Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Once Were Warriors

My grandmother made me a better man

Art Tsaqwuasupp Thompson was born near Nitinat Lake on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. He is regarded as one of the central figures in the revival of the art and culture of the Nuu-chah-nulth people. In the fall of 2001, I spoke with him, at his home studio in Victoria, about his youth and how he became an artist. Tsaqwuasupp died of cancer in March 2003 at the age of fifty-five.

Taiaiake Alfred As a youth, what connection did you have to being Ditidaht?

Art Tsaqwuasupp Thompson I didnít have any connection when I was young. When I first started at the residential school, I had two languagesómy fatherís, Ditidaht, and my motherís, Cowichan. I didnít fit into white society because I spoke these two languages. And then I was rejected at home because the languages were beaten out of me in the residential school. I went home a tortured boy, a fractured, fragmented kid. At thirteen years old, I left home and became a logger. I did that for nine years until I injured myself, the whole time working with white people. I learned their language. They had no sympathy for my situation, and I knew that.

TA It sounds like a tough situation for a teenager.

AT It was actually pretty scary. When I started work, I ended up bunking with this old white man. He spoke a foreign languageóItalian, I believe. There was no communication between us, but there was lots of fear. I was a really racist bastard at that time, saying things like, ìFuck you, white manî and ìYou white cocksuckers.î That attitude didnít fit with this man, but I didnít care. He noticed that I was a really troubled person. So we got to talking about it, and I told him a little bit about some of the abuses, and he actually got angry about it. One morning, he set me straight. He sat me there and said, ìLook, I am not the guy that abused you. Iím not the guy who beat you up. Iím just an old man working at this job, and we have to get along. Iíve got a loving family, a nice wife, I got children. I donít do that stuff!î There was a sense of ease there after that, and I was comfortable with him.

That lasted until my buddies came to the logging camp. I moved in with them right awayóthey had a bigger bunkhouse. Then, after nine years of working as a logger, I was really alcoholic, and I had become really drug-dependent too. Things were so bad I ended up spending seven years on the streets in Vancouver. I had a three-hundred-dollars-a-day alcohol and heroin addiction.

TA Anyone ever try to pick you back up?

AT Once or twice a year, my parents would find me. How they did it, I donít know. But they would find me and nurse me back to health to some extent, put some groceries in my fridge, get me some clothes, put some furniture in my apartment, and try to coax me out of it. I wouldnít go. Then my grandmother came over. By that time, I was already in a hospital. I had institutionalized myself to get rid of my heroin addiction. I knew that I was already close to the end. I was a hundred and ten pounds, just skin and bones. My grandmother came to see me in the hospital and talked to me. ìYou have to become somebody else,î she said. And she looked into my eyes and told me, ìYouíre a better person than that.î She said that I needed toÖI guess if you translate it into English, it would be, ìYou need to put on another face. You need to put on another set of warrior clothes.î She told me that her dad, my great-grandfather, was the one that used to rub my hands and talk to me when I was a baby, tell me how atsic I was going to be, or ìgood with my hands.î She told me that story, and it made me feel loved. After that, I knew there was something else to life other than what I was doing to myself.

She said, ìWhen you get out of the hospital, you come and see me. Phone your dad and Iíll come and get you.î She came on the bus. She was eighty-three years old at the time, and she took the bus down from Nitinat Lake. She travelled all night. The first thing we did together was go back over to Vancouver Island, to a place just outside of Victoria they call Goldstream Park. Thereís a pathway that leads to a waterfall up there. Our people used to go up there to do what we call oosums, ìtraditional bathing.î My grandmotherís parents used to go bathe up there

There was no highway at the time, there was nothing there. It was a day-trek in, a day-trek out. When we got to GoldstreamÖshe said, ìTake off your clothes, weíre going to go in and oosums.î I watched my grandmother undress. She was naked and she had no shame, nothing. She walked right in the water. She said, ìCome on, son!î And it was cold, for me. But I could see her, and when I looked at her, I noticed that she was singing a song, and there was not a quiver in her voice. It was in the month of October, and it was cold out. She bathed me, and she used these special songs, and she said, ìWeíre going to make you a better man.î She brought me home. She called my dad, and they brought me down to Nitinat. I never went to my dadís place; I went to her place. Sheíd do what we call ahapta, which is talking all the time. Talk, talk, talk. Talk about how my great-grandfather was a whaler, where he used to oosums, the songs that he used to dance to.

TA She was giving you back your memory.

AT Thatís exactly what it was. We had days of that. I donít even know how many days. It seemed like we were there for a month. We never saw anybody else. I think that was probably her instruction, that nobody come over and bother us. Weíd get up in the morning at daybreak, weíd have breakfast, and weíd go oosums. Weíd come back home, weíd eat. Weíd never go by car, only by boat. Weíd row across the lake and then go into the river. And weíd come back home, and weíd eat. And then some more ahapta: talking, talking, talking about who we are. ìWho am I?î ìWhatís your destiny?î she would ask me. Sheíd say, ìMy daddy gave you your destiny years ago by rubbing your hands and singing songs to you when you were a little baby. He placed medicine in your hands and put them together. Atsic means good with your hands. My daddy gave that to you. What are you going to do with that?î It seemed that I knew it was empowering, because it was like a real physical thing. I could feel something coming back.

My grandfather was a big chief on the Ditidaht side, and my grandfather on my motherís side was the number one chief of the Cowichan. His wifeís father was the number one chief of the flats down at NanaimoÖMy grandmother, her father was a big chief, Watsuquatah. So we have blood running through my body that tells me Iím a bigger person than they said I was in residential school. In there, I was led to believe I was a nobody.

TA You came to know this only after she raised you back up?

AT Yep. I didnít have any other skills. I wasnít a carpenter or a plumber or a mechanic or anything like that. All I knew was logging. So here I was, this grown man, twenty-three years old, with a grade-six education, going back to try to finish school. What a shameful thing. Thatís the way I felt at the time. But when I got into school and looked around the room, I saw that everyone in there was a product of the same thing as me.

Marie Cooper was our instructoróa beautiful lady from Tsartlip [a First Nation], someone that had real inner strength. She was educated, she knew her language and she knew her culture. She helped us get through that process. She said, ìYou all know that youíre much better people than what youíve been told in the past.î

From there, I went into art school. My grandmother had told me that being an artist is being the best warrior that you could ever be. She said, ìIf you donít want to do anything else with your hands, do your arts, because thatís what is going to tell people that we havenít died and prove that theyíre not going to be able to kill us.î

(A longer version of this interview and a number of other interviews with indigenous artists and thinkers are included in Was·se: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom, to be published by Broadview Press in August.)