The words of Ellen Neel, April 1948

Sixty Years ago this month, my maternal grandmother, Ellen Neel, gave an address at a conference on Native Indian Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Ellen was considered one of the most well known (if not the only) woman Totem carver’s to gain recognition in that field. I will post some more info about Ellen in the future right here on this blog, but in the meantime, enjoy this address given by her. The text of this address comes from the book “The Totem Carvers” by Phil Nuytten. It might still be available through the Umista Cultural Society, or available through eBay. (edit: it can be found on Amazon as well: The Totem Carvers.

Ellen Neel Portrait

UBC Address

‘During the time that I’ve been selling some of my work and in the course of meeting some of the people who deal in Indian art work, I have come across some very odd ideas concerning it. When I was asked to speak at this conference, I saw a golden opportunity to present my side of the picture.

The point of mine, which I shall endeavour to illustrate, deals with the idea that efforts should be confined to the preservation of the old work. This idea is a great fallacy where the art of my people is concerned! If our art is dead, then it is fit only to be mummified … packed into mortuary boxes, and tucked away in museums!

To me, the art is a living symbol of the gaiety, the laughter, and the love of colour of my people – a day-to-day reminder that even we had something of glory and honour, before the white man came. Our art continues to live, for not only is it part and parcel of us, but can be a powerful factor in combining the best part of Indian culture into the fabric of a truly Canadian art form.

When the white man came, he brought with him saws, axes, hatchets, steel chisels and knives – paints in brilliant white, red, green and yellow. There was no involved question of propriety – as to whether the new tools should be used … rather, they were seized on, avidly, and with startling results!

The golden age of totem art had arrived – totems sprouted at every village where formerly there had been but few – chiefs vied with one another in the giving of potlatches, making work for artists who flourished and plied their trade. New forms evolved … in short, the art was a living art. New techniques were adopted, new materials incorporated, new ideas were welcomed and used. I can find no instance where an idea, a material, or a tool was not used simply because it had not been used before.

Unfortunately, then began a period in which this growing and living manifestation of my people’s artistry was partially destroyed. Because of the economic, religious and other factors too numerous to mention at this time, an attempt was made to suppress the potlatch. The suppression of the potlatch emasculated the creative ability of the whole nation. The production of art was so closely coupled with giving of the potlatch that, without it, the art withered and almost died.

Were it not for the interest created by the tourist trade, the universities and the museums, we would no longer have any of our people capable of producing this art.

We are gathered here at this conference to attempt to bring about, among other things, a resurgence of the creativity of the native people. I strongly emphasize a point and, here, make it also my plea;

“If the art of my people is to take its rightful place beside other Canadian art, it must be a living medium of expression”

We, the Indian artist, must be allowed to create. We must be allowed new and modern techniques … new and modern tools .. new and modern materials. For in every instance, creative capacity has increased, following the discovery and use of better materials. I don’t mean that we should disregard the old, only that we should be allowed the new.

I’d like to take the time to briefly examine some of the problems that I’ve encountered in attempting to produce my work.

In my family, carving was a means of livelihood. My grandfather was Charlie James – the famous ‘Yakuglas’. He carved for over forty years. To his stepson, Mungo Martin, he taught the rudiments of his art … and we, his grandchildren, were literally, brought up amongst his work. Totems were our daily fare, they bought food and furnished our clothing. There was no problem of sale, since his work was eagerly sought after.

Now the situation is different. Curio dealers have so cheapened the art in their efforts to profit, that I doubt if one could find a single household where the authenticity of the art is important to them. I have strived, in all my work, to retain the authentic, but I find it difficult to obtain even a portion of the price necessary to do a really fine piece of work.

This being so, it’s difficult to blame my contemporaries for trying to get enough from their work to live on … though I believe they are wrong in cheapening their heritage. Certainly, great work could be produced by the native people, if a true appreciation of their art could be instilled into the general public. Only when there is an adequate response to efforts to retain the best of our art, will it be possible to train the younger generation to appreciate their own cultural achievements.

As far as applying this art to everyday living … I believe it can be used to stunning effect on tapestry, textiles, sportswear and in jewellery. Many pieces of furniture lend themselves admirably to Indian designs. Public buildings, large restaurants and halls have already begun to utilize some of this art. We need only to have some sort of an organization to which architects, builders and manufacturers could go to guarantee authentic products. Both my husband and myself stand ready to contribute … we have plans and are willing to share.

I strongly believe that the Indian people, as a whole, would gladly share … if only the dignity and honour of their personal crests could be preserved. And so, we look confidently to the future … to bring a fuller, a better, a more dignified existence to the Native people of Canada. I personally look forward to being a part of the movement which brings these things to pass.’

Ellen Neel

April, 1948

4 thoughts on “The words of Ellen Neel, April 1948

  1. Rene Inkster

    Your mother told me of this site. I have the priviledge of reading Ellen Neel’s confernce presentation from 1948, thanks to you. I hope to visit your site often in the future, and am passing your blog site on to friends of mine in Germany. Marsee.

  2. Jamie

    Hey Trav,
    I started searching for some information for school. This has given me a basis of what I will write of, but what i need is some genealogy, if you have the time.. i wouldnt mind having a few conversations with you.

    have a great day, thanks for putting this stuff up. 🙂

  3. Marcia Crosby

    Dear Travis,
    I just want to say thank you for making your grandmother’s legacy so accessible. She worked and lived amongst some of the most influential Aboriginal leaders, Andy Paull, Chief Dan George, George Clutesi, Mathias Joe, Simon Baker, and many others, mostly men, good men, but what a woman she was, what a visionary. That generation, and those before them, were such generous people, and fully aware of the potential of the ‘modern’, or technology, and the need to harness the media for the good of all aboriginal peoples. I believe your grandmother and her contemporaries were the ones who created the beginnings of an urban aboriginal community in Vancouver. And I mean ‘create’ in that they ensured there was a glue to hold together native peoples from all over B.C. and other provinces, and the U.S.; the glue was their capacity to build aboriginal organization and the hosts, the Coast Salish, led the way in welcoming other peoples. But they were also outspoken about those who were not good ‘guests’ — as in the famous speech by Chief Dan George. So thank you siem, I raise my hands to you and your family.

  4. lou-ann

    I love this speech. I read it word for word at the Assembly of BC Arts Councils conference a couple of years ago and you could have heard a pin drop! Grandmother was truly a visionary and a great inspiration to all of us, and I look forward to making sure more people know about the important contributions she made during her time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *