Artist Calvin Hunt has followed in the footsteps of his older brother, father, and grandfather, inheriting traditions from a family of accomplished carvers. He has carried on his family’s legacy admirably. Among his achievements he can count totem poles, masks, and canoes in several museum collections worldwide, and a 25-foot-long feast dish made around 1987 for the Great Hall of the Canadian Museum of History.
SAM’s Lukwalil (feast dish) measures roughly 1/5 the size but still creates a visual impact, its gaping mouth threatening to swallow up anything in its path. Hunt carved this feast dish from wood, colored it with earth-tone pigments in green, red, and black hues, and adorned it with opercula shells. The operculum—I learned—is the disk on the foot of gastropods that acts like a trap door, allowing them to close up in self-defense against predators. Repurposed in fine art, the pearly shells are natural bling on this wooden serving dish.
SAM acquired the Lukwalil with the goal of demonstrating the persistence of cultural traditions among living artists—still, and maybe increasingly, important to the museum’s mission today. Expanding the collection with a feast dish allowed SAM to better illustrate an important part of the potlatch: feeding guests, abundantly, in style.
Hunt is a member of the Kwagu’l, a Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast from central British Columbia, on northern Vancouver Island. SAM commissioned Hunt to produce this Lukwalil in conjunction with the exhibition Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch—an homage to the significance and persistence of this tradition among Hunt’s people:
The Kwakiutl held tenaciously to their potlatch . . . The Canadian government, while sometimes misdirected, had its reasons for the law. The potlatching Kwakiutl, even when subjected to an increasingly authoritarian paternalism, were convinced that nothing was wrong with the potlatch and that the law was mistaken. Exploiting the government’s weaknesses, they were able to thwart the law at least as often as it thwarted their potlatches. They remained significant participants in their own destiny. Except for a brief period between 1919 and 1927, the Kwakiutl did with their potlatches pretty much what they wanted to do.1
On Vancouver Island, and all over the Canadian provinces, many will be celebrating this weekend on July 1. Canada Day commemorates the formation of Canada from the original provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec, a result of the British North America Act, passed by British Parliament on July 1, 1867. This year holds special significance as it marks Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Some Indigenous people in Canada are responding to Canada Day with demonstrations of “reoccupation,” a reminder that such celebrations take up a European perspective and carry the taint of colonization. Come see the Lukwalil and the rest of SAM’s exceptional Native American collection to give honor to, and open up conversations with, enduring Native traditions.
– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator