The Last of the Potlatch Speakers
Xusumdas, Chris Cook III August 4, 2018
My name is Chris Cook
I am from Alert Bay and I‘ve been fortunate enough to work with Kwaxsistalla since the early 90’s around the time that Chiefly Feasts went to Victoria in 92.
As I started to think about what I was going to say here today,
I remembered back to the Commonwealth Games when I started to work with Kwaxsistalla in that international arena
He talked about Kawadillikalla, his ancestor;
He talked about the flood story where he came from;
Where his family come from;
I remember asking him don’t those stories belong to everybody?
He answered: “no they don’t. Every family comes from one of those Nuyumbalees or Gilgalis, or the story of your flood story or your clan’s beginnings and you can follow the succession all the way down in an unbroken line…”
He said: “I come from Kawadillikalla,
I come from the wolf. My mother Anitsa, was the Clan Chief of Kawadillikalla…”
And he proceeded to tell me the story.
I was really fascinated by that.
I asked him I said “what’s my story?”
He told me: “oh, son, I don’t know. I wasn’t taught your story. That’s your family’s responsibility to teach you that.”
As we moved forward working for a year and a half on the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremonies:
We recorded the soundtrack;
We did the practices;
We taught the people that were on the field manipulating the puppets how to dance;
How to feel the songs;
Feel the ancestors
I began to realize that Kawadillikalla has been a really big aspect of my life.
Not only my life but a lot of our people’s lives.
In 1885 there was a ban on potlatch in Canada that lasted until 1951.
During this time, Adam told me: “when we lived in Gwayii we never stopped potlatching. We never stopped our culture.”
In the 60’s, after the potlatch ban was lifted, there was a big cultural resurgence and people wanted to start to learn again
Kwaxsistalla and his mom and dad were invited to move to Alert Bay by Gilidi (Clan Chief Henry Speck) and Aul Sewid (Clan Chief Jimmy Sewid), to help build a big house, first after the potlatch ban was lifted and to teach the culture.
All the ladies were taught by Adam’s mom, Anitsa, she was the Clan Chief of Kawadillikalla. The young people were really curious about that, including my mother and her sister.
The young ladies were taught to dance by Adam’s mother.
They were brought into the bighouse where they danced for Aul Sewid.
They began to learn what the descendants of Kawadillikalla had kept safe.
By the time I came along in the early 70’s, my auntie who’d learned from Kwaxsistalla’s mother had begun teaching what she’d learned from Anitsa and started teaching the kids.
And there was me, that was my age group.
As time went on, my first art teacher was Adam’s daughter Francis.
My first Kwakwala teacher (especially with the grammar) was Francis.
Three generations of Adam’s family, his mom, her granddaughter and Adam taught me and my family and gave me my cultural foundation…
So I studied the language and art through school, high school and then moved on to Post secondary in Victoria after I graduated.
That’s when I met Kwaxsistalla, I really had a bug about the supernatural of our people.
It was very difficult because I had been told by pretty much everybody that we lost that during the potlatch prohibition.
I started to make friends with the Coast Salish and was invited to their bighouse to see what they did.
And when I started to visit with Adam and Kim I started to explain what I had witnessed and asked Kwaxsistalla if he know what the Coast Salish do?
And he said: “no, I haven’t seen it, but we did that.”
And I explained: But they do this.
He patiently said: “Yeah, we did that”.
But their people stay in the bighouse all winter long! I told him.
Again, he told me: “Yeah, we used to do that too.”
I continued to explain: “they’ve got the new initiates and they called them babies and they’d stay with them through the whole time…”
He said: “Yeah, we did that.”
And not only would he say that but he would give me the Kwakwala terms for what he was explaining.
I remember looking at him and saying to myself: who is this guy?
Who is this guy?
And as he began to unfold, I really started to pay more attention to him and because I was eager he started to open up a bit more.
He brought forward this teaching and said everything’s alive, son.
His brother Charlie had made him a set of miniature Atlagimma masks- little guys.
But he hadn’t hollowed out the back of the masks.
He said to me: “…just get a hook knife Wis, you can do it.”
So I had to sit there with this dry, really hard wood and carve the back out with him.
He lived on Dallas Road at that time and it was really really nice out, we were sitting outside.
He gave me the name Xusamdaas, I was given that name originally by my grandfather Daiyu,
Then, at Kwaxsistalla’s potlatch in 93 he put the name Xusamdaas on me too from a different root.
He would say he would only call me Xusamdaas.
He said: “…these masks, son, it’s okay. We’re okay, we are safe working on these…”
And he started to carve and I asked him what does that mean?
In a very matter of fact way he told me: “…well, they’re alive. The masks are alive…”
Thinking he satisfied my curiosity, he went back carving.
Well I said: “wait a minute- what does it mean they’re alive? “
He put his knife down and the mask down and he said to me with real authority:
“…the supernatural is very real.
And it is very dangerous…
The Hamatsa masks that we have are the most dangerous creatures in our culture.
And if you have somebody who’s carving them that doesn’t understand that;
Then those spirits, that supernatural can get in their mind and make them go crazy.”
And he gave examples of artists that were alcoholic, that had addictions and said that’s how you can tell when they are living like that…
And he said, Kwakitoli (Smokey Top) was one of the last artists that understood that and that lived that lifestyle.
So as I began to work with him, everything that came up and everything that we did, He said…”it is alive, son…”
It is alive.
With the natural world and with the supernatural world
When he was gathering berries and he was sitting with Dr. Nancy Turner, ethnobotanist, and they told the story about the clam, the clam gardens, and the songs-he always had a song for that.
And he would, she said you know Chris, he sang that song and as soon as he finished all the clams starting to spurt on the beach.
And we were looking at him and we were amazed, and he had songs for everything like that because everything is alive.
Everything has power.
As I watched him, he never spoke this to me but I had to watch him do this.
All the things that I watched him do was about the relationship with these things that were alive.
Whether he was gathering clams, whether he was making regalia for the potlatches, I sat with him one time when he was working an eagle.
Everything was alive, everything was to build and nurture those relationships with all of the things that are around us.
With the people, with the natural and the supernatural worlds.
And he got really really really afraid with the youth today not understanding that.
Because they were starting to touch things that were very very powerful.
Things like the chieftainships.
Like the masks, all of those things that are alive.
And he said to me they’re going to pay you back if you don’t respect them.
They are very old, they are very wise, and they will punish you, they will make you sick.
They will take you home, back to the other side if you abuse them.
I watched him fix a lot of things, you know, he would look at something and be able to intuit where the damage was and how to fix it because he understood, he lived by that.
He lived by that.
July 30 is my birthday.
And I was getting ready to go to work and I got the message that he had passed.
I just had to sit and keep still for a while.
That night, we had a thunder.
There was thunder in Alert Bay.
At 3 in the morning.
And I woke up and I was half asleep and I heard a big ‘boom’, and I heard: “Husamdaas, the thunderbird is taking me home”
and then another thunder, ‘boom’, “Husamdaas, I’m home now!”
and for a brief instant I could feel the beauty where he was, vital, and he was happy and he was free and he was powerful beyond all what we could understand.
Our dear one has gone back to the place where things are alive,
where songs come from, where dances come from,
where our prayers come from,
where our ancestors come from.
Where each and every one of us come from and where we’re going to go.
I’m going to miss him, but I’m very grateful
I’m very grateful to Kawadillikalla and his family for all the gifts.
For all your family hung on to
And for all that you’ve brought to us since the beginning of time…
It’s been a great honour for me to take part in Kwaxsistalla’s life.
The great continuities that he will continue on in us and if I can be of service to you I will be.