August, 2008

Arriving at Vancouver International Airport by plane and walking through the International Arrivals corridor, anyone can see that BC is home to flourishing indigenous cultures that are honoured, cherished and respected.

A life size cedar dugout canoe rests in a beautiful pool of water: with eight oars inside at the ready. A giant wood-piece sculpture of a Thunderbird hangs from the ceiling, signifying the importance of the great spirits. The room is edged with trees and you might think you were in a carefully protected BC forest.

From there, visitors enter a great open room and descend an escalator, arriving right under the welcoming arms of two twenty-foot cedar statues of an indigenous man and woman. How proud the native people must be to welcome the world here.

There’s a priceless glass circle bearing the features of the mid-coast sun spirit, a twenty-foot diameter spindle whorl, a real creek running over perfect pebbles cascading under the raised-up escalators. At every edge of the view from inside the main airport lobby, sculptures showing characters and events from native mythology dwarf the people coming and going. The retail stores bulge with native motifs on T-shirts, more carvings, stuffed animals that represent the wildlife of which British Columbians must be so proud and frightfully protective.

But if you’re not a first time visitor to BC, there’s a rather more complicated feeling that is produced by the overwhelming presentation of native cultural icons. The average businessman might even feel intimidated by all this evidence of the native people whose land he plunders! Surely all this is just for show? We can’t really be making overtures of respect towards the ones we are always writing injunctions against when they try to hold up our progress?

The average small town family just back from Disneyland must wonder if they’ve been dropped off in the wrong country! “Daddy, are those Indians?” Don’t see much of this grandiose artwork around town, do we? Compare the demonstration of respect and honour on display at the airport with the real policies of assimilation, denial, extinguishment, and criminalization towards the peoples that dreamed up these cultural treasures. Adolph Hitler once said about this scale of propaganda: “The bigger the lie, the more readily it will be believed.”

No tourist could escape the impression that native people have a good place in BC. Meanwhile, people go to court over cutting down the tree that would make that canoe; anthropologists here say of these creation myths – Indians came from Mongolia. None of the smallpox burial grounds, petroglyphs or s’istken villages are protected as World Heritage Sites, but they should be.

There are no displays in YVR that are not of Native origin. For instance, no logging equipment, no commercial salmon boats, no Begbie’s Hanging Tree, no statue of Duncan Campbell Scott. There’s no evidence of the gold miners that helped persuade Great Britain they better stake a flag here and call it a colony back in 1858.

What would a display of non-native BC culture look like? … maybe that’s why there isn’t one in the airport.

The whole scene calls to mind the unbendable words of one Haida Elder, Lavina White: “They like our artwork; they like our land; they like our culture; they just don’t like us.”