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By Perry Rath (he/him), art teacher and settler on Cas Yikh House Territory, Gidimt’en Clan, Witsuwit’en Nation

At Smithers Secondary School (SSS) we have a biennial project that has created an incredible legacy in our school and town. The Honouring Our Elders Portrait Legacy Project uses art to make strong connections between cultures, generations, students, and the community. These relationships are built over several months, as students paint large 4 - by 4-foot portraits of one Witsuwit’en Elder and one non-Indigenous elder. The artworks are then unveiled in a ceremony witnessed by family members, close friends, and other students. Within this context, the power of art-making has healed and bridged rifts in our community, and has engaged reconciliation. It has touched many lives over its 15 years, and has grown into an established program.

The project began in 2005 with conversations among our district Indigenous principal Birdy Markert, in-school asset workers Millie Gunanoot and Melanie Morin, and myself. It aimed to bridge cultures and generations artistically—to connect us and promote learning from one another, particularly from Elders in our community who have contributed so much as wise counsels, positive role models, and active citizens. Today, more than ever, it seems as if the contributions of those who have come before go unacknowledged. Perhaps this lack of connection is due in part to the emphasis on “future” and “technological” progress, and not enough on traditional knowledge sharing.

We could see many students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, struggling with various aspects of growing up: coming of age, finding their purpose, making sense of the world and their impact on it, and why they should care. From our educational reading and our experience with youth, we were aware of the importance of younger generations bonding with Elders, receiving trusted guidance, or having a steady figure to understand where they come from—this connection can provide a crucial foundation for growth and learning.

Our search for eligible Elders is thorough. Each time we start a new cycle of the project, we research our community and find a range of tremendous individuals who have lived inspirational lives. Our mission is to honour Elders still alive, so that they may feel the palpable gratitude from the community. A selection committee chooses one Elder from the Witsuwit’en Nation (rotating between the five clans) and one from the non-Indigenous community.

The student painters typically do not know the Elders when they begin the project. Over time, through the intimate process of painting, they develop a relationship and wish to learn more about the person behind the portrait. From the families, we start to hear the stories emerge.

As artists, the students are honoured to be adding to the artistic and cultural legacy of our school and community; creating a tribute to important local people becomes a significant historical contribution.

It can be a daunting task to paint such a large and public portrait, and students challenge themselves in ways they would not have imagined. As their teacher and mentor, I get to be closely involved in the painters’ processes. It is amazing to see them develop, to see what ignites in them as they meet this task with authenticity and dignity. The depth of personal dedication and artistic growth is impressive. The student artists also find that they learn about organizational aspects, such as project management, self-pacing, and motivation.

For the Witsuwit’en Elders, we always include their clan crest somewhere in the painting. It is important that the connection to family clan be acknowledged.

As the painting nears completion, we begin the preparations for the unveiling ceremony. We have developed this stage closely consulting with and led by the Witsuwit’en members of our team. This occasion can be very moving, as families and friends of the Elders gather, along with our students, to witness the presentations and hear the life stories of the Elders, outlining their societal contributions and the challenges they faced.

The pride and emotion brought out by the unveiling ceremony is uplifting. It provides the student artists with recognition for their work. It honours the esteemed Elders and their families for their accomplishments and provides a platform for close friends and relations to share stories about the Elders. Much like the traditional Witsuwit’en Feast governance system, which invites people to hold witness to important events, the unveiling ceremony enables our young people to hold witness to the lives of the Elders and learn about local histories often previously unknown to them. Certainly, the hope of those of us who organize this project is that the experience will help our students, both viewers and participants, elevate their own actions in the world and increase everyone’s capacity for personal and social development. The ceremonies include traditional drumming, song and dance, as well as a shared meal, with the structure and protocol of a Feast occasion. The Elders then interact with one another’s families and the students. This project provides a way for people to connect directly and learn about each other’s lives and experiences first-hand.

The ceremony contributes significantly to stability and continuity in our school and community. Over the years, we have seen the positive transformation experienced by each party: the Elders and families, the student artists, and the student witnesses. Families and participants continue to tell stories about the positive impact of the project. Family members have approached students years later to offer their gratitude for their handiwork.

For years to come, students will visit the school and see their grandparents, aunties, and uncles on the wall, looking out at them. I have collected many quotes from people over the years about the impact of this project. Here are two such contributions:

Mel Bazil, the grandson of Lucy Rose Verigin (Bazil), one of our 2015 portrait subjects, said, “I was treated so kindly at all the events. I witnessed other families listening and treating each other with solidarity. The Elder’s portrait unveilings are events that are reminiscent of the times when people stopped what they were doing to look at each other and take the time to rejoice together.”

Dezirae DaCosta, a 2009 student artist, reflected on the personal and community impact of the project:

“…[the ceremony] was a coming together moment that has inspired me up until this day. At the Honouring the Elders Potlatch, I saw the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community standing side by side, participating with each other, eating a meal together in an expression of cross-cultural sharing that in my childhood was rare to see, as the legacy and current day realities of racism, violence, and colonization run deep in the North.

While it was personally gratifying to be recognized as an artist and be asked to participate (a fact that boosted my confidence and self-esteem during a particularly difficult time in my life), over time, I have realized that the most impactful part of the project on me was the example it set on how to go about making peace and justice. I believe the path forward for reconciliation and community healing is through restorative justice, coming together, making connections, and sharing.

Projects like the Elders Portrait Legacy Project taught me that change and healing come from acknowledging our commonalities, sharing space, honouring voices that have been oppressed, participating when appropriate, and most of all, engaging with others compassionately and collaboratively. I have seen it happen, I have been a part of it, and it has influenced me to this day.

I cannot explain fully how deeply the project impacted my beliefs in community, humanity, and the healing power of art. I also cannot acknowledge how much being asked to do the project helped me feel more confident in myself. For someone who felt like they didn’t even belong in their own family or community in so many ways, being asked to be a part of such an important cross-community event made me feel like I mattered to my community for one of the first times in my life.”

We have done seven cycles of the project, occurring every two years. I think bringing this idea to life has been one of the best things I have been involved with. It has touched all of those involved in extraordinary ways. Our stories have become more and more interwoven. The core values of respect, understanding, integrity, relationship-building, and wisdom-sharing continue to be relevant. This is our commitment to an authentic life, to collective evolution, to mutuality, and to reconciliation. As Birdy aptly summarizes, “This is an amazing project that has brought many stories to life in our school, and I wish to see this grow every year and bring our youth to understand the past so they can build for their futures.”

Editor’s note

Outside of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, the spelling Witsuwit’en is used in the community. This spelling is in keeping with a writing system approved by the hereditary chiefs and Witsuwit’en Language and Culture Authority in 1993.1

1 www.smitherscommunitydirectory.com/files/SpeakingGuide-Oct2016-FINAL.pdf

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine