Indian Music Of The Pacific Northwest Coast - Page 2

Notes by Dr. Ida Halpern


Chief Billy Assu was born about 1867 and died in 1965, having been decorated by two sovereigns for meritorious service amongst his people, after a lifetime of almost a century which encompassed two completely different ways of life for him and his people, the Kwakiutl.

His birthplace was Cape Mudge, on Quadra Island, and he belonged to the Eagle clan on his mother's side and to the Wolf clan on his father's. The matrilineal system prevailed with his people.

In his father's time the Kwakiutl had carried out raids, up and down the coast, to capture slaves. For the first two decades of his own youth they continued their wars and piracies intermittently. As white settlements appeared, however, changes came and loggers took over from traders.

At this point many Indians, their culture disintegrating and their numbers decimated by disease, alcohol, and demoralization, became extinct, or merged with the remains of other bands. The proud and warlike Kwakiutl, however, determined to fashion a place for themselves and planned accordingly.

Being intelligent as well as aggressive they knew the value of good leadership and looked for one amongst their chieftain ranks who could be trained to lead then successfully into the future.

Their choice fell on the young Billy Assu, son of Chief Kem Kolass, poet and song-maker. He was adopted by the old Chief Waniss, with the approval of the other chiefs, and was intensively trained for the role he was to undertake.

He had to master the complex details of all Kwakiutl social and ceremonial life with its wealth of titles, crests, and prerogatives, and the uses of the many ceremonial dances. In addition, he had to learn the correct social usages of everything belonging to the old Indian ways, as well as working for, and with, the white man in order to learn and understand his thoughts. Only when Billy Assu had accomplished all this, in his early twenties, was he ready to become the chief of the Kwakiutl. He began his new post by enlisting the aid of the Indian agent through whom he obtained a government grant to rebuild his village of Cape Mudge, which had fallen into disrepair.

Later he repulsed rum-runners seeking to sell liquor in the village, had a school built, obtained a teacher for the children, and encouraged his men to work at canneries and logging. His people benefited greatly from these activities and, with his knowledge of the white man's ways he was able to prevent their exploitation.

In his early years as a chief he was noted for the potlatches which he gave. Altogether they numbered several hundred small ones, and two very large ones.

His father gave him, as a baby, a potlatch to bestow on him his first name YA-KIN-AKWAS, which meant "give a guest a blanket." At fourteen his father gave a bigger one and he was given the name MA-MA-SA-KA-MI, which was interpreted as "giving away lots of things."

One particular potlatch, celebrating the building of his Big House was the most famous of all. It involved sixteen tribes, with over three thousand people, to whom he acted as host for three weeks.

His house, three hundred feet long, by one hundred feet wide, by fifty feet high, was packed with food and articles to be given away, including many gold and silver bracelets and six thousand blankets.

As time went on and Christianity and government control entered the picture he perceived that a price had to be paid for a transition to the new life.

He resolutely destroyed all the old potlatch houses, and collected a scow load of totem poles, prized possessions, regalia, rattles, masks, etc. which he sent to the National Museum in Ottawa.

He gave in to the white man's way whenever he felt he had to, but kept up his moral strength and beliefs.

Billy Assu continued to work with the Indian agents, striving always to better the lot of his people. He succeeded so well that he was twice decorated by royalty--in 1937 by George VI, and in 1953 by Queen Elizabeth, "for meritorious service." He was a great chief with strength, authority, firmness, and considered judgment--surely one of the finest the coast has ever had.

Dr. Halpern relates "He told me that he held on to his ceremonial costume even when threatened with prison, and he was most unhappy that the potlatches were forbidden. In his wisdom he said "There would not be any harm to let them continue. Gradually they will die anyway." And he was right. Potlatches were still given on a smaller scale, even when forbidden.

She adds, "When I was in Cape Mudge in 1947, he predicted that he was quite sure that the government would revoke the law and again allow potlatches." (Which has since been done.)

Dr. Halpern saw him as a man of great humor, with sparkling eyes, and always quick to understand a joke or make one. She says, "A very distinctive attribute was his great sensitivity and unusual pride and poise. I sensed these qualities during my stay in his house at the reserve and when I reacted to them was always rewarded by a great winning smile and laughter."

It is interesting to have an opinion of Billy Assu from a young exponent from the Nootka tribe, George Clutesi: "Billy Assu was a big king, not a chief; what tore down his prestige among all Indians was that the white people considered him a chief. The king was HAHWICHL. The chief was CHA MAN DA. He was a king."

Mungo Martin, whose Indian name was HANAGALASU, was not only one of British Columbia's best carvers but also one of its best singers of Indian music.

His totem poles are world famous, and one of his masterworks, completed over sixty years ago, was purchased by Dr. Marius Berbeau for the University of British Columbia. (See illustration.)

He was a member of the Kwakiutl tribe but was frequently invited by other tribes to assist them, through his great knowledge, in the performance of their own songs. Until the time of his death in 1963 he retained his astounding memory, recalling not only his own songs but those of departed relatives.

Mungo Martin was born in 1882 at Fort Rupert, at the northern end of Vancouver Island and was a chief there. When he was a baby, his mother wanted him to be a fine artist and singer. She asked the famous carver YAKOTGLASAMI to enhance his artistic ability. Plucking two lashes from the baby's eyelids, the carver tied them into a paintbrush, adding porcupine quills ceremonially. From then on the young child used this brush, developing a special understanding of color, form, and line.

Later, in his early twenties, he studied carving with his stepfather, the well-known Charlie James, and with his uncle. (According to Kwakiutl tradition, the uncle has a great influence on the education of the nephew.)

