His gifts belong to everyone

by linda rogers, August 2010

Like his father and grandfather before him, Tony Hunt has distinguished himself and his culture by giving his life to his art.

It was hard to believe I wasn’t hallucinating when I saw a canoe floating in the duck pond at Government House yesterday afternoon. The ducks didn’t seem to mind at all, so this must be their new normal. I have been following the progress of the new cultural industry at the vice-regal residence and I was waiting for Spain to score that one semi-final goal so that Chief Tony Hunt would return to the carving shed at Government House and I could continue the longest interview in history (about 25 years).

The Lieutenant-Governor was putting finishing touches on a model of the canoe they’ve been carving while Hunt was at home watching The World Cup semi-finals on television. Since the new canoe is called Salish Sea, I asked Chief Tony HuntHis Honour about the naming of the waters that the First Nations traversed long before the white comers drew boundaries between Canada and the United States. “It is an important international decision which recognizes and honours the historical relationships between Salishan peoples.” He spoke softly lest he miss a play on the radio.

After cacophonous South African vuvuzelas announced Germany’s defeat by Spain, we filled the time with conversation. While I told the Lieutenant-Governor my grandfather’s story about a WW I Christmas soccer game in the trenches, when Germany lost to the Canadian Seaforth Highlanders, the sun kept moving over the beautiful lawns at Government House. Tony Hunt was still Missing in Action.

Now it’s the next day. It turned out Tony was so morose over Germany’s loss he had lost himself in 16 ounces of sirloin at The Keg. Today, after one brief disappearance, during which I ate the egg sandwich that had been delivered for his lunch, he is back in action finishing the second canoe he has been building with his good friend.

“Never mind,” he says, “I kept the Governor-General waiting for an hour and a half. She was much better natured about it than you are.” 

When I ask him to tell me the story of two canoes, he smiles and says, “Make sure you get it right this time.” Hunt delivers all his serious edicts with good humour. I ate serious crow at his father’s picture dance for a protocol error. As chief of his people, it’s his responsibility to make sure cultural information is passed down intact. This comes after generations of misinterpretation of his culture by white comers. 

When His Honour Steven Point found a log with the rudimentary shape of a river canoe on Gonzales Beach last year, the jurist and chief of the Sto:lo river people crossed the water to a new partnership. He called the revered Kwakwaka’wakw artist and suggested an inspirational collaboration: two chiefs and a spirit carver from the past. Hunt accepted the challenge as he has always invited responsibility into his life. That canoe, named Shxwtitöstel, was launched in April.

Hunt first opened his eyes to a landscape of sea and air and rocky land near the northern tip of Vancouver Island and gazed at the home his people have shared with salmon and eagle, wolf and whale for two millennia, knowing it was his one and only glimpse of personal freedom. From that moment, he has belonged to the tradition of the Kwakwaka’wakw, a social and spiritual contract dictated by his genes. Hereditary Chief of his people, he was identified at his birth when his eyelashes were cut and bound to his infant wrist by his umbilical cord in a sacred ceremony where his family made it known to him and all their kin that his life would be devoted to service.

His name, Naka’Pankam, given like six others in ceremonies that mark his progress from gifted young leader and artist to esteemed elder, is the highest designation given by his nation. Like his father and grandfather before him, he has distinguished himself and his culture by giving his life to his art. 

Honour sits well on Hunt, who accepts it on behalf of his people and his place in the birth order of a noble family while remembering “we are all the same.” He has the intact ego of a worker who knows his place is at the top. Pride in one’s heritage is expected. Pride in oneself is the mark of mediocrity, because a gift belongs to everyone and life is a learning experience from beginning to end.

Tony has a recurring dream that first visited him when he was ten or twelve years old. “In the dream, I am wearing a mask, then another is placed on top of the first. Although I can see clearly through both masks, they determine how and what I will see. The dream reminds me of the weight of my responsibility.”

Taught his own language in Fort Rupert (T’sakis), where he was taken in a ceremonial canoe ride and held up before his people by a proud grandfather when he was only a few days old, Tony was the first aboriginal child to attend public school in Port Hardy. Fortunately for him and his siblings, his mother, Helen, wisely decided none of her offspring were going to attend residential school.

Aboriginal culture is articulated in songs and dances (as well as in the decoration of their dwellings) that tell the story of the people and their movement between the actual and metaphysical worlds, where families are identified with their animal spirits. It is a practical contract reconciling man and nature. A young aboriginal learns about himself through the verbal teachings of his elders; inheriting the family songs means learning the context of his life. 

Fluent in his native Kwak’wala language, Tony sings himself alive when he allows all his grandfathers to speak through him. Sometimes the generational flow is interrupted by oppression. No stranger to censorship, the repression of ideas and creativity that occurs when one cultural group struggles to control another, he says, “We stay vigilant to protect the intellectual rights and aesthetic of our people.” 

His first teacher and most beloved kin was his grandfather, Mungo Martin, the legendary artist who took him to the bighouse where he learned the songs, and to the woods where he absorbed a respect for the trees he would carve into ceremonial objects that are the life and the spirit of his community. 

In 1952, Tony, his father and grandfather left the North Island to work at UBC in Vancouver and later at the Royal BC Museum and Thunderbird Park in Victoria, where Tony designed a replica of Mungo Martin’s House, the Hunt Family Bighouse, a showpiece for the world and a place of pride for his people. However, he considers his grand masterpiece to be the Kwakwaka’wakw ceremonial bighouse at Fort Rupert, the largest traditional native structure ever built in the Pacific Northwest.

