The Grave at Ashcroft – II

By Bruce Serafin | May 26, 2004

Over the next couple of years my thoughts on Native art began to seem inadequate. Other things did too. I had started a magazine, The Vancouver Review; but I was still a country boy, someone who had spent most of his adult life in the penitential environment of the post office, and like a con I hadn’t entirely grown up.

And now the magazine was consuming me. One evening, after a particularly bad meeting when I had been shouting and someone had told me to calm down, I was lying on my couch with my arms tightly crossed on my chest, feeling a self-loathing so extreme my body was rigid.

Sharon sat on the couch with me. After a while she said, “Maybe you should go out of town again. You’ve been saying you want to.”

I said nothing.

“You can’t go on like this. This is no good.”

I lay there silent for a while. Finally I said, “I’m afraid to start.”

“Well, sure.”

And so once more I headed out. I was on leave from the post office; to make money I had been TAing at Simon Fraser University. The TAship ended. And it was now that I started the series of trips which in the end would give me a vison of the world I had been born into that went far beyond anything I had had before. On a grey Sunday morning in late April, feeling deeply melancholy, with rain falling so that the cherry blossoms lay like wet snow on the sidewalk, I left Vancouver.

I wasn’t sure where I was going. Turning onto the freeway uncertainty ballooned in me. But by the time I reached Hope the sun had come out; and when I stopped to piss near Spences Bridge and smelled the dry sunlit air and saw the bar of sun on the river I felt something close to exaltation. Everything around me – above all the silence and the dry, perfumed air – spoke of my childhood; and inside me a ribbon of images started to unspool.

That evening I stopped in Cache Creek. I rented a room in a cinder block motel that had cartoon images of Tweety and Sylvester painted on it. It was a beautiful evening; after supper I opened my door. Outside, black storm clouds were gathering above desert hills brilliant in the last sun.

I clicked on a show on BC’s Knowledge Network. “Gwaii Haanas,” it was called. Evocative music played – something hypnotic. A Haida mask filled the lower right of the screen. Behind it, cloudy skies billowed, ocean thundered on a thickly forested beach.

I saw right away that the mask was superimposed on the landscape. But then – maybe because I was away from the rut of habit and maybe because outside the door rain had started to fall, rain I could smell and could see, brilliant as white rice in the desert sun – maybe for these reasons I realized that the mask was meant to stand for the complex clouds, the tangled forest. And at that point I saw that the mask on the TV screen was being presented to me not as an artifact or as an art object, but as an image.

And with that, everything I had so far thought about the masks was turned upside down. They had another power, I realized, a power that the capitalism that had marginalized them was now making use of. I saw – and standing in the doorway, excited, it now seemed so obvious – I saw that this power was bound up with the political rising-up of the Natives.

For years the artifacts of Canada’s aboriginal peoples had been prized for their authenticity. They had retained their object status; it was their thingness that had counted about them. They hadn’t entered the circuit of modern capitalist culture and become images. And so they had been static, lacking the fluidity, the easy ability to adapt and change, that contemporary images had.

But now – and how clear it was, now that I could see it – now the artifacts produced by Canada’s Native peoples had burst free of this constraint of thinghood and become the source of a flood of images that lent themselves perfectly to political use.

The drum; the pole with the thunderbird wings; the black and red Haida face: they were everywhere, part of BC’s visual culture. With their simplicity and strong forms they had an iconic power that easily matched that of the red head on a Chicago Bulls jacket or the red and white Coca-Cola logo.

And people recognized this. Everyone could feel the force of these images. The technological revolution that had led images to be reproduced everywhere for essentially commercial reasons had now gone to work on the artifacts of aboriginal cultures and transformed them into vivid and powerful signs. Standing in the doorway, smelling the smell of newly wet dust, I remembered things I had seen on my travels but only partly taken in: images on the mastheads of Indian newspapers, on T-shirts worn by Native kids; and I remembered the $1500 black and red dresses designed by Robert Davidson and sold in Sergio Leone back in Vancouver.

That night I walked in the rain down Highway 97 to the Husky restaurant. I felt a need for company; and in the crowded Husky, hearing through the open door the trucks hissing by on the wide highway, I looked around, reflecting on what I had discovered.

Drawings of eagles and cowboys hung on the walls. Beside me at the counter an old man wearing a grey cardigan and a black cowboy hat handled his cigarette. I noticed tourists, drunks from the Oasis Hotel across the highway, two teenagers – and a fat man and his fat wife, both in shorts, both eating strawberry short cake with whipped cream. The young wife, her fat legs spread apart, her stomach in its tee shirt a kind of sack or bag hanging over her pudenda, ate with her face only inches above her food.

I was in the Interior, in the world of my childhood; and I felt I had penetrated it. Sipping my coffee, smoking, listening (“Darling, you can have the biggest piece of pie we got,” I heard the waitress say), I lined up my thoughts. Then I got out a pen. Scribbling fast, I started to make notes on my placemat. The scribbled words only abstractly represented what I felt and thought; but still they excited me.

All through the western world regions and cities are engaged in a life-or-death struggle to be noticed by the planetary culture, to be found attractive, significant, interesting. In this attempt to be noticed, the tourist trade is of the utmost importance. And what tourists want is a “real” place, something different from the malls and cable TV back home. They want that cafe where you can smell bitter cigarettes and even more bitter coffee, that cobbled street, that open air market, that indigenous landscape, that feeling of “history,” that little shop where you can buy Peruvian sweaters and authentic things made of brass. And in city after city, as governments become desperate for the tourist dollar, even the thinnest legends of a past and a place are being shaped into material spaces, ad campaigns, posters and objects that tourists can respond to.

It’s the same everywhere. In England local governments feverishly play up the past, with its pubs and winding streets; in Italy ad campaigns mingle la dolce vita and Michelangelo; in Australia it’s the outback and visions at Ayers rock; and here in Supernatural BC, extending right into this Husky with its drawings on the walls of eagles and cowboys, it’s the dream of a native past in harmony with nature, a dream that takes into account an overwhelming landscape – dark islands rising out of the rain, oceans alive with whales, primordial forests, range after range of mountains.

An abstract. But like a fisherman’s net it held a catch.

Crossing the highway next morning in the cold wind and brilliant sun, I went over to the Oasis Hotel to get a paper. A fat woman and her fat daughter – so much obesity in the country! – were reading The Province; with their bulk, they comandeered the entire rack of books and magazines.

I tried to edge around them; the daughter elbowed me.

“Excuse me.”

She sized me up. She was about ten years old. She was sullen, mimicking her mom. She didn’t move.

I became afraid of her. Then I edged in. She didn’t budge. I pushed; and, pushing, unable to get at The Globe, with my shoulder pressed hard against the ten-year-old girl’s immovable arm, I started flipping through a tourist’s book, The Elders are Watching.

It was a picture book; normally I wouldn’t have looked at it. But after “Gwaii Haanas,” flipping through it, I noticed the same juxtapositon of landscape and native artifact, culminating in a painting of Vancouver in slanting rain, and, faintly visible in that rain, the ghosts of old totem poles.

So here it was again. Looking at the picture I realized that products like this had become so ubiquitous that if you lived in BC you hardly noticed them. Everywhere was this superimposition of landscape and aboriginal artifact, the one supposed to evoke the other.

And it worked! Even pressed against the pudgy girl, I could see it. Look at a pole, and BC was summoned up. British Columbia: it was a dream made up of grey seas dotted with black-green islands, mist, tall cedars, waterfalls falling from the impenetrable jungle on the north sides of mountains – and, of course, flying above that waterfall, a brown and white eagle, straight out of Bateman or Davidson.

