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Canadian Artist Works in the Tribal Tradition

November 22, 1986|PENELOPE MOFFET | Moffet is a Long Beach free-lance writer

A slide of a masked and costumed Indian boy, dancing alone in front of a crowd of white people wearing suits and dresses, flashed onto the screen during a public lecture at the Southwest Museum Thursday night.

The slide, explained Canadian artist Tony Hunt, was taken at a historic event: the first legal "potlatch," or ceremonial feast, of Hunt's Kwa-gulth Indian people in 1953, after a 64-year ban on such feasts was repealed by the Canadian government. "And one of the stars of the show was me--that's me inside the bee mask," Hunt said, adding with a grin, "How do you like the costumes all the other people are wearing?"

Hunt, 44, will give carving demonstrations and answer questions about the art and culture of the Kwa-gulth today and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Southwest Museum in Highland Park.

He understands his tribe's traditions well. At birth he was designated a hereditary chief of both the Hunt clan and one Kwa-gulth tribe based in Fort Rupert, Canada. (About 4,000 Kwa-gulth people live along the coast of British Columbia and on Vancouver Island; Hunt's tribe numbers about 600.) Hunt was trained to be both a chief and an artist by his grandfather, a legendary Indian carver named Mungo Martin.

Arts of the Raven

Carver, sculptor, painter and jewelry-maker, Hunt spent 20 years as an apprentice and professional artist at the Provincial Museum in Victoria, Canada. He left the museum's staff in 1972 to devote full attention to a gallery, Arts of the Raven, he'd established in Victoria two years earlier.

Hunt still runs the gallery, which features the work of 40 Indian artists, and trains artists in Kwa-gulth ritual and craft. In addition, the artist produces six to eight major pieces--usually totem poles--each year for museums and private collectors in the U.S., Japan, South America and Europe.

Hunt said he was trained to be "an artist and a traditionalist" by his grandfather Martin. As a boy, he saw and participated in potlatches, even though such ceremonies were illegal. "It was more important for me to be at the ceremonies than to be in school."

The Kwa-gulth used to "wait for a big storm," then hold sessions of traditional feasting, dancing and gift-giving in remote places the authorities could not reach quickly because of the bad weather, he said.

Banned in 1889

Centuries ago, potlatches "used to last for months." Potlatch hosts were required to give gifts to all who attended. The ceremonies were banned in 1889 because Christian religious leaders "said we were worshipping demon gods" and the Canadian government "thought it was best for our people to ban (the potlatch) so the chiefs wouldn't go into debt," Hunt said.

The ban on potlatches was lifted, in part, because Martin insisted that a ceremonial house he'd designed for the Provincial Museum "could never be a ceremonial house until (he could) have a potlatch" in it, Hunt said.

Although most contemporary potlatches last only a few days, it's Hunt's job as hereditary chief to lead the ceremonies with speeches and ritual dances.

When Hunt dances, he said, "I dance with the understanding that I'm in close contact with my ancestors . . . and so I feel my responsibility to do it correctly in front of them.

"My three children grew up as dancers, and I think my two grandchildren will be raised as dancers. My children know they're dancing for me and for being Kwa-gulth and for being Indian and proud of it, but what about the other (Kwa-gulth) children who are being raised in different ways?" he asked. (The eldest of Hunt's children--Tony Junior, 24--is also an artist.)

Yet, Hunt believes there has been a renaissance in the art of Kwa-gulth and other Canadian Indian tribes. Thirty years ago there were probably only half a dozen full-time west coast Canadian Indian artists at work; today there are about 300 such artists, he said.

Indian Exhibit

The artist's Los Angeles visit is being sponsored by the Canadian Consulate. Next February Hunt will also help curate an exhibit of contemporary Canadian Indian art that will be shown in conjunction with "The Legacy," a large exhibit of historic Canadian Indian art, at the Southwest Museum.

Admission prices for Hunt's afternoon appearances this weekend are $1.50 for adults, $1 for seniors and students, and 75 cents for ages 7 through 18. Children 6 and under will be admitted free.

The Southwest Museum is located at 234 Museum Drive in the Highland Park area. It can be reached by taking the Avenue 43 exit off the Pasadena Freeway and following the signs.

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