He’d started by painting watercolours in his grandfather’s drawings when old age robbed the patriarch of a steady hand. Although he was always learning, especially from his grandfather, Tony’s formal education ended in grade nine, when he got into playground fisticuffs. “I won,” he says, as if that too was his birthright. Tony didn’t need regular school. He already knew the important things, the songs and language of his people, and he had also begun to learn the craftsmanship that is essential to his artistic expression. 

Like all children attached to their teachers, Tony felt abandoned when his grandfather went to spirit, but Mungo does visit him in dreams. He sees him in the distance, sitting in the bighouse, and when he calls Mungo to sit by him, Mungo says, “No, you are doing fine, son.”

With all real artists, there is a great enthusiasm for channelling the gift, a kind of transparency that allows confidence but eschews the self-conscious egotism of lesser talents. Hunt works with apprentices and fellow artisans, who “don’t make mistakes.” He says, “It is too important not to. They know they are ready when I ask them to perform a task.” 

When he is working, whether it is with a paintbrush, jeweller’s tools, an adze or a knife, he shows respect for his medium by taking care of his instruments. I have heard master bow makers and luthiers talk about “taming the wood.” That is anathema to Hunt, who says the spirit dictates to him. He never imposes himself on his medium, but rides with it into the exhilarating unknown.

His hands are unmarked, he says, because he never forces himself or his medium to speak except for what exists in the unspoken contract between artist and medium. His Honour Steven Point says he would like to boast that his hands remain unmarked under Hunt’s remarkable tutelage, but he assures me he is only a “guest carver,” and vulnerable to mistakes.

When I asked Tony which was his favourite medium, he quickly answered, “Stone!” Perhaps he feels the heartbeat of the first stone-age artists, an unbroken line to now. The artist and his family are firm advocates for the following of tradition. This is the understandable footprint of his history, which will not be altered by political correctness. There is an enormous stone carving representing Raven with first man coming from his chest in the basement of the National Museum in Ottawa, Hunt’s visual representation of the birth of the world. Because the man has a penis, God forbid the rest of us comprehend that a man’s sexual organ has any place in (re)Creation, and it has remained there in the basement for decades.

It is hard to believe that a man covered in honours within and without his own community for his artistic output, which includes nearly 100 totem poles, countless masks, pieces of precious jewellery, prints, paintings, and even a clothing line, who has been given an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in addition to many accolades and medals, would have time for the demands of his hereditary position. In addition to appearing regularly at ceremonial occasions within his own community, he is an ambassador-at-large for Canadian aboriginal peoples all over the world.

When I first met Tony, decades ago, conventional wisdom had it that First Nations art was craft—and Chief Hunt told me that his mission was to change that perception. Has he been successful?

“I think so. It is an educational process and now people better understand the difference. Although First Nations art is integrated in everyday life and cultural ceremony, it should always carry the technical hallmarks of great art and the weight of significance.”

Like most great artists, Hunt is a man of discipline. Left-handed, kin to that other polymath Leonardo da Vinci, he works best in the morning when he paints and draws. Evenings are often devoted to jewellery, the gold and silver pieces inlaid with abalone that are the personal adornments of the lucky, and to song, his ongoing conversation with his grandfather.

“I am honoured,” the Lieutenant- Governor says about acceptance by his remarkable mentor, who passes on what he was given to new generations of artists, and to contemporaries like Point, who have made other contributions.

Past and present live in the history and new relationship between the two chiefs, both of whom understand the peril in troubled water and the symbolic function of bridges, and their spirit partner who began carving their first canoe in the last millennium. It is not lost on either of them that their status as traditional leaders in the modern world has a healing function. As they lead their people into a pluralistic society where tradition is respected but difference and inequality is not tolerated, their collaboration takes on a higher significance.

After the first canoe was launched, Hunt, who has felt many beautiful artefacts pass through his hands, was philosophical. The canoe was a gift that has been returned. Point was more conflicted. “I am very happy to have completed the canoe, which takes me back to the time of my father, but I am also sad that this part of our journey has ended.” No one wants to give up on a moment of friendship with Chief Tony Hunt, who is a joyful companion, full of mystery and the music of his people.

This new ocean-going canoe is also dear to the Lieutenant-Governor because, as honorary head of the Esquimalt base, he is anxious to integrate his culture with naval culture in the hope of inspiring young aboriginal men and women to serve their country in a service that provides educational and leadership opportunities. Because of time considerations, the carvers admit this may be their last boat. Yet the carving shed, which is filling up with tools and memorabilia, is slated for upgrades that hint at continued collaboration. 

Large enough to ferry two great chiefs across the water, the canoe was presented to the Canadian Navy on July 15, and named The Salish Sea. Hunt shows me the plans for the carving, a raven. “A sea raven,” he laughs. “Raven is a shape changer,” I observe. There are many aspects to every story.

I ask Hunt how he views the importance of The Salish Sea.

“On the water, mistakes can be fatal. It is important that everyone on a boat works together. That is the message we can all take from this canoe.” As always, the Chief who educates through parable speaks with wisdom, and we should listen.

Tony Hunt will be participating in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria's annual fall House Tour. 

Linda Rogers has lived for many years with a raven mask carved by Chief Tony Hunt’s father Henry Hunt. Raven reminds her to laugh whenever she requires it.

Copyright© 2010, Linda Rogers