Keeping the song alive

Potlatch: music and food. The importance of re-connecting to an ancestral past to heal was not an experience lost on ethnomusicologist Ida Halpern (1910–1987). Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art – developed in collaboration with the Jewish Museum & Archives of BC – presents the Canadian premiere exhibition of Keeping the Song Alive from Nov. 2, 2022 to Mar. 19, 2023.

“This exhibition reflects on the tremendous impacts of the Potlatch Ban, residential schools, and the Indian Act; and showcases the significant works by contemporary artists that have been inspired by these recordings,” says Cheryl Kaka‘solas Wadhams, a ʼNa̱mǥis Nation artist and curator of the event.

Keeping the Song Alive shed a light on the little known story of the decades-long work between Halpern and the late Kwakwaka’wakw Chiefs Billy Assu and Mungo Martin. Together they documented hundreds of sacred and traditional songs that otherwise would have been erased, following the Potlatch Ban and suppression of Northwest Coast Indigenous culture.

Of music and trust

For Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, songs are an essential part of cultural knowledge and ceremonial life, part of the rights and privileges of Chiefs that strengthen identity and lineage. The Big House is a place of belonging where songs, language, drumming, and dancing come together; and where the next generation is continuing these traditions in a good way. Through a rich mix of traditional music and regalia, contemporary art, film, and historical documentation, Keeping the Song Alive celebrates a unique friendship; the spiritual power of music; and the beauty of preserving ceremonial art and culture for future generations.

Ethnomusicologist Ida Halpern. | Photo courtesy of Royal BC Museum

“As a Jewish immigrant fleeing the Holocaust, Dr. Ida Halpern understood the impact of cultural erasure,” says Wadhams. “Assu and Martin trusted her as an ally to preserve and record songs fundamental to the Kwakwaka’wakw culture that would have been lost forever due to the Potlatch Ban. Decades later, they couldn’t have imagined how enduring and profound their collaboration would be.”

The exhibition will feature the original audio recorder, records, research notes, and photographs from Halpern’s career as an ethnomusicologist in Canada, following her escape from Nazi Europe in the 1930s. These historical artifacts will be displayed alongside contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artists who are responding to the history and meaning of these recordings with their own works of art.

Among other works, Concealment, an installation by Andy Everson, combines a kitchen table tea party with potlatch imagery, recalling a time when his family had to hide their ceremonial activity.

Ellipsis, an installation of 137 copper LPs created by Sonny Assu, the great-great grandson of Chief Billy Assu, denounces the ongoing oppression caused by the Indian Act.

A historic headdress by Chief Robert Harris will be displayed alongside a ceremonial robe, apron, and headdress by artist and community leader Maxine Matilpi.

Voices from the past and the present

Several films by ‘Na̱mǥis Filmmaker Barb Cranmer will immerse viewers in the potlatch experience, bringing together songs, dances and drumming in traditional ceremony. Visitors will be able to listen to a selection of songs recorded with Chiefs Mungo Martin and Billy Assu in the 1950s.

The exhibition also compiles important conversations with a new generation of artists and community members who have been able to reconnect with their culture and heritage through Halpern, Assu, and Martin’s collective work.

Kwakwaka’wakw communities continue to work to regain traditional knowledge about the ceremonies that were lost due to colonization. Halpern’s recordings, many completed when it was illegal for Indigenous peoples to practice their culture, are a critical part of this work, enabling them to recuperate part of what has
been lost.

Keeping the Song Alive, through historical information and an important immersive selection of contemporary art, audio, text, photographs and video, will enable visitors to better understand the meaning of potlatch and the importance of music in ceremonies. A series of artist talks, Kwakwaka’wakw dance and drum group performances, as well as hands-on workshops are being planned.

In September 2017 the Royal BC Museum and Archives officially submitted Halpern’s collection, dating back to 1947, for consideration for inscription on UNESCO’s International Memory of the World register. The following March the collection was inscribed on the then newly launched CCUNESCO Canada Memory of the World register.