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On July 2, 2014, renowned Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw artist Chief Beau Dick along with 21 companions set out from the University of British Columbia on a journey to Ottawa which they called Awalaskenis II: Journey of Truth and Unity. Intending to raise awareness about the plight of the environment and to challenge elected officials to attend to the relationship between the federal government and First Nations people, the group brought with them many objects including a copper shield known as Taaw made by Giindajin Haawasti Guujaaw, the Haida carver and former president of the Haida Nation. Guujaaw had encouraged Dick to make this journey, having been inspired by the 2013 Awalaskenis I journey from Quatsino on the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Victoria.
Along the way, the travellers visited First Nations communities across the country to gather support and to increase the value of the copper through ceremony. Through social media, they drew attention to the journey. Many artists and communities contributed sacred objects collected from up and down the continent – some of them considered to be sentient beings – to be carried to the copper-breaking event. Lalakenis/All Directions: A Journey of Truth and Unity brings together these objects in a reconstruction of the site of the ceremony on Parliament Hills, and documents the journey through videos, photographs and narrative.
On July 27, the Taaw copper was broken on Parliament Hill in a traditional copper-breaking ceremony, marking a ruptured relationship in need of repair, and passing the burden of wrongs done to First Nations people from them to the Government of Canada. Once practised throughout the Pacific Northwest when copper shields were a symbol of justice and central to a complex economic system, this shaming rite had all but disappeared until Dick revived it in a similar ceremony in 2013 on the front steps of the British Columbia Legislature in Victoria. This earlier journey was instigated by Beau Dick’s daughters, Geraldine and Linnea Dick, as a way to bring the message of the Idle No More movement to the attention of the British Columbia government.
Lalakenis/All Directions demonstrates how deeply traditional practices can be deployed to address and engage urgent and contemporary politics. The copper-breaking ceremony practiced in Haida and Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw communities for generations is not relegated to a sealed-off past, but has been activated through a political act.
This exhibition is made possible with the generous support of the Audain Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, and The Leon and Thea Koerner Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge the support of our Belkin Curator’s Forum members: Audain Foundation, Christopher Foundation, Nicola Flossbach, Henning and Brigitte Freybe, Michael O’Brian Family Foundation, Phil Lind Foundation, and Scott Watson and Hassan El Sherbiny.
Cutting Copper: Indigenous Resurgent Practice, a collaborative project with grunt gallery, Vancouver, is generously supported by the British Columbia Arts Council.