The Grave at Ashcroft – I

By Bruce Serafin | May 20, 2004

It was in the Glenbow Museum in 1990. That day it was raining and cold; and because we were tired something of the darkness and cold seemed to have come in with us.

Still, the exhibit amazed me. Spread out in a quiet, third-storey room the size of a city block were hundreds of spotlit aboriginal artifacts, some in glass cases, some on glass-topped tables, some hanging from the ceiling. Apart from the spotlights and the track lights on the walls, the room was dark. And it was well carpeted – as we walked our steps were silenced.

Sharon let me linger. We looked at Inuit parkas; at a kayak and an immense tipi; at needles made of fishbones and quills; at leather pots and meatbags; at papooses; at small woven boxes and knives made of whalebone and stone. We stared at the large black and white photographs hanging on the walls.

Then I saw something that enchanted me.

“Look at that jacket,” I whispered. “When I was a kid I would have given a lot to have had a jacket like that.”

And for a few moments the jacket – with its coloured quills, its leather in places nearly transparent – thrilled me as if I was once more a boy in Hinton bent over a picture book showing images of the hunters who had traded with The Hudson’s Bay. Ever since I’d been small I had imagined hunting in winter wearing fur-lined mukluks and carrying a rifle slung on a strap over a parka made of fringed buckskin. I had so yearned for the feeling of walking through the bush in this perfect gear that thirty years later I could instantly summon up what the mukluks and parka had meant to me. And now, in front of me, hanging in a glass case, stood something commensurate with the dream-objects that had so excited me when I was a boy.

But I was older now; and as I stared at the jacket I saw with a small shock how stiff and shapeless it was, how little opportunity it held out for individual expression.

Even the headdresses – magnificently feathered, five and six feet long – seemed more beautiful in their glass case than they would have been on a person. I thought of the natives I’d seen as a boy at the Calgary Stampede who had worn such headdresses, and I remembered how depersonalized they had been, how the headdress, with its complicated visual form, had seemed to overpower its wearer and reduce him to a kind of abstract symbol. At that moment I realized that such clothes were like motorcycle gang clothes or folk costumes at an ethnic dance: they didn’t enhance the individual but made him disappear, made him seem replacable by anyone else.

It was the same with the tipi. Huge and glamourous, it drew us to it. A tipi! And so much larger than the tipis of my imagination. But looking inside, noting that a dozen people could have lived there, I felt dismayed. The interior looked squalid. A handmade pot hung from the middle over a firepit, sleeping places were laid out, leather bags were attached to the walls. All the artifacts were rough-looking.

I touched the tipi, brushed it with my fingers. The decorations on the tipi were crude – geometrical designs executed with a thick paint or chalklike substance. There was no sophistication to them.

We wandered around the room. I felt mentally quickened, but also upset. The roughness of the artifacts disturbed me; it spoke of a world so unlike the one I’d grown up in that the most basic notions – of hygiene, of fashion, of time, of intellectual possibility – would have been different.

None of what I saw was expected. I had thought I’d see beauty – I had imagined I would find glamour in the room. And I had. But the glamour I’d found was a childhood thing, something like the glamour of a pirate’s turned-down boots; and it had given way to a vision of the stone-age world from which the objects had come and a sense of darkness and privation.

And then Sharon touched my arm. “I’m really getting tired,” she said. I nodded, and we left the museum, driving back to our campsite through a downtown Calgary which that evening, when we stopped at a red light – with huge buildings on each side darkening the street so that it was as if we drove in a manmade canyon, and with only one person on the sidewalk, a dark-skinned man wearing a turban who stared at us as if the world had come to an end – which that evening seemed so bleak it amazed me that human beings by the hundreds of thousands had decided to live there. And as we drove out of Calgary through kilometer after kilometer of suburbs and then into the dark, I saw – distressed by the vision the Glenbow had given me but at the same time excited by it – I saw the landscape around me in a different way than I had before, as a place both familiar and unfamiliar, just as when you fly in a plane for the first time you register with a shock the pattern of streets below you and the suddenly small cars moving slowly on those streets in rigid lines.