A dream. But without such dreams a place hardly exists. The old racist images still lingered here in the Oasis – the fat woman and her daughter had started to look through a turntable rack of postcards that included images of naked Indian girls and sad-eyed Indian kids. But a few days later in Merritt, crossing the street at the Coldwater Hotel with two men wearing big hats and faded jeans worn ripped at the bottoms over their cowboy boots, I went out of the hot sun into a drugstore; and there, on the counter’s glass surface, beside the Maybelline and Revlon products, I saw pieces of the new idea: little totem poles, miniature masks, cedar boxes, dreamcatchers with feathers hanging from them – a conucopia of objects made in China and Hong Kong, each contributing its tiny part to the dream vision of the place.

Once again that startled recognition. So much had happened to the civilization I’d grown up in for these objects to be here. I went outside and stood for a moment squinting against the intense sun; and at the end of the block I saw something that seemed connected with an almost painful irony to what I had just seen in the drugstore.

About ten Natives, some drinking from a jug of wine, were sitting or standing near a lamp post in the parking lot of the new shopping centre. This was their place, the place where they felt at ease. And that day, tired after a night of poor sleep, with the hard sun shining and the wind blowing, I felt at ease too, sitting with them.

One of the people I sat with on the curb, a woman with a large dark head, turned and looked at me with drunken eyes that for a moment caught my own. She smiled with embarrassment.

“Hi. It’s a hot day, isn’t it," she said.

“It is.”

“Well – have a good day.”

“You too.”

I smoked and looked around. The kids walking by (Native kids as well as white) didn’t look twice at me or the people I sat with. Yet it was these people and their ancestors, I thought, who had given the province its most important cultural export.

An idea or set of ideas can seem small at first then grow and grow. Now an idea about Native culture that had hardly registered when I was a boy was altering Canada’s vision of itself. It was hallowing BC, this idea, giving it a mythic dimension. But hadn’t my own dreams also done that, all those years ago, those dreams of hunting in the winter bush?

The Ashcroft Reserve lay on a near-desert that stretched out to the west and out to the Thompson River canyon. A totem pole stood in front of the band office. The Ashcroft Band hadn’t known totems in the past; but poles were now a sign of Native culture throughout BC, and I recognized the change it stood for.

That day a hot wind blew. I had received permission to visit the graveyard; and as I walked out to it, licking my lips in the dry wind to moisten them, I felt I was crossing a warground on which ghosts still ran.

Springing out of the dry dirt, knee-high bunchgrass and grayish-green sage bent to the wind like a field of supplicants. These same plants heeled in the wind in the graveyard: it hadn’t been seeded with lawn. Only the barbed-wire fence circling the cemetery separated it from the rest of the plateau.

The hot late-afternoon sun splashed blinding pools of silver on the bleached wood posts – sticks, really – that held up the fence’s wires. I stood near the fence and listened, caught up in a silence so complete it seemed only the movement of the sun could properly register time’s passing. Nothing sounded but the wind. A half-mile away a silent truck moved through a cloud of slow-rising dust. Then there was nothing.

I walked up to the fence and pulled out a small stick tied to a piece of barbed wire. It had been jammed between the fence and the endpost of the fencegate in such a way that it held the endpost up rigid. With the stick removed and the gate’s endpost out of its shallow hole, the fencegate fell over, and I stepped over it into the cemetery.

Hammered into the grey dirt among the bunchgrass were old white-painted wooden crosses – the names and dates handwritten on them. I saw no monuments of granite or marble.

But among the crosses stood a new, heavier, varnished cross. It widened out at the bottom and had a thunderbird head on top painted in blue and red. A little totem. This grave was fresh: a piece of yellow ribbon, a red ribbon, some bouquets, and two overturned plastic vases containing dried-up flowers lay scattered about on it, blown by the wind.

