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When I first walked into Dennis Nyce’s workshop, I was blown away by what I saw.
The afternoon sun streamed through three big picture windows, illuminating a room full of carvings, paintings, hand-made drums and wooden masks. Covering the walls were snapshots of one totem pole after another.
Dennis Nyce created all of it, including the totem poles on the wall. But despite the many projects he is working on, Dennis has been gracious enough to spend some time chatting with me.
Over coffee he has told me much about his own history and the difficulties his people have endured over the last 100 years. His own story is particularly fascinating, and it fits very well with the things I’ve already written on this trip…
Unfortunately, Dennis’s story begins in a bit of a dark place.
Dennis is a Nisga’a (pronounced “nish-ga”) man who grew up in the Nass River valley in northwestern British Columbia. As a child, he (like thousands of others) was forced into the infamous residential school program.
When he left the school, Dennis was a deeply wounded young man. Like many First Nations people, he struggled to find his place in a world that rejected his culture.
As Dennis explains, “People in our villages were told to cut down and burn their totem poles… to burn their masks, their regalia.” Traditional winter dances were made illegal and children were whisked away to residential schools to be “assimilated” into European/Canadian society.
By the time Dennis was a young adult, this war against First Nations culture had done exactly what it set out to do. “I was culturally and traditionally starved,” says Dennis. “I didn’t know the purposes of our feasts, our songs, our dances.”
Struggling with a loss of identity and wrestling with the shame of being abused, Dennis began to contemplate taking his own life.
I listened with wide eyes as Dennis told me stories from this dark period of his life, wondering how someone with so much pain and anger in his past could become the kind, gentle man sitting in front of me.
What was it that turned his life around?
The answer, as it turns out, comes from trades that have been in his family for generations: art and traditional woodcarving.
In the 1970’s, Dennis had the opportunity to watch as a totem pole carved by his father, grandfather and uncles was raised in his village. These men were renowned among the Nisga’a community for their skill. As Dennis recounts, it was the first pole to be raised in his village for 100 years.
This momentous event set Dennis on a transformative journey. He chose to follow in the footsteps of his father and began carving masks, creating traditional bentwood cedar boxes and learning the dances of his ancestors. He soon became well known for his own skill in creating totem poles.
“Through artwork I began to heal myself,” says Dennis.
Although he had a long journey ahead of him, his restoration had begun.
More than Personal
Before long, Dennis began seeing his artwork as more than just a tool for personal transformation. He soon realized that reclaiming the history and culture of his people could help others in his community reconnect with their past.
Today, Dennis takes every opportunity to teach his own people about their cultural roots. He performs masked dances to give insights into Nisga’a tradition, he writes poetry to share his experiences in residential schools and he tells stories from the past to anyone willing to learn.
Sitting in Dennis’s living room and hearing his story, I knew that I was also a recipient of this cultural reclamation. Like the artwork created in his sunny workshop, I too can bear witness to the truth of the past.
There may still be many obstacles ahead, but in at least one small workshop on Penelakut Island, one thing is abundantly true for First Nations people:
Their culture is being reclaimed!
- I recently helped Dennis set up a Facebook Page to showcase and sell his artwork. Take a look and “like” it if you want to show your support!
- Like the European colonizers, you and I can be very quick to judge different cultures as wrong or evil, instead of just different. Do you have any examples of this from your own life? How have your feelings changed? Feel free to share in the comments below.
- Pray for First Nations artists, like Dennis, who seek to reclaim their past. They are trying to overcome generations of cultural starvation.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.