Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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As ties with culture and family faded, or changed, or were severed, the family’s curtain itself became lost to memory. Her aunt was washing dishes one day, in the 1960s, when it suddenly occurred to her the curtain had vanished. She told a nephew—“because she was in a state of cultural stupor,” as Frank describes it—that he could sell the first Rush family curtain (which had ended up in the possession of the Royal BC Museum and was recently displayed with the family’s permission). But she had never intended to lose the second curtain, the one made especially for her.

Early last year Frank received a phone call. Ron Hamilton, researching the Uchucklesaht tribe’s hereditary traditions, told her the curtain had been found. It was in the hands of a New York dealer of American Indian art named George Terasaki. It seemed almost impossible, but perhaps there was a way for Frank’s aunt to get part of her history back. Hamilton’s research determined the curtain had been purchased in the 1960s by a First Nations crafts store in Port Alberni and subsequently sold to a curator of the Denver Art Museum who then sold it, 30 years ago, to Terasaki. The Japanese businessman with a personal interest in Nuu-chah-nulth works sought them out despite the assessment of other collectors who saw the art as too recent and too influenced by other coastal styles. The Rush curtain was painted in a contemporary, naturalistic style which Terasaki’s art appraiser noted was evidence of dynamic cultural expression in work meant to convey tribal knowledge.

When Terasaki decided to sell his collection, he wrote to the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council offering the curtain for $26,700. Frank and her aunt’s family moved quickly. “My aunt depended on me and another one of her daughters to get it back. We jumped through whatever hoop there was; and we did it. In the flashbacks of these memories, I see my Aunt Helen doing the cha-cha in her living room. She said, ‘New York, here I come.’ She laughed, she cried, she was so excited.”

The family appealed to the tribal council, representing 7,500 people in 14 nations, for help. Watching a video of the key council meeting, Frank barely contains her emotions as her aunt, dressed in ceremonial clothing, asks the council: “Please help to once again get the curtain back to me. My father put on the curtain the story of our lives…This is all I have left, and I want to save what I have left.” One by one, each tribal representative pledged $2,000.

Robinson went to New York in May 2001, accompanied by Frank and other members of her family, to buy back the curtain. They dressed in full regalia. “When she picked up the curtain in New York she was so happy; she sang like I never heard before; she danced like she never had, ” says Frank. Her aunt said in a New York Times article: “That curtain is like a book of family history. It holds the proof of who I am.”

On May 17, 2002 one week after the anniversary of the curtain coming back home, Helen Rush Robinson suddenly died. She was 71. The loss was a deep blow to her niece. “I’m very much different now, after having spent such close months with her,” says Frank. “It seemed like a void was filled. After all those years, I had come back to the culture.

“I’m struggling with the completion of my thesis because, although the last 200 years are embedded in these two ceremonial curtains it was the whole entire year of May 2001 to May 2002 that I learned so much through my Aunt Helen. (It was) her curtain; her life; her story; her everything. Too much tenderness surrounds the stories that she left behind. In time...in time I will finish the thesis on the struggles that we have gone through with our own culture; our own traditions; our own stories…my own story. I will finish. I am confident of that. I want to be part of enlivening our history in a way that the written history of our people can be better understood and better taught and better learned about.”

When Gloria Jean Frank is in her smokehouse she likes to sing. She thinks of her aunt. She thinks of her grandmother. She sings songs to them from their shared language and traditions. And when she runs out of those, she hums the Catholic hymns that are so fixed in her from her residential school days. The mother, weaver, sewer, student and believer in connections—between people, between the past and the present—looks out and says: “I think they would have an appreciation that it’s all part of who I am.”

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