BY Eloise Carolan

Snéḵwem Lane, a collaborative mural by artists Nexw’Kalus-Xwalacktun (James Harry) and Lauren Brevner, depicts a woman as snéḵwem, the sun, and the arrival of salmon in Squamish waters. The vibrant alley is located at 531 Granville St., welcoming viewers with bright colours and intricate Coast Salish designs.

“The bright colours really bring light to the people of Vancouver during this pandemic,” says Kalli Doell, a resident of Vancouver’s Davie Village, on Snéḵwem Lane. “It feels unifying. It also provides a lens of the area’s history.”

Harry’s murals depict larger than life characters and stories, creating interactive experiences.

Salmon in alley Indigenous art mural

Snéḵwem Lane features seven salmon which is symbolic of the Indigenous Seventh Generation Principle, a reminder that actions affect seven generations. Photo by Eloise Carolan.

“I try to make people question relationships to the land and how ultimately they are visitors on the territory here,” says Harry, a multidisciplinary artist of Squamish Nation (Swxwú7meshḵ).

“People are now starting to recognize what Salish art is,” says Harry. “We are bringing our history back into the city with a visual and educational aspect.”

Snéḵwem Lane is 6500 sq ft. and covers the sides of two buildings, creating a bright alleyway. Photo by Eloise Carolan.

The City of Vancouver Public Art Program encourages new work to be created through civic and private development programs. Initiatives like the city’s annual Indigenous Artist Call for murals and printed work also commissions artists up to $15,000 to display their work for a minimum of two years. This is currently on hold due to the pandemic.

As part of the Public Art Program, the Public Art Committee consults on local art decisions. It is made up of artists, art professionals, urban designers, developers and a member of the general public.

“It is very important to have an Indigenous voice at the bureaucratic level,” says Xyolyholemo:t (Brenda Crabtree), a member of the committee. “It really gives an Indigenous perspective.” She is part of the Spuzzum Band and has both Nlaka’pamux and Sto:lo ancestry.

Crabtree says she is currently the only self-identified Indigenous participant on the committee of nine members.

“The city has promoted public art consultants to include Indigenous participation from the local Three Host Nations,” says Crabtree. “Artists are encouraged to submit their project proposals and join the committee’s adjudication and selection processes.” The Three Host Nations are the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations.

“The Public Art Committee and City of Vancouver are committed to Indigenization and decolonization processes,” says Crabtree.

The private development program requires developers to commit $1.98 per buildable foot towards public art in applications over 100,000 square foot, as stated on the City of Vancouver website. Developers can meet this requirement independently by submitting a Public Art Plan, or they can pay 80 per cent of the calculated requirement to the City’s Signature Projects Fund, which commissions new public art.

The civic program focuses on artwork for city related infrastructure, parks and goals.

Dream Weaver Indigenous art mural

Dream Weaver, another collaborative mural with Brevner, depicts two women of colour with their backs to each other, blending culture and design. Photo by Eloise Carolan.

Harry has often focused on bringing his artwork to the land. It’s one of the reasons he chooses to exhibit in public spaces. “It kind of changes the way people think and interact with Salish art, I wanted to bring this idea of tradition and make it more of a visceral, bodily experience,” he says.

Remaining true to Coast Salish symbols is really important to him. “I use it as an educational tool for people when they come to Vancouver and are learning about the land and the Indigenous people of the territory here,” says Harry. “My work kind of goes through some of these stories.”

“We are continually looking for ways that we can support emerging, midcareer and established Aboriginal artists,” says Crabtree, as a member on the YVR Art Foundation’s board of directors in addition to her position on the committee. Crabtree is also the Director of the Aboriginal Gathering Place and Special Advisor to the President on Indigenous Initiatives at Emily Carr University of Art & Design.

She focuses on uplifting the Indigenous community by working with artists like Harry. As a Fine Arts graduate from Emily Carr, Harry has developed his skills in the university setting and through family teachings. He is largely influenced by his father Xwalacktun (Rick Harry), a master carver of Squamish Nation.

Reconciliation pole indigenous artwork

Harry carved Reconciliation Pole (centre) with his father in 2019 to represent Squamish Nation at the Vancouver School Board. Each work acknowledges one of the local nations. Photo by Eloise Carolan.

“When my dad was fulfilling his role as a Salish artist in Vancouver around 20 or 30 years ago, we were almost having to fight with the market,” says Harry. “People would buy formline art, but if we were to practice Salish art people wouldn’t necessarily want it. We were almost pigeonholed into what people wanted to label us as. We were all Haida.”

Formline art was popularized by Haida people of Haida Gwaii, a coastal archipelago in the territory’s North, now known as British Columbia. Salish art, like Harry’s, incorporates different practices and symbols unique to the Coast Salish peoples.

The ongoing effects of colonization remain present for Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island, now known as North America. “First Nations people in Vancouver were hit very hard, we almost lost all our culture,” says Harry. “It’s been in recent years, in my dad’s generation, that it has become about bringing Salish art back.”

Indigenous representation in university spaces evolving, blending art and academia. Indigenous artists and educators are initiating these changes – in the classroom and around campus. Media by Eloise Carolan.

Indigenous activists and allies have long called for the revaluation of public statues and monuments that commemorate perpetrators of colonial violence.

“There is a lot of controversy about statues, but I think it’s really problematic when we have someone that is objectively anti-Indigenous being glorified on Indigenous territory,” says Josh McKenna, the creator of an online petition for the removal of the Gassy Jack Statue in Vancouver’s Gastown. He is Métis, from the Red River region in Manitoba, with Cree and Anishinaabe ancestry.

A map of the mentioned artworks. Media by Eloise Carolan.

“It had been on my radar for quite some time that Jack Deighton was a pedophile and took a young Squamish girl as his wife,” says McKenna. The young girl’s name was Quahail-ya or Wha-halia. Since its creation last summer, the petition has received close to 23,000 signatures. “It shows that there is a people power to do something anti-colonial here.”

“I hope it opens up the door for more discussions,” says McKenna.

Harry believes Indigenous artists and their work will continue to evolve when they are given the space to create. “Within the last few years, there have been more opportunities,” says Harry. “So I would like to see more of it.”

Community collaborations are being led by Indigenous artists and business partnerships with Indigenous organizations. Oak and Earth, a small business in Abbotsford, has partnered with Fraser River Indigenous Society (FRIS) to share 50 per cent of the profits from each of the company’s candle purchases.

FRIS is a nonprofit Indigenous-led organization located in Pitt Meadows on Kwantlen and Katzie territory that serves urban Indigenous populations. “Whether it’s through business ideas or art, it’s great to see more Indigenous representation and collaboration,” says Kiara Talman, who recently received one of the company’s lavender candles.

Social business ideas and Indigenous artist callouts are collaborative approaches to increase Indigenous representation. “By sharing revenue, it gives FRIS more freedom to put money into areas that might not be covered by traditional methods of funding for nonprofits,” says Addy Schnider, the President of Enactus at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), the group that runs the business.

“We have been talking about using the money to make laundry more accessible for the community,” says Schnider. Oak and Earth Design operates out of Abbotsford on the lands of Sto:lo people, known as people of the river. They are located about thirty minutes from FRIS.

Artists like James Harry share parts of their culture through their work. The muralist incorporates Coast Salish design elements into the installations he co-creates with Lauren Brevner. Oak and Earth worked with FRIS to incorporate Indigenous language and knowledge into their candle labels.

“Our goal is to sell 360 candles by January, 2022. That will raise approximately $4,800 in revenue” says Schnider.

Photo by Eloise Carolan.

Main photo by Eloise Carolan.
Published June 21, 2021.