I stared at the grave. Garish, loud in its shapes and colours, it seemed completely different from what was around it. The simple white crosses were poetic: they evoked time and legend, old cowboy and Indian stories that carried the pathos of the past. Look at those crosses and you were reconciled to everything – whatever agony had occurred here had been transformed into objects that seemed as much as the bunchgrass to bend to the wind and partake of the desert silence.

But this new grave cut through all that. With its squat thunderbird head, its messy flowers and already-faded ribbons, it shouted with the pain of present-day life. I looked at the blown-about things and thought: An actual family has been here. Grief and politics had mixed, were inseparable. What I saw seemed poignant, an attempt to break a kind of spell and do something new. The very garishness of the blue and red thunderbird head and plastic vases of flowers seemed to express contorted, red-faced unhappiness in all its shaming force. Anger was here, and its presence bestowed a life-giving impurity.

The grave existed in the context of modern life: beyond the graveyard I could see two satellite dishes (so science-fiction-like there in the desert) and the reserve’s new, vinyl-sided houses spaced far apart with no trees around them. But the grave also existed in the context of nature – the wind, the heat, the brilliant sun, the mesa west of the plateau that rose up dark and mythical in the late afternoon light. I felt the complexity of what was around me; and just as I’d been in the Glenbow, but in a new way, I was mentally quickened.

In the Glenbow I had seen a past cut off from the present. Now I saw a present that altered the past the way ivy alters a wall, tearing into it but at the same time, with its mass of leaves, transfiguring it and bringing it life.

One month later I drove back to Vancouver. It was like watching a video rewind. The desert hills reeled back to pines through which the sun flashed in strobe-like succession. The shadows that lay across the road came so quickly one after the other in the bright light that I started to get a headache. I crossed the Thompson, feeling eerily that I was going in reverse.

At Boston Bar I had soup. Moister air made its way into the car. By Hope the forest had once more become Brazilian and in its tangled depths I saw blue patches of the Fraser.

Then out into the great wide delta. Chilliwack, then Abbotsford. I remembered the rich stink of farms. I drove and drove, joining the afternoon traffic running along at 110 kph. Then I saw something I hadn’t expected: covering the hills, for mile after mile, I saw houses, subdivisions that seemed to have sprung up just in the few months I’d been away. In the Nicola River Valley one afternoon I had seen a hawk, its wings flaring in a strong wind, swoop and swoop above a creek in which the sunlight burned like electric wires; that night when I parked on the highway looking across the black plateau above the Thompson, the Milky Way overhead was so dense with stars that as I stared up I had to place my hands on the car’s hood to stay on my feet. The next morning I walked out from the highway through knee-high grass to a shack more than a hundred years old through whose small east window the low sun passed a core of incandescence that hung without support in the middle of the room. Staring at that shape of light whose radiance lit the walls, I had shivered; the room was haunted, though not in the usual sense: it was haunted by time. Compared to that room, the vast clumps of dwellings on their pigshaved hills seemed to be without history, no more connected to Sumas Mountain than the Arby’s restaurants and Video Stop stores I kept passing.

I drove west into the long shadows of the cars in front of me, past warehouses and tall fences with comic-book images painted on them. Then I turned toward Richmond. In Ashcroft I had read in The Vancouver Sun about a Bill Reid sculpture that had been installed in the new terminal; I wanted to see it before I went home and lost my sense of discovery.

When I arrived at the airport the sky was evening blue. A totem pole stood in front of the airport entrance. Inside, banners with native motifs hung from the ceiling. I walked down the huge bright corridor and listened to the intercom softly ping.

Then I saw it. Massive and luxurious, the sculpture completely suited the hall. It was lit up like a diorama. It had that stillness. Frozen warriors paddled a canoe, frozen creatures burst out of each other.

I went up to the sculpture and placed my hands on it and listened to the voices that filled the great hall like surf. A black man seated beside a big suitcase watched me. He was wearing a dazzling white shirt over white pants and had the long arms and legs that I associated with Africans. He sighed, puffing out his lips and exhaling a slow explosion of air.

