FEBRUARY 10, 1997

 The Edwards Agency

Front Page

Potlatch teaches the culture 'Of Cedar and Salmon'


Hollywood Hill 6th-grader Dana Forman performed the part of Dzonokwa, a Kwakwalla word for Sasquatch, at last Thursday's potlatch.


Northwest Coast culture expert Ronn Wilson, with his salmon and cedar painting that he presented to Hollywood Hill Elementary.
Photos by Andrew Walgamott/Northwest News.

Of Cedar and Salmon by Andrew Walgamott
Amber light glinted off the curtain girl's button capes. Flames from a simulated fire cast ravenous shadows against the wall of the ceremonial long house. A terrible moan rose from behind the wall.
   "Behold, something wailing in pain!" shouted Ronn Wilson, Northwest Coast culture educator and artist. "Sounds like the teachers got their paychecks early!" he added, getting a laugh from the crowd of students and parents at the darkened Hollywood Hill Elementary gym last Thursday night.
   But the sound had come from Dzonokwa, the basket woman chased out of the village by mean girls. Dzonokwa, played by sixth-grader Dana Forman, stumbled sleepily from behind the curtains of the long house, transformed in Chilkat costume to a Sasquatch who eats children.
   Wilson, dressed in Northwest Coast regalia, attempted to awaken the slumbering Dzonokwa. He called upon the crowd to help. With a mighty shout, the sleeping Sasquatch woke and symbolically devoured the girls who had teased her, played by other students.
   It was part of a week-long program, presented by Wilson, called "Of Cedar and Salmon." Students experienced hands-on learning of Northwest Coast lifeways as they worked with cedar bark, painted their own totemic head bands, wore tribal outfits, and heard and danced out stories. They also learned how varied the cultures are that are designated "Northwest Coast," described by Wilson as diverse as all those between Alaska and Africa.
   The potlatch ended Friday with an assembly during which Wilson presented to the school a salmon painted on cedar boards. Salmon and cedar were two of the most important resources for the Northwest Coast culture, which stretched from the panhandle of Alaska to Oregon. Cedar was used for housing, boxes, baskets, and canoes; salmon was sustenance, as buffalo was for the Plains peoples.
   Potlatches, which varied from tribe to tribe, were traditionally private, nonreligious ceremonies "to validate life-changing events," Wilson said. He likened them to birthdays, weddings, and presidential inaugurations.
   Thursday evening, after the gym doors were closed and signs posted saying "Potlatch has started. Please do not hit, knock, or pound on the door. No one will open it," Wilson told stories of the Wolf and Deer People according to the Tlaseeno tradition of Turner Island. Donning an eagle-like mask, soaring and gliding around the fire like a raptor in a thermal, he danced out a Kwakwalla tale. Coming out as Komtokwiss, "lord" of winter, he blew icy breath on the students from behind a blue mask.
   "Well, be thankful we didn't do the dance of the skunk people," Wilson said as the lights were slowly turned back on at the end of the evening.
   Wilson, 41, considers himself an artist and educator, "a student teaching what he's been taught." He became interested in Northwest cultures early, and by high school knew he "wanted to find out how to get kids excited about learning about other cultures."
   Named "Wind Walker"--strider between two cultures--Wilson has collected and been allowed to borrow masks and costumes from native families for his program, based on cultures at the north end of Vancouver Island. Wilson takes "Of Cedar and Salmon" to public, private, and tribal reserves, maximizing student participation by including the young people in story and dancing. He pronounced the Hollywood Hill presentation successful, citing his belief that "hands-on is the only successful formula for education."
   Fourth-grader Laura Thom, who was playing a curtain girl, said of Wilson's program, "I like it. I'm learning a lot."
   Wilson has been involved with "Of Cedar and Salmon" since 1977 and now works as lead singer, artist, singer, carver, dancer, and storyteller.