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I sit by the fire, eating slices of wind-dried salmon, a gift from Grand Chief Saul Terry, while I read Joanne Drake-Terry’s book The Same As Yesterday. This sockeye salmon was wind dried on the sacred peninsula at the junction of the Bridge and Fraser Rivers. This is food for my thoughts about Saul Terry’s exhibition. His wife’s book chronicles a history of Saul Terry’s people, the Lillooet. Her writing describes how the Lillooet assisted the first overland explorers and how they were later exploited by the fur traders, gold miners and governors breaking down the Lillooet’s potlach based culture. The decades of genocide and deceit, which continues to be perpetrated against the Lillooet people by my provincial and federal governments is overwhelming. It makes me ashamed to be a part of this society and leaves me wondering whether I should have the privilege of eating this soul food.

If artists are geographers who take on a responsibility to understand and organize their place in the world, then it becomes evident why Terry has chosen his particular path as a freedom fighter for his people. As a person, Saul Terry is congenial, warm and humorous to everyone around him, even to those who are oblivious to the history and the continued injustices that native people endure. But while President of B.C. Indian Chiefs, he was forced to take outspoken and confrontational positions to stand up to this province’s apartheid policies. Policies that continue to keep his people on small reserves in the land that was never surrendered by them.

Terry was born in the Stl’Atl’Imx community of Xwisten in 1942, a village of a dozen houses on the Xwisten Reserve near Lillooet. Sited on the once salmon-rich Bridge River, the people of this reserve were impoverished due to the denied access to their resources. They were further devastated by the B.C. Hydro Carpenter Lake dam built in 1960 to supply power to Vancouver, power that was denied to the Xwisten Reserve until the 1970s.

Terry remembers his community was void of school-age children who, due to the Indian Act of 1871, were forced to live in the residential school of St. Anne’s Academy in Kamloops, where they couldn’t see their parents or siblings for months at a time. The policy of eradicating the native languages at these schools was integral to the government’s goal of assimilation and conversion to Christianity. From age seven, Terry was bused to Kamloops for twelve years, for an education that was designed to deny his heritage.

In spite of Terry’s frustration with Canadian society and its unrelenting exploitation of Lillooet land, he still optimistically believed in studying the virtues of Western art. He enrolled at the Vancouver School of Art (ECIAD) in 1964 and remained there for the full four-year program during an era of post-war expressionism. Terry’s art school years spanned the revolutionary period of the late 60s. In an age of Vietnam, the cold war, and the possibility of nuclear annihilation, artists were asking themselves how they could go on making art for galleries and the halls of academia. Minimal theorists were re-evaluating everything, and art school curricula – even at the Vancouver School of Art – were a chessboard of ideologies.

Upon graduating from VSA, Terry shared a studio in an office building on Pender Street with the 48-year-old Bill Reid and a youthful Robert Davidson. Although they rarely worked together, the studio served as a base for their benches and camaraderie in the downtown core and a point of departure for their respective careers. In 1969, as the veil of overtly racist attitudes and laws were lifting, the government’s White Paper Policy acknowledged the responsibility it had to act fairly towards First Nations. This was the eve of what has become known as the Renaissance of Northwest Coast art. National patrons would now finance monumental works by native artists as corporate trophies, while the government-sanctioned rape of trees and minerals from ancestral lands continued.

During this transitional period in Terry’s career, he had become in demand by the native community as a mentor, teacher and educational advisor. His sense of responsibility to the immediate needs of his extended community would not go ignored. But how could Terry focus on his studio practice when his brothers and sisters in the native community were calling on him to be a spokesman for their plight? The answer to this question becomes apparent as we unweave his curriculum vitae. Although he made a vow to return to his studio full time, he became a political warrior, fighting on the front lines of national politics in Victoria, Ottawa, and in Geneva working for the United Nations Human Rights declaration. His goal was to make Canada recognize the infraction of its own laws, and to help build a strong foundation for the reconstruction of his culture. Terry integrated his artistic practice into the political responsibilities he took on over a twenty-seven year period.

