It was a promise of a new time, a new relationship offered up, and we were eager and excited to be a part of it. When, if ever, did the thick bass sounds of a pow wow drum reverberate through the galleries of the Royal BC Museum? My guess is never. And when had we ever seen an artist add her own text and interpretations to the archival wall art of a museum? Again, I would guess never. A public program called Site and Sound, curated by the Royal BC Museum’s Learning team, made those opportunities and invitations possible, plus more.
Site and Sound described the evening events perfectly and concisely. Sound artists, musicians, actors and poets were invited to conduct visual and audio interventions inside various galleries at the museum. As a member of the Standing Nation Drum group, I was excited at the possibility of bringing our large pow wow drum into the third floor gallery to share traditional songs while I intervened with a grease pencil, putting words upon the walls. The walls were lined with clear cellophane sheets so as to create a layered addition to the already existing archival mural. The results would be cultural, radical, message-based and current.
Sadly, the energy and excitement generated by the mere notion of bringing these new elements into one of Canada’s most revered museums was quickly halted, like a steam train being robbed on the tracks. Museum staff and curators needed a way to process the many new artists into their space. The welcoming was less honouring and was instead humiliating. Gloved interveners met us in the lobby on the first floor. Their job, we were told, was to inspect any and all objects we wished to bring into the gallery. Our drum leader and his wife, proud and cultural people, were told their sacred objects—eagle feathers, drum sticks, the drum itself, and our spiritual medicines—would have to go through the inspection process or we would be denied access to the gallery.
I was called down from the third floor where I was preparing to partake in my contribution of Site and Sound and was informed of the ultimatum facing our participation. It was collectively decided we would allow the museum staff to do what they must and we would follow up after the performance. Watching our objects being examined took my ancestral memory back to a time when nuns and priests inspected the hair of Indian children for lice before cutting it off completely. I was saddened, frustrated and very angry. We were given no warning of the process that was to befall us and, if we had, I certainly wouldn’t have invited my beloved drum group to undergo such a humiliating colonial discrimination. Any hope of forming new relationships with the museum was crushed immediately and confidently in that moment.
The energy created from the insult spurred us on to represent ourselves even stronger during our performance. Our drum leader explained, as we talked amongst ourselves, that he was quite capable of taking good care of his sacred objects. The inspection process seemed to lack authority and technical specialization as the staff merely held the objects up and passed their eyes over our things to say “Yay” or “Nay”. The process lacked integrity and was ruinous to what the Site and Sound program was endeavoring to achieve. The damage was done. Or rather the damage continued.
The public reception was positive. There was curiosity for sure but, for the most part, our songs filled the third floor gallery with positive exhilaration. I performed close to the drum, singing along as I worked the grease pencils over the cellophane skins. Staying open to inspiration in the moment and cultivating a strong whirlwind of energy in my work: stepping back and forth along the long wall mural, changing pencil colours, writing and drawing, really enjoying myself and working in play. The performances were a success. The concept had won.
I helped our drum leader arrange a meeting with museum staff after the fact. He told me they would not value this meeting unless they paid him. And the museum did pay him to teach, to explain, and to offer his cultural knowledge. When the meeting began, the staff sat with arms folded across their chests. Everyone was given their turn to speak about the “incident” from their perspective. By the end of the meeting there were no more folded arms. Our drum leader suggested that the museum should improve upon their relations with First Nations people, to which a staff member defensively said that they have good relations and his statement upset her. There was a long silence and I could see our drum leader considering his reply. He then said, “It’s good to feel things.” And that was it.
I have since returned to the Royal BC Museum as a visitor to the Our Living Languages exhibition. My understanding is that the exhibition was made possible through many partnerships, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, that came together to celebrate the survival of Indigenous languages. The exhibition impressed me so much that I produced a segment on it for the CBC Radio program Unreserved, which aired in 2015. More recently I attended the Happy Hour program at the museum, which took place in the First Peoples gallery and featured three Indigenous artists talking about objects they chose from the museum’s collections. No inspections needed there. I applaud the efforts the museum is making to invite new pockets of community into their galleries. They are learning to open their doors to new faces and we are learning to see the museum as something more than a morgue where our culture is kept under lock and key.