Beau Dick: Devoured by Consumerism by Latiesha Fazakas with John Cussans & Candice Hopkins (Figure 1 $25)

Review by Latash-Maurice Nahanee (BCBW 2019)

For Chief Beau Dick, global destruction of our planet begins and ends with consumerism. Widespread pollution and destruction are part of humanity’s thirst for the acquisition of wealth.

Here in B.C., the commercial fishing industry largely destroyed the stocks of wild salmon. Consumption of forest products contributes to destruction of salmon habitats. Mining also adds to destruction of habitats of plants and animals. Chief Dick saw that this should not continue. Quite simply put—humans cannot eat money.

A Kwakwaka’wakw master artist from Alert Bay, Chief Dick saw with great insight the destruction of Indigenous people caused by racist policies enacted by Canadian governments. Starting with Sir John A. Macdonald there has been a war of cultural genocide against the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. For instance, these policies resulted in the loss of Indigenous land and rights. Children were apprehended and placed in Indian residential schools. They were forced to give up their languages and culture. Corporal punishment was often accompanied by sexual abuse. Children suffered through poor diets and in some cases, died of starvation.

Chief Dick was taught traditional wood sculpting by his grandfather James Dick, his father Benjamin Dick, Henry Hunt, Doug Cranmer, Robert Davidson, Tony Hunt and Bill Reid. He went on to become one of the greatest Aboriginal artists in B.C.

In 1986, Chief Dick was commissioned to carve a mask to be showcased in Expo 86 in Vancouver. The Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization) in Gatineau, Quebec, acquired this mask where it is still on display. In 1998, Chief Dick was one of only seven Canadian artists to be invited to the reopening of Canada House in London, England. In attendance were Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Queen Elizabeth II.

In 2013, Chief Dick performed a First Nations copper-cutting ceremony on the steps of the BC Legislature in Victoria. After a 10-day, 500 km walk from Alert Bay to Victoria, he intended to bring attention to the abuse of Indigenous people and rights by the federal government. This shaming ceremony was the first time such a practice had been used by the Kwakwaka’wakw in decades. In particular, Chief Dick focused on the enactment of the Potlatch Law to prohibit cultural traditions of the Northwest Coast First Nations and all Aboriginal people in Canada. The copper shield is a symbol of justice, truth and balance; to break one is intended as a threat and an insult. After breaking the copper shield and shaming Canada, an apology should have come from the Government of Canada followed by atonement. But Canada has been slow on atonement for the wrongs it has inflicted on First Nations. Although the Potlatch Laws were repealed in 1950, the damage caused by these draconian measures is still felt today.

Much of Beau Dick: Devoured by Consumerism, edited by LaTiesha Fazakas, with writing by John Cussans and Candice Hopkins, is filled with photographs depicting the art, genius, imagination and skill of Chief Dick. He said that he regarded the masks he created as regalia and not merely art. The masks were part of a larger cultural and spiritual system.

In the summer of 2012, Beau Dick created a large number of masks for a Vancouver exhibition. Midway through the show, he took back some forty masks to his home village of Alert Bay. There, they were ceremoniously burned. Chief Dick said the burning of the masks was a beginning, not an end, and that the event was part of a larger cycle. Thereafter, all the masks were recreated and the cycle of life continued.

The Potlatch is a tradition that is in stark contrast to Western consumerism. The goal of Western people is to acquire objects. The acquisition of power and wealth is a measure of success. The goal of Northwest Coast Indigenous societies is to share wealth with other members of their societies. Giving away treasures shows the greatness of an individual and their family. The more wealth that can be given away, the more prestige and high social status is accrued by an individual and clan.

How we as inhabitants of a generous Mother Earth navigate our way into the future was clearly on Beau Dick’s mind. He suggested that we take a different approach to our way of distributing the resources and wealth of our nations. We must find a balance of achieving what we need against merely acquiring for the sake of acquiring. 978-1-7732-7086-9

Latash-Maurice Nahanee is a member of the Squamish Nation. He has a bachelor of arts degree (Simon Fraser University).