The Copper Will Be Fixed
Since the beginning we as the Kwakwak”awakw have been self governed and developed a system where tribes lead in a ranking order. Within each tribe there was internal governance where each namima (house) played significant roles in maintaining the land. Everything came down to land, the tribes who developed along the great rivers could harvest salmon and trade amongst other tribes for other goods and etc. Most tribes had strong trap lines and therefore could obtain furs for trade as a form of currency. All of these played a role in the potlatch system. The potlatch was a place where witnesses came to see the transactions take place between tribes, sometimes dowry was passed through marriage giving the male rights to new lands and resources, or rights were being passed to new generations. All of this again was to make sure the land was active and thriving for generations to come.
Coppers, were our greatest way of recording all of these transactions, very much like a debit card is today every transaction was documented and recorded, there was a value to every copper. Sometimes chiefs would have disputes, in these cases a chief could challenge another over rank or title. And chiefs could pull his copper out and break it, this would show that he was wealthy enough to sink that wealth deep within the ocean to never been again for he had so much. The challenge had to be accepted by another and the chief being challenged would have to break an equal amount from his copper or more to keep the other chief from claiming higher rank, again that piece was thrown into the ocean. The chief who could no longer keep up would have to settle and never challenge that chief again. The copper was the symbol for currency to be exchanged within the kwakwak’awakw and neighbouring nations up to Alaska.
1881-1956 a ban was passed and it became illegal to potlatch, the government no longer wanted to see this thriving self governance function amongst the natives. The reserves were put in place, small areas of land where “Indians’’ were placed and monitored, permits were now in order for natives to leave and harvest or work in their traditional manner. Objects tied to the potlatch were stripped and shipped afar which can be seen today in many museums, and most were set on fire to disappear forever. Children were then stripped from their homes and parents and placed in residential schools, to never speak their language nor go back to their traditional ways.
The saddest part was, the people of the villages were moving away, trying to be close to their children they moved to Alert Bay. Some never moved back to their homes and passed with loss and sorrow, a disconnect from all they knew. It was a sad time in history, changes were being created but some chiefs were determined to fight for their children’s place both in culture and land. Many chiefs turned to underground potlatching, there they were able to keep the dances and culture preserved with names, positions, dances and mostly hereditary rights from origin to land.
My name is Rande Cook, I come from many of these tribes of the kwakwak’awakw people. My grandmother was the eldest daughter of a great chief, his name was Harry Mountain, he was the head chief of the wiwomasgam of the mamalikala people. When children were being taken away from their parents and placed in residential schools my gran was hidden by her grandfather and travelled from village to village in this underground world of potlatch. She saw and collected many memories of what was happening and spoke the old language of that time.
My grandfather, he was Ma’amtagila, his father was chief Makwala of the Hamatam house. My grandfather did suffer through residential school but spent summers working with his dad and uncles logging and grew to live in the underground potlatch system as well seeing what was happening within his own tribes ceremonies.
The Ma’amtagila people at this time were suffering with the loss of people moving due to the drastic changes. A chief at this time began to work with a neighbouring chief of the Tlowitsis people in Turner Island, together they wrote for months and months having conversations with the Indian agent asking if amalgamating the two tribes would help them to gain more as a tribe to help their people stay in their traditional territories. They had placed a series of requests with the agent, school, hospital etc. So their children could be cared for within their own, the two chiefs of these tribes had their discussions within their own tribes and brought all requests to the table. Minutes were taken and an amalgamation was passed clearly stating these two chiefs would maintain their own territories and even have their own bank accounts over seeing their own territories. All the chiefs signed off on this and it was done.
Over time many of their requests were not granted and many chiefs were not happy with the agreement and wanted to go back to how it was, but the government was in compliance and just kept pushing them forward leaving them with very little to suffice.
After time the government put in place Indian affairs, here a system was developed where each tribe would act under an elected system. Now an elected chief and council would be the voices to comply with Indian affairs.
1996 a BCR was passed claiming the amalgamated tribes of the Tlowitsis/Ma’amtagila becomes one title, a chief wrote that the Ma’amtagila people no longer wanted their title on the amalgamation and would function solely just as Tlowitsis, here they would relinquish their land, resources and all rights to this one chief solely for he to do as he wishes in agreement with the federal government from there forward. The chief then placed himself in seat forever as a hereditary and dropped the voting system to leave the people with any say.
Around 60 years ago from today a great uncle of mine who was a Ma’amtagila chief found a broken fragment of a copper in Ma’amtagila territory, this was a great find for him because he was a political man. This find meant that coppers were being broken and the people of the Ma’amtagila would never surrender their territory. I obtained this piece of copper and hung on to it for many years. I inherited my great fathers chieftainship and today I am chief Makwala of the Ma’amtagila people, from the house of the Hamatam. Today I ask many questions. First and foremost I ask “why are there no signatures from the Ma’amtagila chiefs on this BCR saying we gave our title up over own own lands?’’ Secondly, I question my place as a chief now if we don’t have land to claim our positions from, what does this mean in modern times now? What does being a chief a mean?
I read the amalgamation signed in the 1940’s by all the head chiefs of both neighboring tribes, and I only read 3 signatures on the modern BCR whom none are Ma’amtagila. As an artist I think in two ways, my art can be my voice from the traditional space in which I grew, and my art can speak to those who don’t know the traditional ways of my people in the contemporary world. I chose to not go to art school when I was very young, I chose to go back to my roots and learn from our very own master carvers, I wanted to decolonize and separate my way of thinking so I could share in our truth.
My path in life has taken me far in the art work but within in my own country I’m struggling to find space because I chose to not get my Masters from an institution that doesn’t know our traditional art form.
So just like that of this broken system in place now between hereditary chiefs, land and elected chiefs, the government doesn’t recognize our hereditary system, deals are being made daily with big corporations for financial gain but the people have very little say.
I’m an artist, I’m a chief, I’m a father, I’m a son, I’m cultural, I’m a teacher, I’m a leader, I’m a friend, I’m a communicator seeking truth to find answers to heal, I’m kwakwak’awakw.
So, just like this fragment of copper found deep within the ocean I’m trying to put the pieces back together. I’m trying to seek truth and transparency so we can heal and unite again as one. Altered by perception and capitalism we have been cut short, our voices muddled and our spirits left to sway from shore to shore searching for meaning in this contemporary world, do people really not care enough to help us back up? Or are we really left to disappear and be a thought that there were at one time Ma’amtagila people. The government doesn’t see us, and now the new neighbouring tribe refuses to see us too.
Chief Rande Cook (K’alapa) was born May 1977, in culture-rich Alert Bay, a small village on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Surrounded by the beauty of land and art, Rande found the passion of creativity at an early age. With the strong teachings from his grandparents Gus and Florence Matilpi Rande learned the strong values of life and culture. In 2008 Rande inherited his grandfathers chieftainship and now carries the name Makwala, which means moon. Rande is very involved in his culture and has hosted a Potlatch and two feasts for his family and community. Rande is also known for his traditional dancing and singing in Potlatches.
Rande has worked with many great mentors such as John Livingston for his mastery in wood sculpting, Robert Davidson in metal work, Calvin Hunt for his amazing craftsmanship in wood and most recently Repousee and Chasing master Valentin Yotkov. Rande has been expanding his capacities with new creative ideas and in 2010 traveled to Italy to study under Yotkov. Most recently he travelled to New York to study in Yotkov’s studio to increase his craft in Repousse and Chasing.
Rande pushes himself in all his mediums looking for perfection of each technique. Rande’s works can be seen in many galleries in the United States and Canada, and is now in collections around the world. Rande now resides in Victoria where he continues to push himself in his creativity by finding many new inspirations in new mediums.