"Discouragement, lack of funds, ill health, indifference from others--I knew them all in full measure but persisted because I was determined to finish the job I had set out to do." -- Mildred Valley Thornton

Whereas Emily Carr is famous for her paintings of Indian villages, Mildred Valley Thornton's art is more intimate and mainly concerned with faces. As a portrait artist, Thornton loathed all superficial comparisons with Carr. Between 1935, when she painted Mary Capilano, matriarch on the Capilano Reserve, and 1952, when she painted her portrait of Mary Moon, matriarch of the Comox people, Thornton was on a self-appointed mission to respectfully portray, as realistically as possible, the faces of some of the most prominent Indians of British Columbia. She said she never posed her subjects. Mostly she sought out old people who could remember customs and traditions, talked to her subjects as she painted them, and then recorded any socially significant comments soon afterwards.

Born in Dresden, Ontario in 1890, Thornton first met Indians when wagonloads of them toured rural Ontario selling baskets. "I know now that they were Delawares, of the same tribe as the illustrious Tecumseh," she recalled in the 1960s. "They had good baskets, better than those the stores sold and much more colourful; skilfully contrived they were and sold in many beautiful shapes. Like the country stores, if you didn't have ready cash, the Indians would take in exchange butter, eggs, or anything they needed. I do not know why I was afraid of the Indians in those days, unless it was because I had heard people say they might steal our chickens; this of a race who traditionally looked upon thievery as a most heinous offence that would not be tolerated by any tribe! But they fascinated me and when they went over the hill in their creaking wagons and happy carefree manner, a bit of my heart always went with them."

She moved with her family to Regina in 1913 and became interested in the Plains Indians. She began to paint professionally in the 1920s, painting portraits of more than 300 Indians. "I discovered early in my travels that there was one tongue all could understand--the language of the heart--and that would take you anywhere," she wrote. "... Go to them with sincerity, genuine affection and respect as fellow Canadians and no people could be more affable, courteous or friendly." In response to the Depression, she came with her family to Vancouver in 1934. Having attended Olivet College in Michigan, the Ontario School of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, she wrote for the Vancouver Sun as an art critic from 1944 to 1959. Thornton was inducted into the Royal Society of Arts in 1954 and became president of the Canadian Women's Press Club, but she could never attain her greatest wish: to have the government of Canada accept her donation of her work en masse. She claimed the Kwakiutl of the Clan Eagle had named her "Ah-ou-Mookht," meaning "the one who wears the blanket because she is of noble birth," and the Crees had named her "Owas-ka-esk-ean" or "putting your best ability for us Indians."

One of Thornton's many subjects was Sarah Gunanoot, the widow of Simon Gunanoot, the Gitksan trapper who evaded police for 13 years. The wife of British Columbia's most famous fugitive was found working in the Cassier Cannery on the Skeena River in 1948. Having caught a bus to Port Edward from Prince Rupert, Thornton managed to hop a ride on a fish packer leaving for Cassiar. "There are days when magic is in the air," she recalled, "when you can't go wrong--days when you just step out in faith and things begin to happen." Thornton met Sarah Gunanoot in a loft mending nets. The two women hit it off. Sarah Gunanoot was happy to be painted. Thornton knew Simon Gunanoot had been charged with murdering two trappers, Alex McIntosh and Max Leclair, near Hazelton in June of 1906. The sole evidence was that he had fought with McIntosh and threatened him. Rather than risk a trial before a white jury, Simon Gunanoot had fled into the mountains. He outmanouevred and outwitted manhunts for 13 years, helped by food supplied by Indian people in the Skeena region. Sympathy for Gunanoot grew among whites and Indians. By the time he surrended to authorities on June 24, 1919, one of the province's foremost lawyers, Stuart Henderson, ably defended him at a trial in Victoria. Simon Gunanoot was acquitted. Sarah Gunanoot was reunited with her husband until he died in 1933. "In repose her face took on something of the sadness and sorrow she had known so many years ago," Thornton recalled, "when fate had dealt her a cruel blow. She had been young and happy then and doubtlessly very attractive, too. Two halfbreed trappers, who had used insulting language to her, were found dead and the police thought her outraged husband had taken the law into his own hands, settling the score quickly and thoroughly in the Indian manner."

After her husband died in 1958, Mildred Valley Thornton moved to England in 1959 to live with one of her sons. A major exhibit of her work was mounted by the Royal Commonwealth Institute but she was afflicted by a skin disease and could not attend. She came back to Vancouver in 1961. Thornton's first book Indian Lives and Legends (Mitchell Press, 1966) pertained mainly to B.C. and included twelve, hand-inserted colour plates. "Painting the Indians has been a rich experience for me," she wrote in 1966, the year before her death. "Often I have lived with them, journeyed with them, joyed and grieved with them. I am filled with gratitude that I was privileged to do this work at the last possible time that anyone could do it, recording a colourful and important phase and era of Canadian history which is all but over now." Thornton gradually succumbed to her skin disease, dying in 1976, at age 77. Embittered by the lack of official support for her art, she had a codicil in her will that requested all her paintings should be burned to ashes after her death. This codicil was not acted upon on the grounds that it had not been legally witnessed. The collection was saved but it has been mostly sold piecemeal. Westbridge Fine Art of West Vancouver has become the exclusive representative of her artistic estate. Her 1966 book has been retitled Potlatch People: Indian Lives and Legends of British Columbia (Hancock, 2003), edited by her son John M. Thornton. Its preceding companion volume, Buffalo People: Portraits of a Vanishing Nation (Hancock, 2000), contains 38 paintings pertaining to the prairies.


Indian Lives and Legends (Mitchell Press, 1966)
Buffalo People: Portraits of a Vanishing Nation (Hancock, 2000)
Potlatch People: Indian Lives and Legends of British Columbia (Hancock, 2003)

[BCBW 2003]