Coming back into BC the driving was hard; in the fog and rain outside Golden we found ourselves travelling at twenty kilometers an hour. And after that the dark weather seemed to be always at our backs. We drove through Revelstoke, camping outside of Three Valley Gap, through Sicamous and Salmon Arm, and then down into Kamloops. The next day we drove west to Cache Creek, then up highway 97.

That evening as we drove out toward Brunsen Lake we passed two Natives standing on the side of the road. An older model Honda Civic had gone off the highway into the ditch. The two men were looking at it. They were bulky men with severe faces, dressed in dark clothes.

We stopped the car a bit up the road and got out. A week earlier I might have felt anxious speaking to the two men. Now I was concerned; I wanted to hear what they had to say.

“What happened?’

“Car drove off.”

“Is anybody hurt?” Sharon asked.

“Nobody there.”

“They walked off.”

“This happens all the time.”

“Kids. They don’t know…”

“Is there a campsite up ahead?’

“You can ask at the reserve.”

It was starting to rain when we arrived at the Alkali Lake reserve. The sky was a muddy grey and the wind lifted the windshield wipers even when I stopped the car to look at the statue of Jesus that was at the reserve entrance.

Painted blood dripped from the statue. Almost with a shock I recognized that blood: it went back in time to my childhood; it expressed the Catholicism I had grown up with. Yet not since I’d left Hinton had I seen my childhood religion presented like this. Only in books, in pictures that came from old Europe, had I found anything similar. Now, seeing it here in front of me, the statue looked horrific. It suited the reserve, though, which that evening seemed to be situated at the end of the world.

We drove slowly up the reserve’s gravel road. Over all that we passed hung a terrible, killing stillness that Sharon and I recognized from other reserves we had gone through – the stillness of a place where people have absolutely nothing to do.

Each house had concrete steps – steps without rails, a block of cast concrete – going up to the raised front door.

And just as I had recognized the blood on the statue, I recognized those steps. In Hinton, as a small child, I had played beside just such steps, steps in front of company houses, the concrete crumbling where it met the dirt, and in and among the bits of concrete and dirt, daddy longlegs, crawling in and out of webby holes.

At one of the houses a man was standing on the top step in front of the door. A boy was standing in the dirt yard below him. Both were looking at me. I went up to ask for directions.

“I hear there’s a campsite out near Brunsen Lake. Do you know how to get to it?’

“No, I don’t,” the man said.

“Is there anyone around who could tell us?”


He wasn’t being unfriendly; his face was a mask of grief. And for a day or two afterward, whenever I shut my eyes I could see him, standing there on the porch of his house, the boy (maybe his son) in the muddy yard, the bush at his back, the rain falling and a few hundred yards away that statue by the gravel turnaround.

When we finally found the campsite we unpacked the car. The storm had been at our backs all day; now it caught up to us. With the wind and rain, the muddy sky quickly turned dark. And then we discovered a further darkness: the site had been fouled by cattle, with piles of dung on the bare ground and a filthy scum of excrement and dead plants and dead fish all along the edge of the lake.

That night in the tent I lay in my sleeping bag staring up at the dark. Over the past weeks I had become used to camping, used to being in our tent; but now the wind blowing the tent walls, the cold rain, the sounds of the cattle in the bush, the thought of their dung lying on the muddy ground outside and, each time I closed my eyes, the image of the man standing on the porch of his house and the blackness that had seemed to me to be all around him – all this came together in a sense of threat.

I strained to hear noises. I knew that in a place this run down (we had already seen beer cans and broken whiskey bottles on the edge of the bush) drunkards could come; and I thought that the young Native boys and girls, so on their own and angry, might have an all-night spree, something we’d already experienced. We were out in the world, just as I’d been with my dad and my brother Mike in various motels in the US in earlier years; and just as I had then, I felt desolation: I could feel the site’s wildness and indifference pressing against the tent walls.

On the coast, in a reversal of the usual pattern, something like a drought had set in. And about a week after we came back, on the thirty-third or thirty-fourth consecutive day of sunshine, with ripe blackberries covered with dust in the vacant lots downtown, I saw in a window of the Hotel Vancouver a soapstone carving of an Inuit hunting a seal that was exactly like the small carving I’d bought for my mom when I was fifteen.

