Lost and Found In The City: Rory Dawson Designs A Path Back to Culture
“Culture is a lot more than just song and dance. It's a way of life,” Rory Dawson says. A Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artist from Kingcome Inlet, he was raised on reserve, which had a population of 150, until he was 13. He moved to Vancouver for high school because there wasn’t one in his community and the culture shock of the big city threw him off tempo. Ever since, he’s been working his way back to the beat and etching his art into metal that will last forever, like his culture.
“I ended up getting lost in the whirlwind of the big city and gravitated towards the misfits, and lost myself there for a while,” he recalls. He hopes youth will be better prepared than he was, opining, “I think what’s really crucial, if you're coming from a small reserve as I did, is to prepare them as much as they can for the city. That culture shock really does a number on a lot of us, I believe. In the city here, we get lost.”
He was raised by his father who was a residential school survivor and single parent of six. Dawson’s mother left because of his father’s violence, which he mostly avoided as the baby of the family. Dawson came home for a while, only to return to Vancouver again. His addiction worsened in the city with more freedom and access, a negative self-image and discontentment living in the city. Depressed after applying for thirty jobs with no response, he spotted someone who would change his life.
It was an artist, standing outside a studio where people were painting, carving and making jewelry. Dawson introduced himself. He wanted to learn to make jewelry and the artist agreed, with four months of instruction funded by the Friendship Center. A dozen students participated, but their instructor had a gambling problem, spent a lot of the funding and it wasn’t a positive experience for him. From then on, he was self-taught and decided to become an artist.
He took a few years off to work in the school system providing cultural support and then car accidents and injuries slowed him down, but he’s still creating and learning as he goes.
“Like every art, it's just my understanding, an interpretation of the designs. It's like anything, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it''
Dawson explains. His uncle was a woodcarver and there were many artists in his community, but no jewelers. In a way, he created something out of nothing at the beginning, out of necessity. Later, he would help create something else.
Dawson was instrumental in starting a traditional dance group in the 90s. “That was just really just to help us get connected with our ancestors and our teachings. We got some elders together and asked how we could go about it, we just wanted to learn how to sing and dance, language and so forth. That was just part of reclaiming myself, and also giving people a place where they feel safe, accepted and understood, ” he recalls.
Dawson is inspired by the resurgence of Indigenous cultural practices and feels encouraged by what he saw at a recent fashion show.
“It was so great to see so many different expressions there, different artists expressing themselves through their art, whether it's through clothing, or jewelry, or wood carving, or even just medicines. [It’s important] that we find opportunities like that that really allow us to focus on ourselves and reclaim ourselves and get back to our values, our teachings and our simplicity of community,”
he offers. That reclamation is something he hopes youth will find. His advice to them is to connect with community and family, and learn family history, song or dance and find one’s spirit any way one can.
For the past few years, Dawson has been a cultural peer support worker in the Downtown Eastside. After watching people struggle with addiction, lack of housing, he is trying to connect as part of a community to keep youth from getting trapped in the lifestyle, too.
“It'll always be there. It's just a matter of really taking that initiative within ourselves to start healing from the trauma that we've experienced as Indigenous people in the cities and throughout contact,”
“I remember the very first time I heard the drum when I was in the city here, it was just a small little room probably about 12 feet by 12 feet. It brought me back to myself to remind myself who I am and then I started to just long for that identity,” he recalls. That moment inspired him to form the dance group, and that connection is something he wants youth to have access to.
Culture is a lot more than just song and dance, it's a way of life and that’s why Rory Dawson is a part of the cultural and artistic resurgence. The culture shock of the city once threw him off tempo, but the drum and his artwork brought him back to the beat. Etching the designs of his people into metal, he won’t let the streets make him forget where he’s from and who he is again, and he’s helping his community remember once more.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.