He always liked to tell of his musical training by his uncle who was a song-maker. "When he was a little boy, his uncle put him into the drum. (His mother told him so.) Four times he was put into the drum once a day. Old people knew how. Kwakiutl's grandfather on his mother's side taught him to sing. Twice each day a song. He was about twenty years of age. Old OM HIT, song-maker, he also taught him how. Hours long he taught him. Three teachers in singing during manhood. This was all done in Fort Rupert."

As a boy he lived a village life in which traditional art played a vigorous part. The Kwakiutl still continued to paint family crest symbols on the fronts of their houses, to give potlatches, and to erect totem poles, giving a carver much work to do.

As times changed and the traditional 1ife disappeared with the introduction of Christianity, the demand for carvings ceased and he became a commercial fisherman.

The University of British Columbia asked him to restore some of the fine but decaying totem poles which had been brought in from their original coastal sites in 1947. Later on they were set up in a village on university lands in a special ceremony, highlighted by Mungo Martin's delivering a speech in his ceremonial costume. (See picture.) From then on he was engaged by the provincial government and the Provincial Museum to carve new totem poles which now form the Kwakiutl Indian house in Thunder bird Park, a prominent attraction of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia.

During the years he was in Vancouver he came weekly, with his wife, to the home of Dr. Halpern, where he sang one hundred and twenty four songs which she recorded on tape. (Fourteen of these are included in the present album.)

When reproached by other chiefs for having given away his songs he said "I was a sick man when starting to sing for her. Now after the year's singing I sang myself to health and am well again."

He was fun-loving and had a great sense of humor, taking great pleasure in going with Dr. Halpern to symphony concerts. His criticisms on our music were pertinent. Unconsciously, he showed fine discrimination, preferring the best-known conductors.

After a William Steinberg concert he said "He knows how. He good bandmaster."

When he died in August, 1963, great ceremonies were held by both the B.C. government and his tribe.

His body lay in state in Thunderbird Park which he had built in 1953. His casket was carved lavishly by his son-in-law, Henry Hunt.

A Mourning song was played (a tape-recording of his own voice) and the family danced 'The Woman's Dance' as is customary at a funeral held for a Kwakiutl nobleman.

His first wish had been to be buried at his birthplace, Fort Rupert, but then he decided on Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, in order to be visited oftener by his friends.

With great pomp and ceremony his casket was put aboard the Royal Canadian Navy Destroyer Escort Ottawa to be shipped to Alert Bay.

The Canada Council paid tribute to him by awarding him posthumously the Canada Council Medal, given for outstanding achievement in the arts, humanities and social sciences of Canada. He was the first Indian to receive such a distinction.

In 1964 a memorial plaque was installed in Thunderbird Park.

Mrs. Mungo Martin, who joined her husband in the singing, was a fine songmaker in her own right. Her Indian name was TLAWITSIS but she was known to all as ABIA (Mother of all). Her father was Chief KLAGALGLAUKWA of Turnour Island, and her mother came from Tsawati, Knight Inlet.

Mungo taught her all his songs. "Once she heard them she knew them." She also made some Winter dance and Hamatsa songs herself.

Mrs. Martin died in 1965, one year after her husband.

Dan Cranmer was a chief of the Nimpkish band, within the Kwakiutl language group.

He was born in Knight Inlet in 1882, and died in 1959.

He married Agnes Hunt, the granddaughter of, George Hunt who worked with Boas.

After George Hunt's death, Dan, himself, worked with Boas. He compiled a dictionary of the Kwakiutl grammar, "a glossary of suffixes" which was edited by Helen Jampolsky, Boas' daughter, in New York.

It was published by the American Philosophical Society, vol. 37, part 3, "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society" December 19, 1947.

Fred Louie belonged to the Ucluelet tribe. He was born in 1895 and died in 1963. He was a Hamatsa and also a keeper of the songs a professional singer used by the entire tribe for that purpose.

According to informant George Clutesi, the Ucluelet tribe was part of the Nootka, "but many Indian people of the Barclay Sound area felt badly to be called Nootka because it might give the impression that they were subjugated by the Nootka, which was not so." However, according to the classification system of the white people they were called "Nootka".

Ella Thompson belongs to the Toquaht tribe. She was born in 1901. She is a Woman Hamatsa. She is still singing and has a remarkable voice.

Stanley Hunt was a singer of the Kwakiutl tribe--a song keeper.

He was born about 1894 or 1895 and died in 1953 in Alert Bay.

He was the son of George Hunt who was known for the work he did in collaboration with Boas.

George Hunt's mother was a Tlingit, his father a white man and he married a Kwakiutl woman from whom he got all the tribal information of the Kwakiutls.

Stanley, therefore, was 1/2 Kwakiutl, 1/4 Tlingit, and 1/4 white.

He was a fisherman and great hunter and grew up with the Indian heritage.

George Clutesig, informant mentioned in notes, born in 1906 in Alberni, B.C., (Nootka Indian, Seshaht band), is a well-known painter and teacher of Indian dances.

In his tribal life he was selected to become a member of the Glugwana, a spirit-power society entitling members to privileges and ensuring freedom from want during their lifetime, for which honor they were required to give a potlatch.

He received a Canada Council grant in 1961 for teaching and developing Indian dances.

Mrs. Mabel Stanley, informant on our text translations, was born in Cape Mudge, Quadra Island, and now lives in Ladner, B.C.

Her father was Chief Joseph Johnson of the Das Nak Dwak tribe, and her mother chief of the Salmon River and Knight's Inlet bands of the We We ka tribe. She is a hereditary chief in her own right.

She is also related to both the singers, Chief Billy Assu and Chief Mungo Martin.

Mrs. Stanley is well educated and speaks both Kwakiutl and English fluently.