“You like that art?” His voice was soft.

“It interests me.”

“Indigenous art.”

“In a way.”

“In a way, yes!” he said. “I agree. Or perhaps you could call it religious art.”

I smiled at him and stroked the sculpture. “It feels good.”

He laughed quietly, and I noticed the pink inside of his mouth, so black was his skin.

I asked him, “Where’re you from?”

“Liberia. Have you heard of it?”

I nodded. I wondered how to reply. Recently Liberia had become a site of horror. I said, “I understand it’s going through bad times right now, Liberia.”

“Oh yes. It is. It is, yes.” He nodded and fell silent. Then he said, “Can you guess what we have there now? Beside religious art, that is.”

“No, I’m sorry -”

“Red laterite dirt.”

“Excuse me?”

“Red laterite dirt.” He pronounced the words distinctly, looking at me.

I could think of nothing to say. The man blinked his eyes; then he smiled, his face gentle; he shook his head; he rose to his feet. He made a little motion with his hand toward the sculpture. "Enjoy that."

Pulling his wheeled suitcase behind him, he went off down the terminal.

I sat there for a while then walked to the end of the hall and sat by the tall windows that were filled with planes landing and taking off. The sun had just set. A white fire lit the west, as if a cauldron of molten ore had been tipped over the horizon. Through the smoked windows the jets in front of that fire looked ancient and scarred, their metal wings discoloured. Staring at their black shapes against the setting sun’s holocaust I seemed to be looking at the elements of a sacred cult.

Sitting there, I wondered about the Liberian. What had religion meant to him? Probably much like what it had meant to me. I had felt it all around me as a child. And I had imagined the Catholic church to be its home. But really, I thought, sitting in the Vancouver International Airport, watching the sky behind the jets darken, it had been the wind, the snow falling, the morning sun, the river, the trees, the hills and the sky that had composed what I had felt to be the substance of mystery. And now the natural world was being denuded. Less and less often did people experience night’s otherness or watch the sun rise in the morning. That world was going. It was the world I had known as a child. And that childhood world, with its mystery of the night sky, of the wind in trees and the silence of late afternoon – that world had flared out at me, like pieces of scattered jewels in the grass.

The Natives had responded to that. That was what their artifacts were about. And that was why even now those artifacts held power. Sitting there staring at the jets, I remembered that when I was thirty I had gone to Paris. There I had visited Notre-Dame Cathedral. I had found it to be horrific, brutal, a building that exemplified the brutal religion I had grown up with. What a revelation it had been, staring at its dark walls!

But places the Natives had found sacred – Writing-on-Stone, say, or Miette Canyon – these places had, over time, for me only grown in beauty. I had lost all trace of my childhood religion; but I hadn’t lost my sense of the mystery. And now, I realized, when I thought of Miette and places like it I also thought of the Milky Way and the dark matter that scientists said made up a large part of the universe.

Jets taxied in. Scarred and blackened, they seemed to embody the almost unimaginable migrations of money and people that were altering the world. I thought of the historyless subdivisions squatting on the hills near Coquitlam and Maple Ridge, their alienation from all that surrounded them; and at that moment the idea of the aboriginal object burned with suggestiveness. How much this idea involved! I felt it light up not just Native culture, but also the larger global culture, with its increasingly pressing concerns about cultural homelessness, psychological weightlessness, the ever greater dominance of capitalism and the unexpected sense that the past was no longer available to us in any genuine way except as an apparently endless sequence of images.

In late August that summer, in Cache Creek, I spent an hour talking to Jim Butall, a wildlife biologist who worked for BC’s environment ministry. Jim, that hot day, was low on blood sugar. But he talked willingly, apologizing when he yawned. He wanted me to see the picture.

