Origin of the The Skullcracker Suite

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The first plan for The Skullcracker Suite drawn in August 2015 on our return to the UK from British Columbia.

The Skullcracker Suite was conceived during a visit with my friend Steve Calvert in Powell River in the summer of 2015. Steve, whom I had not seen since 2002, had been living for several years in Alert Bay, home of the ‘Namgis First Nation, documenting their potlatch ceremonies, and accompanying the Kwakwaka’wakw artist, hereditary chief, and indigenous activist Beau Dick* on his journey to the legislature of British Columbia to symbolically break a traditional copper and call The Crown by its true name, Raven.

Beau Dick at the BC Legislature, March 2013. Courtesy Steve Calvert

During our few days together Steve told me many stories about his time in Alert Bay, about the genocidal policies of the Canadian government, still at work today in regions far from the metropolitan centres, and the politics of indigenous resurgence associated with Idle No More. He also told us about the vibrant culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of the region, their legends, theatre, music and the incredible stage-craft of the ceremonies he had attended.

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Passing for Human: PKD in Vancouver

The Biltmore Motor Hotel in Vancouver, site of the 2nd Vancouver Science Fiction Convention

Philip K. Dick arrived in Canada on February 16th, 1972, as guest of honour for the 2nd Vancouver Science Fiction Convention (VCON-2), an all-expenses-paid invitation, jointly sponsored by the science fiction societies of Simon Frazer University and the University of British Columbia. He was 43 years old, the author of 36 novels, and his life was in a mess. His fourth wife Nancy had recently left him, along with his second daughter Isa; his home in Santa Venetia had become a half-way house for the street kids, felons and junkies he had invited into his home; he had recently fallen in love with a street-smart “Dark Haired Girl” called Kathy; he had a serious amphetamine addiction; and four months before his trip to Canada, the safe in which he kept his most valuable papers and collections of sci-fi magazines had been mysteriously “blown up” in what seemed like a botched burglary attempt. Given the deepening dysfunction of his life in California, the invitation  arrived like a message from heaven.

Spurred by his love for Kathy and the promise of respectable literary recognition at last, he dived into writing for the first time in months. To Mike Bailey, the main organiser of VCON, Phil contributed a  personal profile in advance. Written in the third person, it concluded: “He is currently working day and night on his new novel simply called Kathy, named after the girl he is bringing with him to the Vancouver Science Fiction Convention. He had meant to bring with him someone representing the youth of America, but Kathy, he feels, represents more; all youth, all life to come in later time. The novel really does not exist as yet, except in his head, but Kathy does, and he hopes the people at the convention will welcome her and like her.” But Kathy had other ideas. At the last minute she traded her tickets for cash. Phil, dejected once again, took the plane to Vancouver alone, wearing an old raincoat and carrying a battered suitcase and a bible.

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Interview with David Berner

How Phil ended up at X-Kalay is unclear. In an interview for Vertex magazine in 1974, Phil claimed to have been told about the centre by the  councillor he spoke to over the phone during his suicide attempt. After talking for over an hour he was finally told: “Here’s what’s the matter. You have nothing to do; you have no purpose; you came up here and you gave your speeches and now you’re sitting in your apartment. You don’t need psychotherapy. You need purposeful work.”

It is likely, given the circles Phil had been moving in, that he would have heard about X-Kalay which at that time was well-known on the counter-cultural scene. Founded in 1967 by David Berner, X-Kalay had begun as a half-way house for First Nations ex-cons called The Indian Post Release Society. Within a year, inspired by the examples of therapeutic communities like Daytop in New York and Synanon in California, the organization was re-named The X-Kalay Foundation  (or Unknown Path) combining the Kwak’wala word for “path” or “way” with the sign for an unknown quantity. Using an extreme form of daily psycho-dramatic group therapy known as The Game, X-Kalay began to stage 48 hour open house sessions at its club house in Mount Pleasant, where its house band would play, its live-in community growing rapidly to include families and its self-reliant business operations expanding to include a pizza restaurant, beauty parlour, stationary business and a hotel on Salt Spring Island. David Berner explains how the foundation moved from working primarily with First Nations ex-cons, to working primarily with anyone with significant substance abuse issues.

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HAMATSA

hamatsa-cover012Jim McDowell’s Hamatsa: The Enigma of Cannibalism on the Pacific Northwest Coast (1997), first shown to me by Steve Calvert in summer 2015, was an important inspiration for the unfolding of The Skullcracker project. The Hamatsa are a secret society of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of coastal British Columbia, made famous in ethnographic circles by Franz Boas and George Hunt at the turn of the last century, and brought to a wider international public at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 (where Boas presented a living-tableau of Hamatsa dancers), and by Edward S. Curtis in his early cinematic ethno-fiction In the Land of the Headhunters (1914). Steve was aware of a book I had recently written about Haiti as depicted through the optic of ‘Voodoo Horror’: Undead Uprising. Cannibalism’s association with Vodou after the Haitian Revolution ultimately gave rise to the contemporary, flesh-eating zombie of popular culture. Like the Bizango secret society in Haiti – whose members are reputed to be capable of taking animal form and of making zombis – the Hamatsa seem to have been regarded from a similar colonial perspective, which often misinterpreted the ritual practices of the people they hoped to control and exploit in light of European prejudices and fantasies.