I stared at it. Then, reacting, maybe, or building on what I had thought and felt in the Glenbow and afterward, I started to look in other store windows that displayed Inuit and Indian art – stores on Georgia Street and then, later that afternoon, on Granville Street on the south side of the Granville Bridge.

I recognized it all. None of it had changed. I had noticed this before, or half-noticed it; but now the Native art in the store windows looked like tourist shop stuff, stuff that hid what was going on. And while I was looking in the window of an expensive gallery on Granville near Broadway, standing in shadow with the hot sun shining onto the street not far from the sidewalk’s edge, I realized that this tourist shop art signalled a degradation so widespread I had lived my whole life without noticing it.

All around me people were shopping. They looked well-off; this was a well-off part of town. Most were young. A couple walked toward me. They wore the clothes that were just starting to become popular: hiphugger pants on the young woman (blond, smooth-faced, in her late twenties), and on the wide-shouldered, lantern-jawed man a plain poplin jacket, like a service station jacket, with script on its left upper pocket mimicking the name that would have been on the jacket his had been modelled after. A sophisticated style; and the bland faces and good haircuts of these young people, different from the faces and haircuts Sharon and I had seen on our travels, sharpened the feeling of shame I felt, looking in that window.

That evening clouds gathered and a wind blew, bending the branches of the acacias outside my apartment. With my pack not yet unpacked and with all the windows open but still feeling stuffy and closed in, I tried to relate my disillusionment (but disillusionment isn’t right; it was more a sense of excitement) to the book I was reading, an essay by Claude Levi-Strauss on the ceremonial masks of Canada’s west coast Natives.

The book contained photographs of these masks. As I read, I kept looking at them. I tried to see in them the radiant skeleton of meaning that Levi-Strauss had found. (I also kept looking at them, I realize now, because with their recessed or stalk-like eyes, they had something of the cyborg quality that had so fascinated my friend Ronny Ballard and me in Allenby Landing when we were in our early teens reading comic books and science-fiction.)

Levi-Strauss had concentrated on two kinds of mask. One kind was light in colour, had protruding, stalk-like eyes, a gaping mouth out of which hung a carved tongue, and a trimming of stiff, upright, light-coloured feathers; the other kind was dark in colour, had deeply recessed eyes, a pursed mouth, and a trimming of limp brown hair. Noticing that these two kinds of masks seemed to have a “symmetrical opposition” to each other, Levi-Strauss had made a decision: he had decided that the masks’ physical features must have been determined by a system. He had further decided that the significance of these features couldn’t be understood until the system itself was understood. Then he had asked this question. Could we “perceive, between the origin myths for each type of mask, transformational relationships homologous to those that, from a purely plastic point of view, prevail among the masks themselves?”

A hard question. But sitting there in my apartment with the rain at last starting to fall, his book engrossed me.

The objects in the Hotel Vancouver windows had been presented as art. But these masks weren’t art. Levi-Strauss, I realized when I was two-thirds of the way through his book, hadn’t stood me in front of them and asked me to contemplate them as if they were. To have done so, he’d made clear, would have been to ignore everything important about the masks. Instead he’d shown me that every one of the masks’ features was determined by a system of myths and uses, and that explaining these features wasn’t a matter of giving me the “meaning” of the masks but rather of making the masks intelligible.

In a way it was simple, what he had done. He had done with the masks what you would do with a traditional wedding dress if you were asked to explain it to a Tibetan teenager, say. You would tell her that the dress had a ceremonial use only, that it wasn’t worn every day; you would explain that its physical features got their significance from this ceremonial use, that its white colour, for instance, derived its impact from a system of colours in which white stood for virginity, black for mourning; you would explain the veil and the bride’s bouquet and you would maybe try to mimic something of the occasion on which the dress was worn. But you wouldn’t treat the dress as a work of art and attempt to express what it “meant” to you.

In early October the sunshine returned. The things that Sharon and I had seen on our travels stayed with me. They didn’t dissipate; they weren’t replaced by the ordinary events of my life.

By mid-October I had fallen into the habit of walking downtown on the weekends and spending time in the dark little library of the Vancouver Art Gallery. After three or four hours in there reading, I’d go outside onto the bright street, smoke and watch a couple of Native carvers who sat bent over their blocks of wood on the sidewalk outside Duthie Books.

