As long as I can remember, I have watched my father William Good, Tseskinakhen, transform raw materials into works of art that transcend time and capture a glimpse into history. Being raised in an art studio in Nanaimo, BC, my siblings and I have been immersed in art. We watched while our father carved history into wood, documented legends onto precious metals and pulled stories onto paper. We all wore garments that showcased stories capturing the Coast Salish way of life with pride. Art was what fueled our family, and it affected everything, including our economic status, which led us into an artist’s entrepreneurial way of life—all while upholding cultural traditions and customs that remained true. Art was our common denominator and, whatever was happening in our lives we always had the art, and it proved to be what kept our family together. It was one of the most important factors in defining our identity as a family of artists and as individuals. It was what gave us a sense of belonging, one which would not have been possible without the pursuit of art itself.
The vision of this way of life was not always clear for my father and it took many years to develop into being. It began before he was born when he was named and his fate was spoken by his Elder. While in the belly, his Grandfather, the late William Good, Tseskinakhen, the eldest son of Chief Louis Good and descendant of the original Chief of Snuneymuxw First Nations seven amalgamated tribes, passed the Hereditary position on to him in saying that he was the one to carry the information. As a young child he was spared from residential school and raised by his grandfather who taught him oral history daily until he had a perfect recall. He was schooled in the family stories privy to a Hereditary Chief: those of culture, language and the history of his Nation and those around. He was a storyteller, a knowledge keeper, and a cultural historian. But there was another component, one missing, that he found as he grew older.
In the 1970s my father found himself living in Vancouver where he took carving classes through the Vancouver Indian Friendship Centre. This was the spark that ignited his artistic career but, while he excelled, his many teachers were Nuu-chah-nulth, Tsiamshian, Kwagiulth and from various other Nations across Canada. Although he was later mentored by the late master Coast Salish artist Simon Charlie from Duncan, he had limited access to Coast Salish art and artists.
He found himself searching for this ancient art form, which he discovered was almost extinct. With not one family historical art piece left intact and accessible to him, he began his search by studying what art pieces were left in the community, combined with his teachings and his visual recall. He knew the stories, had learned the guidelines and principles of Northwest Coast art and, by the 1980s, was on a mission to find the original art pieces that told the history of his ancestors. The only place to find those pieces was in archives and Museum collections.
According to my father, “It is impossible to separate art and history—it defines the culture.” It is as though art and history were like a split-design that had been separated: although the components are different, they are one and the same. With the artistic visual aspect of the culture being the missing link in a pre-digital era, he contacted museums all over Canada and the United States and was subsequently mailed copies of photos and sent facsimiles of Coast Salish artifacts. This led to visits to archival collections—such as those at the Royal BC Museum—where, with his knowledge of the stories and his artistic background, he was able to see the history in those pieces. He found artwork that was carved with stories that paralleled those he had been taught by his grandfather, and he was able to read the stories and see the written language in ￼those ancient pieces. He found that every visual aspect of those art pieces carried significance, from their shapes and colours, their characters, their symmetry and asymmetry, their abstraction and their signatures. Through his teachings we can see that the traditional Coast Salish art form is a complex visual literary system, it is as he says, “A written language.”
Having access to the Royal BC Museum and Archives enabled him to not only read the language but, in carving, he was then able to share the language with others. Over the years he has been able to practice the traditional way of cultural documentation through Coast Salish art and has preserved his grandfather’s teachings for his own grandchildren, and has carved every one of our milestones as we’ve grown up. He takes great pride in sharing this artwork with the community, including a School District 68 instructional book in the 1990s called Art the Coast Salish Way, carvings in the Nanaimo Museum, a recent panel for the City of Nanaimo called Sque-em, and with his clientele, which includes collectors from all over the globe.
He is one of the small handful of artists who started the Coast Salish art revitalization movement that is alive and well today, and his experience has inspired generations of artists. As one of the original contributors to the preservation of this traditional art form, passing it on is essential. Not only have many young artists visited his studios over the years, but this art form has influenced his family. It has grown to be a highly cherished gift that is being passed on through the generations: my brother W. Joel Good is a highly accomplished Coast Salish carver and shares this tradition in a widespread manner; my sister and I have a clothing line called Ay Lelum-The Good House of Design, where we create clothing with the family artwork for all to wear.
My father is one man who visited the archives, and with the knowledge he gained he revitalized an ancient art form and shared it with multiple generations and all types of people over the past four decades. The ripple effect of this was possible because of the visual aspect of historical evidence found in archival visits—the missing piece. It was like finding the missing mate to the separated split-design and restoring cultural balance once again. Not only has this journey enabled him to find himself as an artist, which solidified a sense of balance and belonging for him and his family, but the historical significance of revitalizing this visual language goes far beyond his experience within the walls of the Royal BC Museum. He has been able to document the stories taught to him in his childhood while at the same time preserving the written visual language for himself, his family and his community. As long as we have archival collections the art will never be lost, and it is the recognition of those who understand and translate it that will make all the difference for our future. This process of embracing the past, connecting the generations, confirming the oral history and recording the teachings through art, affects the future for all us and makes us feel that we belong.