'Namgis hereditary chief and artist Beau Dick is backed by Alexandra Morton (left) and other supporters Saturday while blessing a copper breastplate (foreground) at the BC Ferries dock in Port McNeill.

Chief carries copper, message to legislature

PORT McNEILL-Hereditary chief Beau Dick of Alert Bay embarks on a walk the length of Vancouver Island.



PORT McNEILL—During the global day of action by Idle No More in January, hereditary chief Beau Dick of Alert Bay promised to embark on a walk the length of Vancouver Island to deliver a message at the legislature building in Victoria, and invited others to join him.

As it turns out, he does not have to walk alone.

Dick, a noted Kwakwaka’wakw artist, was joined in Port McNeill Saturday by a host of supporters who helped him by offering blessings or joining him on the trek to perform a symbolic breaking of a copper this Sunday on the steps of the legislature.

“It’s not just native people who are at risk,” said Dick. “We are all in this together.”

Dick’s “walk” is largely symbolic — due to time constraints parts of the trip are by vehicle, though he and those who have joined him are marching on foot through populated areas and visiting First Nations and big houses along the way.

The breaking of copper at the provincial legislature is also largely symbolic, he admits, though it is a historically powerful symbol within the Kwakwaka’wakw culture.

“It is used in many ways,” Dick said of the copper, which before the Indian Act of 1885 outlawed the potlatch was a key symbol of a family’s wealth and prestige. “In general, it’s a way of bringing shame by breaking copper on someone. It brings attention to a breach of contract.”

The practice has largely fallen out of use as a shaming ritual, said Harry Hawkins, a Dzawada’enuxw First Nations member from Kingcome Inlet, making this weekend’s gesture particularly noteworthy.

“People used to break copper on another nation instead of making war,” Hawkins said, noting the most extreme application of the ritual. “When the big house was built in Alert Bay, all the people came together and agreed they would not break copper on one another any more,” Hawkins said.

“Copper symbolizes and represents authority and justice and balance,” added Dick. “It’s somewhat complicated, but obviously this is something very important to our people in our social structure.”

At issue, as the Idle no More movement has made clear, is the federal government’s passage last year of Bill C-45, the omnibus budget bill critics say strips away First Nations treaty rights while also degrading protections to the environment.

The federal government is the primary target of Idle No More, though Dick and the other supporters note provincial authorities have a role in affording stronger environmental protection, including oversight of salmon feedlots, or open-net pen fish farms.

“I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to join you in Victoria,” anti-farmed salmon activist Morton told Dick after he performed a blessing song over a traditional shield-shaped copper placed on the ground in the middle of the crowd. “I am seeing the wild salmon being destroyed by European virus in a place where I raised my two children, and I can’t take it any more.

“I welcome this opportunity to show that grief and resolution, and I’m honoured to walk with you.”

Dick, a hereditary chief of the ‘Namgis First Nation, began his journey by traveling from Cormorant Island to Fort Rupert Saturday to visit with his Kwakiutl First Nation relatives. He and the family members joining him on the journey then traveled to the BC Ferries dock in Port McNeill where he was joined by more well-wishers, including Morton and a dozen sign-waving supporters; Alert Bay priest Lincoln McKoen, who performed a traditional church blessing with incense, oil and water; and Hawkins, who joined Dick on the trek.

“I wanted to be here at the start of my brother’s walk,” Hawkins said after Dick performed a blessing song around a traditional, shield-shaped copper placed on the ground in the middle of the crowd. “This walk has a lot of meaning to it, for all of us. Thank you, on behalf of the House of U’gwis and my brother Beau.”

From Port McNeill, the trekkers marched up Campbell Way to Highway 19 and on to the Nimpkish River bridge before loading into vehicles for the trip to Campbell River.

Today Dick and his supporters are scheduled to appear in Chemainus and Duncan. The trip wraps up with a walk from the Swartz Bay ferry dock to the legislature buildings Sunday, with the copper-breaking event scheduled between noon and 1 p.m.

 

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