This radio broadcast was funded by a grant from the Community Radio Fund of Canada and the Government of Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative

Jessie Recalma, Qualicum First Nation, is a self-taught contemporary Coast Salish artist.

Cortes Island School Parent Advisory Committee fundraises every year for an Arts/Music program. I offered to help coordinate artist visits, and as an Indigenous person and artist, wanted very much to see this happening. We were grateful to hear Jessie was willing to drive from Qualicum Beach for an artist talk series; meaning he was sharing a 14 hour day with us- leaving at dawn to get to Cortes School to share with 2 classrooms- intermediate and senior.

Cortes Currents: Odette Auger reports on Jesse Recalma’s visit to Cortes Island School

My Name Is Jessie Reclama

He includes his intentions for the demos in his introduction to the classrooms.

“My name is Jessie Reclama, I’m from the Qualicum First Nation, and I am a full time artist and a part time language teacher… and so I am here today to share a little bit about my artwork and my art styles and my art form, and sort of looking about how we can engage… between ourselves and Indigenous art”

Jessie brought his tools, carvings, and gave an insightful talk and demo; sharing skills and Indigenous ecological knowledge with the youth.
One of the interesting things about what Jessie shared…. was ​the manner​ it was shared in.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

As an ​Anishinaabe-ikwe​, I have a deep appreciation -​ and I notice right away​- when teaching is done in a holistic, interdisciplinary way. Jessie started with an introduction, and since he was sharing carving skills, he began asking the youth about local trees, their qualities. Soon we were deep into Traditional Ecological Knowledge- Integrating Indigenous knowledge with conventional scientific research. To work with wood is to understand and know wood of different trees. Jesse moved easily from biology, history, environmental stewardship and design.

… “Holly’s not Indigneous, it’s one that was introduced… It grows very well here much to the detriment of other trees. So what we have here is a good variety of both deciduous and coniferous trees.. “

“So each of these trees sort of have their place culturally within the world here. Cedar is a very important tree, cedar does provide a lot of aspects to our world. But one of the things I’d like you to be able to take away today is knowing that Cedar is not the only sacred tree, cedar is not the only tree that provides for people in this world. And, we have this here, for a paddle we’re going to see the process/progress of this yellow cedar plank, 1×6, we’ll see the process of making it into a paddle. It doesn’t have to be made of yellow cedar, there’s a few trees that are really good for making paddles…”

“I’m going to pass this around, so you can see how light this is… so you can get an idea of the behaviour of wood…Yellow cedar is more dense, but it also has a longer life span, in the sense of how much sturdier it is. It’s light but not too light. It also has some weight to it, it’s something that’s going to cut the waves no problem ………..And, yew wood. Yew wood’s heavy, but yew wood is also very strong and flexible. So, when you’re in a canoe, what sort of maneuvers do you do in a canoe [class shares] “you pry it, you pry it- with yew wood you can have a paddle that’s thinner than this, and just as strong.

Senior Class Warmed To The Subject

The senior class warmed to the subject, and I watched as one Indigenous girl asked her teacher permission to move closer to be able to focus more on Jessie’s talk.

“How would you get a plank of wood off a tree? ‘Chop it down’.. How would you get a plank of wood off a tree without chopping it down?” [Class shares ideas].

Another Indigenous student drew diagrams on the chalkboard of how she thought you could take boards off a tree without killing the tree.

“So, did everybody see how she did that? So, just to expand on that, this is also the same way that we would take an entire, easily take a 60 foot plank off the tree and not kill the tree. So, let’s pretend this is our tree, and we want a plank off this tree. We’d make a little notch and then, start to, as the suggestion, put some wedges on either side and start to notch it out until it started to come off… if you want to limit the length of the plank, you put a notch at the top, then it would only be that length.”

“cause there’s a lot we have to do as Indigenous people, not just Indigneous people, but people, to do be looking after, and taking care of our natural resources, and you know, we’d never take more wood than we needed. We’d never take down more trees than we needed, because then you’re just wasting it. And when we’re hunting seals, or deer or duck, we wouldn’t take more than we need because then you’re just wasting that resource. And if we just start to take too much and too much, then soon enough we won’t have anything left. “

Cultural/Regional Differences In Design

Jessie explained cultural/regional differences in design~ using a paddle as an example, he described how you could tell right away where a paddle maker was from by how they designed and shaped the paddle. He went on to describe environment influencing design.

