Traditional and Contemporary Art

April 1, 2003 - Condolences are pouring into the family and community of Ditidaht artist Art Thompson who passed away Sunday night with cancer. Among those saddened by the news is Sharon Thira, program manager with the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, located in West Vancouver on Squamish Nation territory "I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Art Thompson, the Nuu Chah Nulth artist who designed our logo and donated our conference logo to us died last night of cancer. He was a great supporter of the Project and was one of the first outspoken and courageous speakers on the abuses suffered in residential schools. The funeral will be held on Thursday in Port Alberni. May this Thunderbird now fly free."

March 31, 2003 - There's great sadness, upon hearing of the passing last night of the distinguished, contemporary artist Art Thompson of Ditidaht. Circumstances surrounding his death have not been revealed. Art Thompson was born in 1948 and in his very early years was forced to attend residential school in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. In recent years he has been very vocal about his experiences there and about his healing and road to recovery regarding the pain from abuse and alcoholism that plagued his life. He was a strong advocate for survivors of abuse at the schools and was one of the first to have his case heard in court and to receive ackonwledgement of what happened to him and received some compensation through the court process. Art Thompson, whose traditional name is Tsa-qwa-supp, created the logo of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, formerly the Provincial Residential School Project. When he spoke of his experiences and his fight for justice he was quick to explain, - -It Wasn't about Money. We Wanted to Document What Happened - as Part of History.- -At home as a young child he spoke two Indian languages. His father's Ditidaht words and his mother's Coast Salish words. School would change all of that and rob him of his culture. Art Thompson is one of the best-known Aboriginal artists in Canada. Although his experiences at school still travel with him, his art helped him heal and get back some of his culture. Internationally recognized for his art work, in the fall 2002 his work was featured at Seattle’s Stonington Gallery.


( The following article was written by Tehaliwaskenhas - Bob Kennedy, Oneida based on a presentation he heard made by Art Thompson and discussion with him last year at Camousin College )

The Story of Number 511 - It Wasn't about Money
"We Wanted to Document What Happened - as Part of History"

"We have some status in our family. Chieftain status," said Art Thompson as he began his presentation to students at Camousin College, in Victoria, British Columbia. It's like someone in mainstream society saying there's royalty in their family. But can you imagine someone of royalty living Art Thompson's life?

The world-renowned artist of Ditidaht and Cowichan ancestry, is a survivor of residential school. He recalled how his "assimilation process" first began when he was hospitalized at the age of three with tuberculosis. It was the start of "being looked after by white people". In 1954 when he recovered, it was time to go to school, and his first contact with real racism. He was six years old. He traveled with his mother, his brothers and sister by train from Duncan to Port Alberni. Unlike the rest of the people they weren't allowed to sit in the regular cars. They had to ride in the baggage car.

When they arrived, they had to walk four miles to get to the institution-looking 'res' school, a big brick building with its long stairs - a place Thompson would learn to loathe. He would later learn the land the school was built on, had belonged to a great, great grandfather. "If there's any irony in life, it's that I was imprisoned on my own land."

It became part of Thompson's trauma - added to the three years in hospital away from home and family. "One of the hardest things is to see your parents walk away, and leave you there for ten months out of the year," he recalled. "As soon as your parents are out of sight, your culture is attacked." He remembers his brothers talking to him in 'Indian' and him telling them, "it's going to be okay".

But it never was okay. Each September entire villages were stripped of all their children six years and older. They were scattered into different schools. There were five kids from Ditidaht at the Port Alberni Indian Residential School, recalled Thompson. At times they tried singing songs from home, but they were forbidden to speak their language. "We were beaten severely for speaking our language". The Lord's Prayer and indoor religion replaced outdoor ceremonies and Ditidaht prayers.

Nitinat Narrows and the beautiful vistas up and down the coast and the familiar freedom and abundance of fish was far, far away from this barbed wired fenced-in place. "When you get to the school you're cut off from your traditional foods and habits." Assimilation swirled around them always. They were separated from culture and family, and they learned to hate their parents who left them there. "It wasn't good for your self esteem that the parents who brought you into the world didn't care for you."

Thompson only started talking to his mother in the last twelve years about this whole situation and how she felt about it... "About leaving us there". He could never understand why she walked away and never looked back. "When it finally got reconciled, she said they were crying too, as they were leaving." His father passed away twenty seven years ago and didn't "have a chance to talk about any of the things we're dealing with today". Because they were separated from their family, he and his brothers never had good lines of communication with parents and sisters. They're all still trying to deal with it today.

For him and his brothers, introduction to the school included its characteristic humiliation and degradation, "a shaved head, being de-loused and paraded naked to a stock room to get clothes and bedding". Also, they became known by their numbers, not their names. Art Thompson became #511. His brothers were 509 and 510. Their sister was in the same school. Segregated, they never got to see her all the time they were there ... ten years.

In 1993, drug-free for almost two decades but a self-confessed "hugger of alcohol" he had to go back and revisit that place … in his mind and "the abuse of all kinds". He went through the indignity of court proceedings and having to deal with the abuse he suffered as a boy at the hands of the infamous school supervisor and repugnant offender Arthur Plint - convicted, but still not apologetic to Thompson and the others. There were nineteen plaintiffs in a class action suit that Thompson didn't want to get involved in at first, "Mainly because in my mind I felt I was okay - I was strong, I didn't need to get better". He resisted, but was swayed by his cousin Melvin Goode and his persuasive words and the reminders from the others during their talks about terror and trauma --- of what they had been through and what still needed to be addressed.

Thompson received cash compensation but said it wasn't so important, besides that wasn't the end of it, "I believe it stays with you the rest of your life. The shame and indignity follow you around, no matter what therapy you get." What about others who still wait to make their way through the 'system' and all the media emphasis on compensation? Thompson mused, "It is my belief that for a lot of the plaintiffs in a lot of these cases it wasn't about money. We wanted to document what happened … as part of history."


Art Thompson Received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2000
for Art and Culture

Art Thompson has taken the pain suffered from being an abused child and turned it into astonishing beauty. Born in the village of Whyac on Vancouver Island, Mr. Thompson was taken from his family and sent to the Alberni Indian Residential School where he survived horrendous abuses. He ran away from the school for the last time at age 13 and secured work as a logger. He eventually found his gift in 1967 when he enrolled in Camosun College in Victoria to study art. Mr. Thompson is now recognized across Canada as a Master artist. His carvings, paintings, jewellery, and prints, all derived from his Nuu-chah-nulth and Cowichan ancestry, are sought after internationally by embassies, art galleries, collectors and museums alike. When he began work as an artist, he focused on two-dimensional design and sculptures. Then, in the 1970's, when he began engraving silver and gold, he was considered to be the foremost Nuu-chah-nulth jeweller at that time. In the late 1970's, Mr. Thompson began working on a monumental scale, carving numerous totem poles and panels for commissions in Canada, the United States, and his Nuu-chah-nulth homeland. He designed both the medals awarded at the 1994 Commonwealth Games as well as the Queen's Baton. He lectures internationally on First Nations culture and art. As a philanthropist, he has raised thousands of dollars for a variety of civic causes, including the Victoria Symphony and Camosun College, and many First Nations causes related to education. His contributions as an artist and civic leader earned him a special Citizen Award from the City of Victoria in 1995.

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