Central to the mythology of the Hamatsa are three giant man-eating birds, companions of the giant ‘Man Eater at the North  End of the World’, Baxbaxwalanuksiwe, whose body is covered in gaping mouths. That a human-eating creature can be conceived of as a cannibal is central to the Skullcracker project, which proposes that having one’s skull cracked and brain eaten by a fellow creature is an apt metaphor for the violently interwoven and ritually theatricalized processes of colonization/decolonization that the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has called Cannibal Metaphysics.

One of the principle tasks of The Skullcracker project is to reflect on Viveiros de Castro’s advocacy for the “permanent decolonization of thought” in the context of the cultural politics of contemporary British Columbia, and particularly within the fields of contemporary art and indigenous resurgence there since the 1970’s. How might the great cannibal birds of Hamatsa legend and the traditional ceremonial culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples guide us in this path?

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Stage shot for Edward S. Curtis’ In the Land of the Headhunters, showing the three cannibal birds: Gwaxwgwakwalanuksiwe, a man-eating raven (right), Galuxwadzuwus, ‘Crooked-Beak of Heaven’ (centre) and Huxhukw (centre left), a supernatural crane.

Images and Video from Chief Alan Hunt’s Potlatch Ceremony (03/09/16)

In September 2016 the Skullcracker team were invited, through Steve and Beau, to attend the potlatch ceremony of Kwakwaka’wakw Chief Alan Hunt at the Tsaxis Big House, Fort Rupert. Alan is a descendant of George Hunt, Franz Boas’s famous research assistant and co-director, with Curtis, of In the Land of the Headhunters, whose father, Robert Hunt had worked for the Hudson Bay Company. Alan, like Beau, is a master carver, dancer and singer. He is also an expert in the work of Boas and Hunt, which has been a major resource for Kwakwaka’wakw cultural resurgence since the 1950’s. Steve Calvert, Gregoire Dupond, Stephanie Moran and myself were graciously allowed to document much of the 14 hour ceremony, which included the dance of the giant cannibal birds, the initiation of Chief Hunt’s brother Jaden into the Hamatsa secret society, and the dancing of several new masks recently created by Beau and Alan. This was an incredible honour for us all, to which we offer our sincerest thanks to Alan, Beau and Steve. I am currently working on a complete edit of the ceremony which will be used for educational purposes in the Alert Bay and Fort Ruper communities.

Here are some images and a video sequence from that day. The video sequence shows the Hamsamala Dance (Dance of the Hamatsa Masks) which represents the three giant “cannibal” birds, the assistants of Baxwbakwalanuksiwé, Man-Eater-At-The-North-End-Of-The-World. They are Qoaxpoaxualanuxsiwae (Raven-of-the-North-End-of-the-World), Gelogudzayae (Crooked-Beak-of-the-Sky) and Hoxhogwaxtiwae (Hoxhok-of-the-Sky). This dance is performed at the culmination of the Hamatsa initiation ceremony.

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Beau Dick Mask 2016-09-03

Beau Dick

Beau Dick is a Canadian Northwest Coast Native artist and Namgis chief of Kwakwaka’wakw descent, whose potlatch ceremony Steve Calvert documented in 2012. Inspired the Idle No More protest movement he has recently undertaken two copper breaking ceremonies on the steps of the BC Legislature in Victoria and government buildings in Ottawa. He has recently been invited to participate at Documenta 14 in Athens next year.

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moo-gums-four-and-face-mask_800x807Above is Beau Dick’s  Moo Gums (Four and Face) Mask made in 2012. Beau describes the legend behind the mask here.

Welcome

This is the blog for BC Time-Slip (The Empire Never Ended), the first phase of a larger inter-disciplinary artistic research project called The Skullcracker Suite. Drawing on the mythology, dances and art of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of British Columbia, the project’s title is a reference to Hox’hok, one of three giant cannibal birds of Kwakwaka’wakw legend. Hox’hok’s skull-cracking and brain-eating powers are imagined as a dramatic theatrical allegory for the interwoven process of colonial violence, indigenous resistance and the metaphysics of predation that bind human and non-human beings in a system of mutual, ecological and entangled co-dependency. The project is underpinned by a metaphysical world-view, drawn from Amerindian ethnology, that recognises non-human beings as persons rather than things, one in which humans have kinship with non-human beings with whom they share environmental and co-operative intelligences. From this perspective, man may be a wolf to man, but a wolf is a person to a wolf. And like Hox’hok, all beings, supernatural or otherwise, compelled to eat their other-kin, are of the cannibal kind.

Conceived as a suite of movements culminating in a multi-media arts event, The Skullcracker Suite appeals to the possibility of collectively and co-operatively imagining ‘otherwise’ modes of existence-in-common that are reconciliatory and transformative of the traumagenic effects of colonial dominion, territorial dispossession and forced assimilation to Western modes of being, behaving and thinking. Using the Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro’s concepts of ‘cannibal metaphysics’, ‘multi-species perspectivism’ and his call for the permanent decolonization of thought, the project works through the theoretical and pragmatic overlaps between models of decolonization motivated by the critical deconstruction of Euro-centric ethnography and those emerging directly from Indigenous knowledge, anti-colonial resistance and non-Western modes of living, thinking and being.  Continue reading “Welcome”