“It isn’t the ranchers. It isn’t the hunters. They’re preserving the land. Some of them overgraze – but really, for the most part they’re preservationist. Most of the ranchers care for the land, and some care deeply. It’s you and me that are doing it. It’s the suburbs that are killing it. Bit by bit we take over more and more land. More and more. The bush goes. The streams go. The forest goes. The night sky goes, from the lights. And the animals – bit by bit they have nowhere to go.”

The next day I met with a geographer and archivist named Ken Favorholdt. A friendly, shy, knowledgeable man with bushy hair, he sat with me against one of the outbuildings of the Hat Creek Heritage Ranch and spoke to me about the weather forecasts on BC television and how they named the areas of BC: “They give you a sense of how much history people are retaining. You’ll notice that people don’t talk about the Cariboo or Chilcotin so much any more. That’s dying out.”

Ken told me that in my research I should look up where the reserves were located and how they got there. “You’ll find, I think, that they are located near the big spreads – the big spreads that the railway companies allocated to the ranchers who first came out. And the Indians were used really as a sort of slave labour. They got the bad land – the dry land, the land without water. Sometimes it’s picturesque: but its poor land too. And that shameful side of the story is never told.”

So the way in which the land had been settled had depended on a kind of slavery. Once again – like at the Glenbow and then at Ashcroft – my knowledge deepened.

And Ken understood my feeling for the glamour of cowboys and Indians. Here at the Hat Creek Ranch he and some other men had been putting on a show for the tourists, dressed up as members of the Thompson Brigade. The Brigade, Ken told me – couriers de bois and mixed bloods or half breeds (they were never called metis in BC) – had gone on long journeys for the North West Company from Kamloops down toward where Merritt is now, riding over beautiful grasslands, wearing red sashes and moccasins and beaded and fringed jackets like the ones I’d dreamt of as a boy. They had come from all over and had spoken French, English, Portuguese, Spanish and Chinook. Some of them wore boots up to their thighs and wide-brimmed drover’s hats, and carried parokeets for company. They drove across the trail, riding sometimes seven abreast, their spurs and rifles and gear chinking as they rode. They went back to the ancestors on my mom’s side, and may have been related to her, with her black hair and olive skin; and as Ken told me about them, I felt connected to my childhood dreams and the earliest stories that had thrilled me, the stories of Henry Kelsey travelling with the Indians across the prairie into the west.

The next day I drove up to Clinton, then drove off of 97 into the bush and onto the old Dog Creek Road. I drove to Gang Ranch, then up to Riske Creek on Highway 20 and west to Anahim Lake.

The Anahim Stampede was on; and a couple of kilometers off the highway, at a grassy meadow in the bush, riding up on horses, I saw people like the people who had filled my earliest dreams. They were cowboys now, many of them, wearing big hats and bright shirts instead of fringed buckskin. Yet as I watched them ride up, men, women, children, the children sometimes sitting two on a horse, I had a moment where I felt I had stepped into a world that was passing away.

The next day I left Anahim and drove back on Highway 20, then down 97 to Cache Creek. There I took a room in a motel across the street from the one I had originally stayed at. And on a Friday morning I drove on Highway 1 to Kamloops. It was a hot day, so hot I kept wetting my T-shirt with a water bottle and bringing the front of the T-shirt up to wipe my face.

Just outside of town, stopped at a red light in the heat, I looked around in shock.

The Kamloops I had last seen in 1973 had vanished. All up and down hillsides which had been covered in grass stood row upon row of apartment blocks, their windows glittering in the sun. I was reminded of the hundreds and even thousands of houses that Sharon and I had discovered on the outskirts of Calgary, stretching across the prairie as far as the eye could see. And, thinking of what I had seen in Anahim, I remembered the world I had known as a child, with its horses and horseflies, its night sky filled with stars, its huge puddles in the gravel streets in early spring and its wind and silence. For a moment I sat at the light surrounded by a world that no longer existed.

This is the second of two parts
4981 words, May 26, 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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