They sat on the sidewalk like beggars. They worked slowly, keeping their heads down, not looking up at the people who walked past. Slowly they chipped at the blocks of wood with their knives, turning them into crude totem poles. They sat in a litter of chips. No one bought the things they were making. It was hard to look at them. They embarrassed me; I never watched them for long.

Felicity, the librarian, a woman of noticable reserve, wore long dresses and scarves. When I asked her a question her eyes widened and she shivered or trembled slightly. One day I said: “What d’you think about the carvers out by Duthie’s?”

That small tremble. “What do you mean?”

“Those two Indian guys that are working on the corner.”

“I know the two you mean. Do you mean, what do I think of their work?”

“Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“Yeah, sort of.” For a minute I didn’t know what else to add. Then I said: “Do you think it’s art?”

“Aha. So that’s it.”

“Well, do you?”


“What is it then?”

She smiled. “You’re interrogating me.”

“I’m trying to figure something out.”

She asked me what I was trying to figure out, and I wasn’t sure how to answer her. Finally I said: “I guess what I want to know is, how does an artwork differ from an artifact?”

She thought about it for a long time. I had started leafing through a book when she said: “An artwork shows – deliberately – the trace or mark of an individual temperament. An ego. And it doesn’t have any use.”

“Is that it?”

“I think so.”

My question must have intrigued her. A half hour or so later, while I was bent over an issue of Artforum, she came up to me and whispered, “There’s something else. An artwork has a relationship to art history. It’s a kind of research or inquiry. It shows an individual talent contesting art history or in some way coming to terms with it.”

“What about a Haida mask?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

I thought then of the Native carvers sitting on the sidewalk in their jeans and ball caps, the caps and their long hair covering up their faces. I thought of the tourists standing above them and smiling down at them; or else glancing at them with a small grimace and walking on.

Why hadn’t I seen this before?

As I finished Levi-Strauss back at home I sometimes stared at a flyer I had recently picked up advertising a public auction of NATIVE INDIAN ART & ARTIFACTS. I noticed its familiar names – Bill Reid and Robert Davidson – and subjects: bear, hunter, seal, raven mask. The carvers on the sidewalk; and now this. What was going on here, with this listing of aboriginal objects as if they were farm implements?

If the objects were art, I thought – art in Felicity’s sense, the product of art history meeting an individual talent – then why were they being sold like this? Other artworks made in Vancouver weren’t sold this way. This was how Aztec things were sold in Mexico; it was how things made by the aboriginal people were sold in Australia.

No. These objects – Mexican, Australian, Western Canadian – weren’t art at all but stereotyped artifacts that were produced in great quantities and were in each case the product of cultures that had suffered degradation.

So what were the buyers looking for? A token of that degradation that would give them the secret, barely conscious pleasure of comparing their situation to the one that produced the object? An exoticism, so that they could feel simultaneously sophisticated and primitive? Both, most likely, I thought, with one thing impossible to untangle from the other.

Because wasn’t it true, I thought, that tribal artifacts had an innocence which art works by necessity lacked? Whether you were looking at a mask, an Iranian rug, a Hell’s Angels jacket or a ceremonial dress like a wedding dress, you noticed that no matter how striking the objects were they lacked that ability to look directly back at you that you immediately recognized in a work of art. You sensed their innocence – their vulnerability to stereotyping – because you saw their typicality, the fact that they weren’t the product of individual introspection but rather of the mythology of a tribe.

In fact, I thought, the more you immersed yourself in an artifact the more subject matter you found. Not “meaning” – subject matter. To give this subject matter its due, you needed to present the artifact in a context that made it intelligible; and only the museum had the means to do so. To walk in an art gallery’s white space around Dzonokwa masks or Hell’s Angels jackets with their death’s heads and distinctive lettering and then produce comments of appreciation – that was fatuous. Only when you started to look at objects like this as something other than art could you start to see them.

Or so I thought. But even as I thought it, I knew I was missing something.

This is the first of two parts.

3627 words, May 20, 2004


  • Bruce Serafin

    Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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