Copper Cutting Ceremony on Parliament Hill, July 27, 2014.
A protest by Beau Dick, Guujaaw and Gwaai Edenshaw and other First Nations artists and leaders to deliver a traditional embarrassment to the Harper Government for favouring oil exploitation over the protection of the environment on behalf of all of the People of Canada.
George and Joanne MacDonald
The contingent of First Nations artists and other supporters staged an earlier version of this event on the grounds of the Provincial Legislature in Victoria last year. The planning for the event in Ottawa began immediately thereafter. The group stopped in Winnipeg to draw attention to their cause before arriving in Ottawa a few days later. The concept was to use the traditional practice of cutting pieces from a named copper, thus devaluing it, to embarrass the rival chief, in this case the Prime Minister of Canada.
When we arrived at Parliament Hill, a cargo van that had brought a large load of tribal treasures across the country, was unloading in the middle of the main walkway to the Center block of Parliament. As I passed by, I could hear Guujaaw’s deep voice giving instructions from the back of the truck. Beau Dick was arranging a huge banner on the walk closer to Parliament and supervising a number of young men, including Gwaai Edenshaw, in arranging a half dozen coppers in a star pattern at the center of the banner.
The treasures were piled high in the center of the ritual space, where the hearth would have been in a traditional house. Beau Dick had carved a few of the pieces but most were from a number of outlying Kwakwaka’wakw villages and in a sense, represented them. Their names, like Gwayasdums, Gwa'yi, Mamamlililuka and Xumtaspi were included in the recitation of names.
Another Kwakwaka’wakw man appeared with a bundle of about twenty red cedar boughs that had been stripped of their bark and needles and bound with bits of red cloth. These sticks were about two feet in length and served to establish a boundary separating the sacred space of the treasures from the public area.
When we first arrived, Guujaaw was anticipating the arrival of the copper. Gwaai, his son, soon made his appearance with a large copper wrapped in a blanket. It was unwrapped and carried around the outside of the rectangle defined by the sticks to introduce the new copper to the guests along with a half dozen other coppers.
The additional coppers that were brought belonged mostly to the Kwakwaka’wakw except the one destined to be cut, which was a Haida copper brought by Guujaaw and Gwaai. It was prepared by covering it with eulachon grease and eagle down. Thus decorated, the copper was paraded around the boundary of the ritual space defined by the sticks. Each witness was asked to touch the copper and think of the gift of the eulachon fish to mankind. As they did, they were encouraged by Guujaaw to utter a load “Hao, Hao” to honour the fish.
The copper and the cutting tools were then taken to the head of the enclosure (house) and placed on a small Coast Salish woven blanket along with a large angular rock that would serve as the anvil for cutting the copper. Both the hammer and the hafted chisel were wrapped with cedar bark cordage. A Bakbaknuksiwe, or Crooked Beak mask was in the background.
The large anvil rock was carried in one of the big wooden feast spoons used to ladle eulachon grease from the huge feast bowls. This practice was captured in photographs by Edward Curtis and also used in his fictional film on Kwakwaka’wakw potlatches of the nineteenth century.
The Guujaaw copper was quite thick, which prevented it from being cut easily. Half a dozen strong men took turns at driving the chisel through the copper, but progress was slow. Finally, Guujaaw took a determined approach and made three powerful swings at intervals until the first piece of copper was torn away. Gwaai took his turn and soon the second piece was cut from the copper. A cheer went up among the witnesses.
When the performers and tools were all in place, the coppers were addressed in Kwakwala and the pounding to cut the coppers began. It is essential to cut pieces from the sides and top of the copper but to leave the T-ridge in the middle of the copper intact. It represents the lineage of the chief as a sort of backbone. Severing it would signal the end of the lineage. The top and flank pieces are seen as flesh which can be restored to the backbone and thus continue the lineage for further generations.
The final episode was to carry the cut pieces of copper with loud shouting of “Hao- Hoa” up the steps of the Parliament building through the great arch. They found a veteran in service medals guarding the entrance to Parliament along with three RCMP officers who seemed slightly bemused by the shouting and ceremonial regalia.
The event concluded with more speeches about the threat to the environment posed by the Oil Sands and the pipeline projects to the homeland of the First Nations who felt threatened based on their past experiences with development on their traditional lands.