“This one is a more Coastal canoe paddle, and there is a bit of purpose as to how and why it was designed in this way.. And, part of it was- see the way that this blade will cut into the water. When it goes into the water, it won’t damage kelp beds. So the tip of the blade, it will go right through the kelp, but it won’t cut it, and as it moves through the kelp it still won’t damage the kelp beds. So a lot of the more regular, rounded or flat paddle blade shapes, they’ll damage kelp beds because they aren’t meant for ocean-going canoes.

And, one of the natural features of the Discovery Islands around here and Desolation Sound is there’s a lot of fast-moving water. There’s a lot of high currents, there’s a lot of whirlpools, so you really need to know how to navigate in the water, and you need to be able to find the places where either the water is moving fast, so you can use it to help you move faster, or where it’s not moving fast so you can keep yourself sheltered from the fast water, because sometimes when it gets choppy… not so fun out there.”

“Now back to this paddle, back to this paddle, there were a number of blade shapes that were used here among Indigneous groups. This one here, a diamond shape paddle blade. Also, the more rounded but still pointed paddle blade. And, what i want to do with this one, is a strictly Northern Salish paddle blade shape. Whenever I show it to someone, they say ‘it looks like someone took a bite out of it” It’s kind of a crescent moon shape. And this is a paddle blade shape that is only used in a couple communities. And I was working with someone from Homalco, and they recognized it right away as one that their grandfather used. And they always laughed about it, it looked broken. And different blades were used by men and women, and this one was used for seal hunting and paddling in shallow water. And so now we can look at paddles… trying to make as little noise as possible.”

A Spindol Whorl & A Story

Jessie’s session with the intermediate class [grades 2-5] involved a different project- a spindle whorl. Jessie skillfully combined art making, math, geometry, and traditional technology all in one beautifully designed spindle whorl he brought to demonstrate.

The second session Jessie shared a story to the intermediate class, and asked them to draw scenes from it. Initially he read it out loud in Island Comox, then in English. It was about a sea otter who was swallowed by a whale. This character was named ‘Qaix.’ Teacher Chris Duketow said “It was beautiful to hear him read the story in Island Comox.”

He is very clear about explaining- “ I’m not asking you to draw it in a Salish way, draw it in your own way, it’s ​your a​rt.”

“So, with the younger crew I am going to read them some stories in an Indigneous language close to the dialect here, probably not the dialect here but shared stories. The intention is not for them to draw Indigenous art, but how they would interpret a scene from the story.”

Image courtesy Jessie Recalma

A Speaker & Story Teller

As an artist and youth facilitator; I had to compliment Jessie for his talent as a speaker and storyteller, equal to his carving and artistry. The classes listened attentively to his artist talk, although they clearly loved the hands-on carving most of all.

One of the teachers asked me why it was more of an artist talk/demo with some hands-on versus a “class”. I was mentally prepared for that question, and did take care to mention the cultural appropriation question- and take care in​ how​ I mentioned it- . To “teach how to do Salish carving” is something to tread carefully with… Jessie was clearly mindful of this line, and offered more cultural insights than an appropriated “class” could have done. I asked Jessie about his work in schools, how much of it is informing the system, not just the students.

“, for the kids to do Indian art… and my cousin and I had been talking, we were discussing how we were going to address this through the district, and I’ve been doing art instruction with the classes for quite awhile… and at what point do I have to recognize I have to be preventing cultural appropriation from occurring, too. Like, I don’t want to have someone saying like “I’m going to become an Aboriginal artist, because this one time I had a guy come into my class and showed me how to do Aboriginal art”, so rather I was looking at it as a way to understand Aboriginal art, versus just doing it. So, we’ve been trying to make plans for how to do classes in the future.”

