Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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Image of Gloria Jean Frank
Feature - The painted curtain
By Holly Nathan
Photography by Vince Klassen

A ceremonial screen is brought home to the Uchucklesaht tribe on Vancouver Island from a New York art dealer and with it come memories of the potlatch ban, stories of a family’s origins, and hope for cultural revival. It also restores one woman’s sense of identity.

Gloria Jean Frank is in her tiny cedar shake smokehouse next to a
shaded section of the Somass River in Port Alberni, hanging freshly split slabs of sockeye salmon. She smoked 300 fish this summer, 100 in one day with the help of her daughter. Outside, the thimbleberries are ripening and ravens bark overhead. “Mmm, we’re set for the winter,” declares Frank, a graduate history student who brings a deeply personal interest to her studies.

The smokehouse is Frank’s refuge and the salmon are emblematic of thousands of years of the way things have been done, and done again. Here, history—mingled with the pungent warmth of the alder smoke—is a constant, living thing. “Doing this is my tie, my connection with who I am. For me, when I am in the smokehouse, it connects me to the ancestors. And if anybody knows the need for connection, the yearning to connect with a mom, dad, granny, grandfather, with somebody who’s gone before you—if anyone knows, it’s me.”

Not far from the smokehouse and its associated traditions is the hustle and bustle of a modern household. An SUV is in the driveway and the laughter of bouncing kids rises from a trampoline. Inside the Tsesaht reserve home, cupboards are filled with jarred, smoked and dried salmon. The kitchen counter has a foot-long platter piled high with red apples, and the smell of blueberry pancakes lingers from breakfast. Such an abundance of food is evidence of Frank’s determined effort to spare her family from anything like the endless macaroni and wieners of her residential school days.

The summer afternoon is marked by the comings and goings of any number of Frank’s four children, five foster children (she’s had 30 over the years), and 13 grandchildren, most of whom spend hours frolicking on the “Indian” side of Port Alberni’s Paper Mill Dam swimming hole. Two of the boys have been learning to make traditional drums and they excitedly report the details as Frank’s husband of 31 years, John, is on the phone managing a million-dollar fish farm supply business. News flashes from the big screen television, on top of which is a ceremonial mask. Nearby, a computer desk is scattered with the research papers Frank is using for her master’s degree on First Nations history.

These contrasts of modern conveniences and traditional ways of life once caused her to question what it means to be true to her cultural heritage. But those doubts and conflicts are being overcome by her deeper desire to learn and to teach the First Nations version of history. Along the way, things that once seemed lost—the customs of her ancestors, their stories and their rituals—are being recovered in surprising ways.

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