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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Big beaver : the celebration of a contemporary totem pole by Norman Tait, Nishga Fisher, Lizanne


In April 1982, Nishga carver Norman Tait hosted the raising of a fifty-five foot totem pole named Big Beaver at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. Over the winter of 1981-82 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tait and five apprentices had carved the pole with images inspired by a story given to Tait by his maternal uncle, Rufus Watts, a man Tait calls grandfather. In the early spring of 1962, Watts had taught dances and songs to Tait, Tait's apprentices and other family members and the dancers created costumes and ceremonial paraphernalia for the pole raising ceremony in Chicago. In Chicago in April, members of the Northwest Coast artistic community and staff and patrons of the Field Museum participated in the contemporary Nishga cultural performance. This thesis is an ethnography of the events leading up to and including the pole raising ceremony. It is a case study of the revival of native Indian traditions, a revival that has been occurring on the Northwest Coast since the 1950's. The work addresses four questions. 1. How are native Indian visual and performance forms created from orally transmitted tradition? It describes how the contemporary native carver and his grandfather brought forward their traditions. It discusses the role of museums, anthropology, media, marketplace and other artists. 2. What is the nature of the communities generated by the artistic activity of a contemporary native carver? Included are descriptions of the Nishga and Northwest Coast artistic communities' participation in an expanded native Indian cultural project. 3. How does a museum contextualize a native Indian cultural performance and what meta-messages are communicated? The Field Museum refers back to the Native American participation in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago to contextualize their events in 1982. Were the messages that were overtly expressed in 1893 covertly communicated in 1982? 4. What changes occur in traditions that are brought forward in a contemporary cultural performance? There is a simplification of the traditional Nishga system of cultural messages and a shift in emphasis. There are also changes in the types of alliances for the production of the contemporary totem pole and an adaption of the traditional ritual system for the modern pole raising. The thesis concludes with some questions and discussion on how to assess contemporary native Indian cultural performance in non-traditional settings.

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