Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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THE PAINTED CURTAIN con't  

Frank began to discover connections with her past while studying for the undergraduate history degree she earned from the University of Victoria in 1997. In a class with ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, Frank was inspired to search for a woven basket which her grandmother had crafted and which Frank had given to a residential school nun. Thirty years later, Sister Margaret Marie still had the basket. Frank brought it to class to honour both the grandmother who was steeped in traditional ways and the nun who had taught Frank the modern skill of sewing. “I feel there is a connection between them both.”

When she was studying with history professor Wendy Wickwire, Frank stood before the First Peoples permanent exhibit at the Royal BC Museum for the first time. She looked into Edward Curtis’ black and white photographs of Nuu-chah-nulth women, depicted as anthropological specimens, and thought: that face has a name, and the name is Virginia Tom and I know her daughter Alice Paul. Frank found herself questioning the idea that people who traded canoes for powerboats, and baskets for handbags, were no longer to be considered “authentic.” She wrote about her reactions with humour and honesty in an essay called “That’s My Dinner on Display” for the historical journal B.C. Studies. It created a stir in media and academic circles with her criticism that Curtis’ film of Kwagiulth was staged and that the exhibit was potentially more destructive than informative in portraying First Nations culture. It was the first review, from a First Nations perspective, of the 30-year-old exhibit.

Then Frank’s relationship with history—particularly her own—changed dramatically in 2001 when she reconnected with, and began an extended series of interviews with her aunt, Helen Rush Robinson, for her master’s thesis. Frank visited the elder woman—a daughter of a hereditary chief—in her Port Alberni home two or three times a week. Their talks centred on a family curtain or screen—as important spiritually to the Nuu-chah-nulth people as totems are to the Haida—that had hung in the big house and was central to her aunt’s “coming of age” ceremony in 1941. The curtain had not been seen since the 1960s. In those talks with Frank, her aunt tried to relate the songs and stories connected to the curtain. But they were mostly gone and she spoke of them with resignation. She told Frank: “It’s lost anyway…the curtain…the head-dress. Everything’s lost. We’re supposed to be maa-malth-ni (European).”

Considered the occasion of the family’s greatest potlatch, the Ayt’uultcha or puberty ceremony honoured young women (especially the daughters of chiefs), signalling their readiness to receive marriage proposals. There were political implications for her family relationships outside the community. For example, the ceremony indicated privileges, such as the right to take sockeye from certain rivers, that she would bestow upon her descendants. “The coming-of-age ceremony represents the power of women to bring life. I saw a ceremony four years ago,” Frank recalls, “honouring four girls. The hereditary chiefs, who are our royalty, bent down to wash their feet. The impact was indescribable.”

From the details of the curtain’s origins, Frank began to realize just how defiantly rooted in traditional culture her forebears were. The curtain was commissioned by Frank’s grandfather James Rush, a high-ranking chief of the Uchucklesaht band, more than 60 years ago and in contravention of federal laws. The 3.65 by 4.26-metre screen was painted by Tseshaht artist Tomiish and kept in a tiny attic in case Indian agents should happen along. It was painted on canvas rather than wood so that it could be easily hidden. The curtain depicted the Rush family’s legends through symbols and imagery.

As she and her aunt talked, Frank discovered her own memories emerging. Frank’s mother drowned in a boating accident and the three-year-old went to live with her grandmother at Uchucklesaht, on Barkley Sound, since her father was so often away fishing. Her most vivid memory is weaving traditional cedar baskets with her grandmother, Ellen Rush, in the early 1950s: she learned to gather swamp grasses, and she spoke her language with her grandmother as they sat weaving and dyeing the grasses next to the wood stove. She also learned to pick blueberries, gooseberries, thimbleberries—always with a bit of stem left so that next year there would be twice as many. She played hide-and-seek in the attic where strange masks, and rattles wrapped in cedar bark and placed in specially made boxes, were hidden away. These, she realized much later, were the items—the tuupaatis, or crest objects—used for the illegal potlatches. “Our upstairs was full of it.”

She thought she would live with her grandmother forever. But her traditional way of life ended abruptly the day she was flown to Christie Indian Residential School on Meares Island in 1961. Grandmother Ellen Rush, who felt “that Catholic place” had taken her children away from her, died shortly afterwards.

Only in looking back did Frank realize the impact of residential school. There was the loss of the daily diet of fish and berries. There was the lost connection with her grandmother. There was the imposition of Catholicism on her United Church background. And there was a desperate sense of loss as she and her brother stood on the dock with other children at school’s end and watched, as one after the other, the children were taken home while they remained behind. Sometimes they found a place to stay with distant relatives, but as Frank spent her young life moving from house to house and community to community, she lost touch with family life. The later years brought a painful series of changes and tragedies, too: family alcoholism, a changing fishing industry that saw her husband lose everything and start again, the deaths of relatives, the losses of nieces and nephews. “Every time I get close to a family member, it feels like next they’re gone. Tragedies, one after another, have happened; one after the other. I have learned to balance it out. Smoking fish is therapy for me. Sewing is therapy. But I really do think, looking back on it, the cultural aspects of my life had died.”

Frank’s experiences mirror those of so many of her people: in conversations, they will call it a time of “darkness” and “turmoil” when everything went “dead and quiet” during the long years of the potlatch ban (from 1885 until 1951), the height of the residential school system and the fallout in First Nations communities of economic change and political policies. “That was the psychological backdrop to things, when people felt inferior and sickened,” says Nelson Keitlah, a co-chair of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.


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