His art functions as an iconography of resistance, as survival crests for the Stl’Atl’Imx people. Through his huge cliff painting at the confluence of the Bridge and Fraser Rivers, and his posters and banners, we see an aesthetic that proclaims inherent land rights and a rallying call for his people’s determination. Terry’s actions are part of the worldwide movement of indigenous peoples towards cultural revival. By the beginning of 1998 Terry had handed over his political torch to his predecessors to return to his studio, while remaining as an on-call advisor for the Institute of Indigenous Government, a credit college program that he founded.

Looking at the work in this exhibition one doesn’t see the mannerist ovoids and formal curves of North Coast tribes which respond to the rainforest cedars, nor do we see the theatricality in the art of the central coast. Terry’s sources are the Lillooet stone artifacts, which were buried during the epidemics, washed from riverbanks by miners in the arid interior and collected for museums around the world. Terry must negotiate between these artifacts, the oral histories of his elders, and the Eurocentric work of anthropologists such as James Tait, Franz Boas and Claude Levi-Strauss. Terry explains that the principles of his art are driven by social injustice; the more he comes to know the effects of colonialism, the more his art manifests this tension. But he also explains that to experience his work one requires a “subtle level of entry” to sensitively decipher the layers of meaning encoded in his symbols and practices. Terry’s work contains an internal logic comparable to pre-contact Lillooet iconography, which Wilson Duff describes as “condensed visual equations.” Each of Terry’s contemporary pieces embodies a dichotomy of internal/external forces, which are his metaphors of social interference in the Stl’Atl’Imx landscape.

In one of Terry’s pieces a large bronze rattlesnake, whose skin is a pattern of human heads, holds a frog in its mouth, which – in a defiant show of force – resists being swallowed. For Terry this work is a response to inhuman laws. Seen from the perspective of Western art this is a reversal of the Christian hero conquering sin. The frog (a native symbol of spiritual union) is performing an exorcism on the serpent, who has underestimated its opponent’s will.

Terry’s adaptation of the bronze casting foundry provides a copper alloyed body for these pieces. This materiality is integral to Interior Salish cosmology, which signifies copper as an analogy of the human body and the medium of the Swaihwé creation myth.

The bronze and glass Table conveys a circle of positive forces with eagles radiating out in four directions like arrows on an anchored compass. These eagles designate the retaking of ancestral land, and by extension, the reacquisition of well-being, prosperity and self-esteem.

Terry has also produced a series of black diorite bears, which stand in steel cages. The bear is revered as the supreme physician of the woods and controller of the annual food cycles, yet these instincts are denied by an imposed domesticity. He chose to portray the black bear, as it remains in his home habitat, unlike the grizzly, which Terry’s father witnessed being hunted out of existence in the region by non-native sportsmen. These carvings are an expression of will, as the black diorite is a universal symbol of immortality due to its jade-like hardness.

Anthropologists suggest artists are geographers who take responsibility to understand and organize their place in the world, and in doing so fill the role of the shaman in contemporary society. Terry’s tireless education of successive governments on native issues must be seen as integral to his art, like a shaman who works to heal our open social wounds.

Terry’s current goals include a museum to house the return of stolen artifacts from international collections and reconstruction of a Stl’Atl’Imx pit-house community, complete with its interconnected tunnel system. This exhibition marks a shift in Terry’s life. It is motivated by his need to communicate in the subjective realm, to propose important values and questions, which spawn dialogue. The clarity of his intentions in this solo process is important when compared to the way government has constantly tried to manipulate his political ideas for its own agenda. He is picking up the tools of his youth with a great authority as an Elder, a purveyor of Stl’Atl’Imx energy, and as a contemporary artist who works with autonomy.

George Rammell, January 2000.

http://sculpture.gruntarchives.org/artist-saul-terry-by-chisel-and-mold.html#lightbox

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