As salmon make their increasingly dangerous and epic journey from the Coast in the dominant year of the Adams River salmon run, so too has the tremendous significance of salmon made its way back to the Salmon Arm Arts Centre.
An exhibition now featured at the centre, Sqlélten – Secwepemctsin for salmon – explores the role of salmon in Indigenous culture, stories and food systems. The gallery describes it as “weaving a 15,000-year history with contemporary art making.”
World-renowned artist and co-curator Tania Willard brought together a diverse selection of contemporary and traditional works by Indigenous artists including Csetkwe, Aaron Leon, Isha Jules, Hop You Haskett, Kenthen Thomas, Gerry Thomas, Louis Thomas and students of Chief Atahm School.
As you walk into the centre, you will be met by a beautiful bullrush-laden smokehouse constructed by Gerry and Louis Thomas with help from Jadon (Beebo) Cox.
At opening day on Aug. 27, centre director/curator Tracey Kutschker spoke of how critical the exhibition is at this time.
“We are standing on the stolen land of the Secwépemc Nation, and the Arts Council works towards reparation and reconciliation goals through the arts. And this is one of the ways we do that.
Neskonlith Councillor and Knowledge Keeper Louis Thomas gave the welcome, explaining that to him, it’s about telling his people’s story.
“It’s always a pleasure to do something like this, to educate everybody about our old ways. To me it’s important. A lot of lessons could be learned from that. And I think that to me, we have to listen more to the elders of the past.”
He said he listened to tapes of the Elders while he was relearning his language.
“A lot of the knowledge that goes with the language is important. It gives you an insight as to what it used to be like. I do a lot of – and I’m willing to share, as our Secwépemc people are always sharing. That’s why all you people are here, when you really think about it. We shared.”
He grew up with his grandmother and remembers her sharing stories of when the early settlers came to the area.
“They worked together and they shared, clearing the land and feeding each other. She traded with the local farmers. They didn’t have dried meat or fish or anything like that, so they traded coffee, sugar, everything.
“And my grandmother had a shed out there with dried meat and salmon. She told them, ‘go out there and help yourself, you know what you need.’ She wasn’t over there with a calculator… It was the trust amongst each other back in the day. So they went out there, left their coffee, sugar, whatever they had to trade. This was the way they worked together many years ago and I see the disappearance of that. The sharing. Because once they learned how to live off the land, live here, it kind of stopped.”
Thomas said settlers and Indigenous people have to start working together again because of what’s happening with climate change. “Things are going to be different now. We’re getting less salmon, the forestry’s going downhill. Everything’s going downhill. And this is what our Chiptekwilah (Secwépemc creation stories) talk about. The famine that follows if we keep taking and taking. Our salmon disappear, soon our trees are going to disappear, and the famine that follows is that the people who live off those kind of things end up suffering. Then that has a domino effect in the community.
“If they don’t get paid, the stores don’t get paid, the bills don’t get paid. So this is the famine our people talk about.”
He said he appreciates people coming to the gallery and at least trying to listen.
“The stories need to be told. We all have stories. Each and every one of us. Even the trees, even the water, everything has a story to tell. Because they’re all personified in our language, in our culture. Each and everything. If you listen closely you can hear them, what they’re telling us. So I’m glad we’re all here. I think lessons and learning is what our community should be about.”
Co-curator Tania Willard said she thinks Sqlélten is a really beautiful exhibition.
She spoke about the various works and how there’s an interplay and dialogue between them. From Csetkwe’s salmon ceremony, to Hop You Haskett’s sculpture with Coyote calling the salmon back, to the smokehouse showing materials and land-based knowledge.
And Isha Jule’s mural, with all the work being done against the pipeline and the impacts to salmon and the heart of Secwépemc lands, as well as Aaron Leon’s work, “asking us what are we doing…, how are we thinking of these lands.”
Willard mentioned her own work displayed focuses on a return to feasting, rather than fasting or famine, and the need to work together.
She also spoke about Kenthen Thomas’ stories, the Slxlxaya. And the drawings of students from the Chief Atahm Secwepemctsin immersion school, an example of the futurity of the salmon and families.
The exhibition runs until Oct. 8, with a Coffee Break and Artist Talk on Thursday, Sept. 15, at 2 p.m.
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