Joshua Watts, a Nuu-chah-nulth carver, is reconnecting with his Lake Cowichan roots these days.
He’s carved a superb modern piece for the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s recycling station at Meade Creek, and is working on a traditional pole for Lake Cowichan’s own Ts’uubaa-asatx First Nation.
Watts spoke to a crowd at the Lake Cowichan library recently, part of a series called Indigenous Voices that’s being presented there. This story covers the second half of his talk.
It’s taken time for Watts to discover the best route to his roots.
“How I’ve come to do this is by working with other artists,” he told the crowd at the library.
“My first teacher, who helped me to understand what West Coast art is was Ray Natraoro (Natrall) from the Squamish Nation. I started doing canoes with him when I was 17-18. We were getting ready to go to Bella Bella for Tribal Journeys.
“That was really when I really started to understand what all this cultural stuff means. Before that it was just cool. But when I talked to my teachers I found out it wasn’t cool 40-50 years ago to do those things. Now, a lot of young First Nations people are very proud. That’s inspiring to me because, for my parents’ generation, it still had a negative connotation from the potlatch ban and other historical systematic failures.
“Has anyone ever heard of Tribal Journeys, where Indigenous communities along the coast would organize themselves and then would host everyone? We were carving two canoes for that trip: a women’s canoe and a general canoe.
“It took us 18 days to get up from Squamish. We started there, went out to Howe Sound and across to Sechelt, where they hosted us for a while. Then we went to Nanaimo and then back to the mainland at Port Hardy. Then we shot across there, and stayed in a cultural longhouse way in the bush. Then we made our crossing to Bella Bella and we stayed there for a week.”
Along the route, the group got bigger and bigger as host nations would join in.
“The energy around that was a huge inspiration for me for becoming an artist.
“I met a lot of people who had the same kind of feeling and the same kind of motivation. It started with a canoe. Then it sort of snowballed into talk about everyone else’s regalia, masks. For those of you who don’t know, small talk in First Nations communities often means the family tree comes out and the question: ‘So how are we related?’ Everyone starts talking about shared ancestors and the further back we go, the more family we have. That’s a really important thing for First Nations people. All of these masks and songs, it’s what it all comes down to: what family are you from, what tribe are you from, and who are you? You’re not just a person in the family tree; you’re a branch. Each person is really important.”
Coming to see he was part of a tradition that spread into both the past and the future gave Watts a sense of wonder.
“I started doing more masks. Then, about 2015, 2016 I applied for a YVR Art Foundation scholarship. That’s the Vancouver airport; they have an incredible arts foundation. It involved a lot of younger artists who are at the same stage as me, the same generation, and the same motivation to do art, but different backgrounds, different art forms.”
His commission to do the pole for the Ts’uubaa-asatx Nation came, in part, from his work at the YVR foundation.
“Part of my motivation for working with the community here, at my grandmother’s First Nation, is having a memorial pole for a family. And that isn’t just a piece of art. It’s something we can all reference, to trace back who we are and why we’re here and what made us different from everybody.
“For those who haven’t seen me working on it: there’s a [carving of a] man at the bottom that references our ancestors and also my grandmother’s later brother, [the late Hereditary Chief] Cyril Livingstone. From what I hear from my family, he was very inspirational and did a lot of work to re-establish the band here, re-announcing the band, getting the traditional territories recognized by the government, building housing, and getting people back to the community. I also want to commemorate him in the figure.
“So, the bottom is a man, and he’s going to be wearing a plank head dress; they are made of straight think planks: that mask is a really sacred mask to Nuu-chah-nulth people.
“It’s kind of a message to everyone that not only are we a Nuu-chah-nulth community but we are also culturally involved in that sort of ceremony. So, we can share with other Nuu-chah-nulth tribes, and connect that way. Through that ceremony, and that mask, we can probably trace back where those other masks are from as well.
“Above the man is sort of a serpent symbolizing the body of the headdress, connecting the two. It is to further connect us to Nuu-chah-nulth culture and express that. Above serpent is a bear and he’s got a little salmon in his mouth: a connection to the land and to the fish, our histories. At the top is a thunderbird. It’s a really common mythological being in North West Coast history.
“It’s not really at the top of the totem pole: people think there’s a hierarchy on the pole. the higher up you go, but that’s not really the case because if there was no bottom on the pole there would be no foundation. It wouldn’t stand at all. It’s the same with the middle. Without that, there would be no connection. The thunderbird is at the top because it comes from the sky. In all our legends, the thunderbird is really powerful. I wanted to have that.
“How to tell between the eagle, the raven, other birds and the thunderbird is that the thunderbird has horns, they project off the top of the head. That’s how you can tell, by seeing that imagery, not just in prints but in sculptures as well.”
Watts also sees legendary Canadian artist Bill Reid as an inspiration.
“I like to mention this. He [Reid] started doing art later on in his life. He was not really connected to his First Nations community, and art helped him get back to that. His work is pretty iconic.”
In Watts’s opinion, Reid played a big part in bringing First Nations art into the contemporary mainstream.
“He’s had so many public installations, Bill Reid, but, in my opinion, his contemporary style, was a lot further ahead than his traditional pieces. He was raised outside of his community and didn’t really have a connection with his culture, his ancestors, his territory, but art brought him back there.
“And that’s sort of a similar story for me. I grew up in Squamish. It was small back then. I grew up as a native kid and there were native people all around me but I didn’t really understand that my tradition and my ancestors were somewhere else. That it was Port Alberni and here where our ancestors are from.
“I didn’t really understand that until a lot of my friends got talking about events they’d been invited too. Then I’d say, ‘Can I come, too?’ and they’d say, ‘No, this is a Squamish Nation thing. You’re not Squamish.’
“Then I had to figure out where I came from. I found out my grandfather was from Port Alberni. His name was Chubby Watts; he really was chubby, too. I hope I don’t inherit that but I’m really glad I inherited the family, and the connection.”