One of the most significant and influential indigenous cultural leaders of our time, Kwaxsistalla, Clan Chief Adam Dick, passed away peacefully on July 30 in Nanaimo, B.C. He was Ugwamey [clan chief] of the Qawadillikalla Clan of the Dzawataineuk Tribe of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation and an internationally-recognized expert on the intricate cultural, spiritual, and ecological traditions of his people.
His life’s journey was truly exceptional. He was born in 1929 to a prophetic dream that foretold his birth, and revealed that Adam would receive special sequestered training from the Ninogaad [knowledge holders] clan chiefs and potlatch chiefs. As he often said, “all four corners of his life” – his parents and grandparents, were Kwakwaka’wakw chiefs and clan chiefs. This was at the height of the federal ban on the potlatch ceremony – a time when children were taken by force to residential schools. Adam’s teachers hid him from this threat, giving him focused training in chiefly knowledge and limited exposure to the Anglo-Canadian world, so that he might in time ensure Kwakwaka’wakw cultural survival.
Born in seclusion and off the record books, the Ninogaad decided he would be born at his maternal grandmother’s village of Tlamataxw (Campbell River), so as to avoid detection and apprehension by the RCMP or Indian Agents. He began his training at the age of four at Kingcome Inlet on the British Columbia mainland and Deep Harbour and other food gathering locations of his clan around the Broughton Archipelago.
His paternal grandfather, Kwaxistalla, oversaw his training with other clan chiefs, potlatch chiefs and ninogaad of his nation with an intensity that reflected the urgency of their mission. Through his mother, Clan Chief Anitsa's prophetic dream, The ninogaad understood their world was imploding and took action and lead a resistance by training young Adam like no other. Taking young Adam by the hand, these elders led him to a longhouse where a fire was lit; or along a secluded beach; or deep into the woods; up a mountain; or to the headwaters of his river; to provide focused teaching. Drawing images of the longhouse in the sand, they marked the position of the chief, saying “this is where you will stand.” There, he learned the responsibilities of chiefs for overseeing the coordination of human, spiritual, and environmental domains. Most of his days were devoted to intense study, even as other children were allowed to play.
He moved between his Clan's food gathering places following the seasons to stay off the grid. This allowed his grandparents to teach him all aspects of his traditional territory and his stewardship obligations as a Clan Chief. All the while the elder grandparents kept him one step ahead of the police boats patrolling for children. Though he always said, “I never received an education, like those who went to residential school,” he received Kwakwaka’wakw formal training well beyond any other living person of his time. With the passing of the elders of his youth, he alone became the most learned man in the Kwakwaka’wakw world.
As an adult Adam raised a family and worked for many years as a commercial fisherman, but also played a singular role in the maintenance of most aspects of Kwakwaka’wakw traditional knowledge and practice. He was one of the very few who recalled all the intricacies of the potlatch as practiced before colonization, and was one of the last to fluently speak the formal “classical potlatch Kwak’wala” used only within ceremonial rites. He was often sought out as one who could recognize and to bring sacred energies into these ceremonies, so that the events were safe and sustaining for all participants. Though not formally trained as a carver, he made five dug out canoes with his grandfather and carved many many masks and regalia with several skilled carvers in his family. When his mother and father were invited to move to Alert Bay by Clan Chief Aul Sewid to help rebuild the culture suppressed by the anti-potlatch laws, he moved his parents and family to Alert Bay. There he and his brothers Ben and Charlie and father Chief Jimmy Dick lead the team to carve the world’s largest totem pole. They also played major role in designing and constructing the first ceremonial Big House in the late 1060s post anti-potlatch laws. His mother and father and Adam taught the younger generation to dance again. These first students are now elders. He also advised on language and tribal protocol, and aided in the training of younger tribal chiefs who carry on the values and protocols taught to Adam as a youth.
As a child, Adam had been told by his teachers that his words would someday travel around the worlde, and that he would find unique friends and collaborators in the non-Native world. These prophesies also proved correct. Beginning in the late 1980s, and continuing throughout his life, Adam became a preeminent source of traditional knowledge to researchers wanting to understand coastal First Nations traditions. Museums across North America and Europe often sought his counsel in identifying certain artifacts, or explaining the deeper meaning of traditional masks. Working with his partner, Kim Recalma-Clutesi and university researchers from Canada and the U.S., his contributions were transformative, bringing to light poorly-documented traditional technologies such as “clam gardens” and intertidal root gardens, as well as songs, oral traditions, and ceremonies that explain their significance. Over time, these contributions brought revolutionary changes to anthropological writings, and have also much influenced the nature of coastal First Nations land claims. In recent years, he began directly teaching traditional ecological knowledge to graduate students from the University of Victoria and beyond, in an informal group affectionately called “Adam’s School.”
Every day, every moment of contact with him brought joy, knowing we were connected to all living things, the rules for good living. As he often advised, “if you hurt someone - before the sun goes down, you have to fix it!”
He is survived by Kim Recalma-Clutesi of Qualicum First Nation, his sons, Dick, Russel, Andrew and daughter Francis, many adopted children and beloved grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
It was his hope that the teachings that were safe to be public, would to be carefully laid out for future generations to make a better life and world. He believed his people's time of late (colonization) was akin to the ancient floods of his peoples memory. He often said "...you will survive this time, its like the flood of old, you will be different, but if you remember our ancestors teachings, you will survive..."