“So I think it’s a good discussion that people should really understand, and I think this age group is a really good place to start to have those thoughts on how this is or isn’t this ok. “

From First Nations Histories & Artifacts

It is something society has more to learn about, and Jessie manages to plant those seeds for our youth also.

… “they come from First Nations’ histories, they come from indigenous artifacts, they come from pieces you can find in museums, they share a lot of characteristics, and how these shapes are fit together, and sometimes they tell an aspect of someone’s history, sometimes they might tell an aspect of something that’s significant to an individual. So, this piece is a spindle whorl, and there are 2 wolves on either side, and in the centre, whirlpool. So perhaps there’s a story connected to this, about 2 wolves that had an experience in that whirlpool. And perhaps those 2 wolves belong to someone’s history, they belong to a family that had a connection to those 2 wolves and their experience in that whirlpool. And if someone from outside that culture were to claim that as their own piece, they are effectively robbing from that culture. Because it’s something they don’t have a cultural connection to.

Image courtesy Jessie Recalma

Why Are We Using Metal Carving Tools?

And, I hear a lot of the opposite side of that, why are we using metal carving tools, why shouldn’t we stick to stones and shells for carving? ‘Because they’re better’? So wouldn’t that be cultural appropriation, using metal tools? Any ideas? ‘Settlers gave the tools to the natives’…”They were traded. They were traded items. My recollection, hearing stories of early contact between Homalco and Vancouver’s expedition, were people who really coveted nails, to build things with. Vancouver’s people found it odd, they didn’t use them for building, they used them for decorative purposes. Part of looking at that, part of looking at the traded items. We have to recognize that cultures aren’t stagnant. How do we acquire these items, this metallurgy? How do we acquire ways of having pre-cut and measured out material? Someone can go out and buy a piece of 1×6. Whereas before, we mentioned last week of how we had to go cut out planks from trees with wedges and other implements. We have to understand there is always a growth within cultures, there is always an evolution in cultures.

So, the reason that I’m sharing this with you guys, is because I am not here to show you how to do Indigenous art. I’m here to show you how to recognize Indigneous art, and understand a connection that you can have to it, a connection that you can make with yourself, in recognizing where you’re living, and perhaps find ways you can find in your own cultural background, how you can explore artistic creations… I’m trying to make it a nice way to say “Don’t do Indigneous art if you’re not Indigenous. But not telling you not to do art, just there are a lot of avenues you can take with these styles that we’re doing.

Like, I’ve had younger artists mentor under me before, and they generally have their own style. Everyone has their own natural art style that goes along with what they do. Sometimes that natural art style is how they cook eggs in the morning. Sometimes that natural art style is the way you might be able to fix cars really easily, it’s your natural abilities and that tune in your head, that you’re drawn to. Those are all variations of arts that we can be a part of, and explore, and use to help contribute ourselves as part of members of the community, of society.

“So this is going to be something that is going to show a connection that the school will have to the territory here. Because even though some of you aren’t from an Indigenous background, you have all lived here, you’ve all grown up here, you’ve all made your place here.

And understand, look at how we can respect our relationship to the traditional territory, to the people here. So I think this would be a fun outcome to have, as a result of this.”

COVID19 interrupted the final sessions, but the classrooms will have a carving that stays with them.

Owing to current lack of training in the larger system and society, Indigenous cultural content is often taught in a way that does not yet truly embody the First Peoples’ Principles of Learning (FPPL). Often, Indigenous curriculum content is understood as “cultural activities only” without seeing how Indigenous ways of relating can—and should—infuse activities. FPPL is not curriculum content alone, it’s a way of being in- relationship that is attuned, responsive, and creates emotional safety and health.

E’mote​- here in the North Salish Sea, Thank You- to Jessie bringing his art and teaching talent to bring our island youth an opportunity for greater understanding.

To See Jessie’s Artwork

When COVID19 passes, you can see Jessie’s artwork at Hollyhock lodge in the fireplace room, at the Faye Smith Memorial Pavilion at Qualicum Beach, or follow his facebook page Saatlam Arts for more.

To listen to Jessie Recalma read the full Qaix and the Whale Story in both Island Comox and English, continue to listen here…

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