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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Copper ontology : being, beings, and belongings Damon, Katherine


Striking stone against metal, Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief and carver Beau Dick (1955-2017) and his companions broke the Haida copper, Taaw on the steps of the Canadian Parliament buildings in 2014. This act was a call to action in dialogue with the Indigenous grassroots movement, Idle No More, and a revival of a shaming rite prohibited for over 60 years under the Indian Act. Following their journey to Ottawa, Taaw and the other coppers were displayed in the University of British Columbia Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery's 2016 exhibition, Lalakenis/All Directions: A Journey of Truth and Unity, described as both cultural belongings and living beings. The categories of belonging and being communicate ongoing and active relationships between the coppers and First Nations communities, as well as their statuses as sentient entities. Endowed with supernatural power, or ’nawalakw in Kwak’wala, coppers occupy a central position within potlatch ceremonies. While the term ‘belonging’ could be said to have imposed Western property language and objecthood on the coppers, the term ‘being’ introduced the coppers as active subjects in the copper-breaking ceremony. Since the nineteenth century, anthropologists have studied coppers as both economic property and animate objects in the potlatch system. A discussion of coppers as living beings can also be situated within a recent return to animism in anthropology and a wider rethinking of human/nonhuman categories in new materialism and posthumanist theories. Locating the Lalakenis exhibition within the ongoing debate over the display of sacred materials, I propose an ontology of coppers, beings and belongings in the intercultural public spaces of the National and Provincial capitals and the Belkin Gallery.

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