigenous people refer to themselves in Canada, are bringing their traditions into the modern age in Vancouver – with music, street art and tattoos
Gulls cry, the sound of construction clashes with the wail of sirens and the intermittent rumble of a passing Skytrain. A constant clamor arises from the city of shimmering, blue-green skyscrapers in the Canadian province of British Columbia, the glittering metropolis of Vancouver constantly expanding between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountains.
The land here had long been allotted when the newcomers came to settle it. After all, Vancouver is right in the middle of the original First Nations Territory, the land of Canada’s native peoples, to whom the Haida and Inuit belong. Of the more than 600 indigenous nations in Canada, some 200 have their roots on the west coast, 11 of them in metropolitan Vancouver. But American, Asian and European influences predominate in the street canyons of the downtown area and on the streets of hip Gastown neighborhood. The native peoples’ heritage – or what is left of it – is mostly hidden away in museums, in exhibitions featuring totem poles, canoes and woven blankets.
This state of affairs can be blamed on what is arguably the darkest chapter in Canada’s history, colonization and its consequences. Only in the past few years have long-forbidden customs been revived, only recently have serious efforts been made to address the country’s centuries-long history of oppression. Activists are campaigning loudly for social equality and a fair distribution of land, and a creative scene has sprung up and is finding new ways to honor the First Nations’ cultural heritage, make their influence felt on the city and make indigenous life more visible. Meter-long halibuts, ravens and totems illuminate concrete walls, so intricately traced it’s hard to believe they came from a spray can, not a paintbrush. “Years of practice,” says their creator, Corey Bulpitt, 39, with a smile. I meet him outside the Native Education College, a non-profit school for indigenous Canadians, where we study an impressive mural, a joint project to which he also contributed. With his cap at an angle and a chunky gold chain peeping out of his tank top, Bulpitt pays tribute to the rules of street cred. “I was illegally spraying trains long before I found my current style,” he says.
Vancouver is finding new ways to preserve and honor its ethnic heritage
Bulpitt is a member of the Haida, a nation whose territory once extended as far north as Alaska. He was just two years old when he was taken from his family to be raised by adoptive parents. In that, he shares the fate of thousands of children who were still being separated from their families in the late 1980s because of a government program of forced assimilation. Bulpitt was 19 when he returned to his biological parents and began immersing himself in Haida art. Personal questions elicit slow, quiet responses and sometimes silence from Bulpitt, but ask him about the tattoos winding down his arms from his chest to his hands, and he becomes voluble again. Most of the images depict his origins: A raven on his right arm is a symbol of his nation, and motifs from ancient legends adorn the backs of his hands. Some he did himself, according to Haida tradition, and he also tattoos ethnic symbols onto other people, as a visible sign that the days are gone when the First Nations’ culture had to be hidden from view.
Bulpitt has earned a reputation not only for his graffiti and tattoos, but especially for his carvings. He devotes weeks at a stretch to turning gigantic cedarwood tree trunks into totem poles in the tradition of his people. His talent has earned him the nickname “T’aak’eit G’aaya” (talented woodcarver). “But we will probably never be a match for our old masters,” he says wistfully. He is now passing on to his cousins and nephews the craft he learned from his uncle because, as he says, “I feel an obligation toward my ancestors to do so.” He has a second nickname, Gludis (He who always looks upward), which he owes to his tenacity and drive.
The next morning, I recognize Bullpitt’s tattoo style on Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun when we meet at his favorite café in the artist quarter Mount Pleasant. The 58-year-old wears his hair long and loose; his eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, and strings of beads and a tall straw hat complete the look of a man well known for his caustic opinion of white people. Ask him about art and he will talk about politics, and particularly about the oppression of the First Nations. His voice grows increasingly husky and the expletives come thicker and faster when he gets started on the grim days of residential schools, i.e. boarding schools for the children of the First Nations, where mental and physical abuse were commonplace and the aim was to “civilize” the children by destroying their culture.
“As an artist, I can express anything I want; as a politician, I couldn’t,” says the activist, at the same time greeting a couple of neighbors. He has his studio in an old warehouse just a few hundred meters away, and there, amid a jumble of canvases, tubes of paint and other stuff, he creates politically provocative artworks that more than match his words. Yuxweluptun paints his condemnation of modern Canada with biting humor: On large canvases, traditional, Indian shapes blend with elements of Western landscape painting to become surrealist scenes: Personally recognizable politicians are depicted as predatory carnivores with forked tongues. The self-styled “history painter” confronts us with polluted oceans and pipelines cutting across the land of his fathers, racism and his fear of a world where resources are controlled by oligarchs.
Even Justin Trudeau, whose government was the first to name an indigenous person, Jody Wilson-Raybould of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, minister of justice, will not be able to allay Yuxweluptun’s rancor. The Canadian prime minister supports the proposed pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia’s west coast.
For all their apparent harshness, Yuxweluptun’s works are conceived as an invitation to reconciliation, not revenge. And the descendants of the colonial masters of yore take up that invitation: Last summer, thousands of visitors flocked to his solo exhibition at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology. “At last, someone is listening to what I’ve been saying for years,” he says wryly. Yuxweluptun has little time for museums. “Indian mortuaries” is what he calls institutions that show First Nations’ pieces. “I have to speak with the world; someone has to document current developments,” he says, explaining why, for all his reservations, he collaborated with the state-run cultural institution.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, an event that is being celebrated all over the country – but that also makes many of Canada’s 900 000 First Nations people feel overlooked. Their history is very much older, after all. And while many indigenous people have now regained the rights to their old lands, there are still many areas that have never been formally returned. If it were up to Yuxweluptun, British Columbia would have been renamed TNT, Traditional Native Territories, long ago in an effort to recognize the First Nations’ sovereign right to this region.
I see him again in the evening, in the middle of a seething crowd, his head bobbing to the thundering basses booming around the open-air amphitheater in the east of the city. On stage, a girl dances around her own axis, the strings of beads on her traditional costume whirling through the air.
A Tribe Called Red (ATCR), a DJ trio from Ottawa, Ontario, is manning the consoles. They’re incredibly popular right now, not just in the indigenous music scene, but internationally, too. No one mixes choral music and drumbeats with electronic sounds, heated rap and dark basses quite like they do. “Bear and I started ATCR as a string of parties. We wanted to make music that reflected us, the young people of the First Nations,” Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau, a member of the Nipissing Nation, told us during the soundcheck. “In Ontario there were always Latino and Black Music Parties and Asian Nights, but we were always underrepresented.” So he and his friends began throwing parties themselves. One of the three, Tim Hill “2oolman,” grew up on Canada’s largest reservation. The Six Nations of the Grand River is home to nearly 26 000 members of the Iroquois nations Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Tuscarora and Cayuga. Hill was able to stay with his family and grew up with the Mohawk culture. “I retained the language, which makes me happy,” he says, adding: “With our music, I feel I can finally bring together what is important to me.” The trio calls its style “Electric Pow Wow,” an echo of the First Nations festivals of traditional music and dance.
Their powerful songs are both danceable and political. “Woodcarver,” for example, tells the story of a man (a woodcarver), who was shot dead by a police officer in Seattle a number of years ago. Others deal with the daily life of First Nations’ members. The three DJs will spend the next two years touring with their latest album in Canada, the USA, Russia and Europe, spreading their message around the world. And Vancouver, with all its sounds and colors, will eventually find its way back to its roots.
When our author visited Vancouver for the first time in 2010, she saw some First Nations graffiti that she couldn’t get out of her head. Now, having met the artist, she knows the story behind.