Walking In Two Worlds, Paddling Together: Artist Wes Nahanee Steers His Canoe Towards Understanding
“I learned to walk with a foot in two worlds, the Western world, and we're walking with our ancestors as well,” says Wes Nahanee who was given his traditional name, Chiaxsten, in 1987. After a four day fasting ceremony, he was told he had to learn who he was as a Squamish person and to learn his teachings. His mother was a residential school survivor who didn’t share much cultural knowledge with her kids. As part of his decolonization, he’s been getting rid of his anger about the past and creating space to step forward and show who he is as a person instead.
Nahanee grew up drawing on his desk and his teachers encouraged him to keep drawing. He learned Haida design first then transitioned over to Coast Salish design after local elders and artists researched it through museums. Now as an artist, Nahanee has made a lot of drums, paddles and designed canoes and tattoos. When it comes to tattoos, he seeks permission before drawing someone else’s design, offering a gift for their time whether they grant permission or not.
He learned a lot from elders at gatherings and travelled into Washington State, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island to learn from others. He got into canoe culture in the 90s and in the process of learning about history, he would find different elders had different parts of the traditional stories. Nahanees would gather stories from them and piece things together, because historically families weren’t charged with remembering all of a story, just their part. This gave things for families to share about as they spent time together in the winter.
Growing up his mother was the Aboriginal liaison at the elementary school and he almost graduated from high school. He tells people he never graduated from Western schooling but took over thirty years of “university”in the Capilano Longhouse. As part of his cultural practices, Nahanee would travel around to all the different long houses in Coast Salish territories so he could learn.
“I encourage travel, because it brings learning,” he shares. When he was 17 he left to go to Washington to help out in a longhouse at Nooksack and came back six months later to let his parents know he had been down there learning to do art with a friend and practicing Taekwondo. It turned out some of the people he was spending time with were his relatives. Part of what Nahanee appreciates about travel is the ability to learn and respect new teachings. He shares his teachings with youth through organizations, encouraging them not to lose hope during hard times. In his own journey, people he crossed paths with helped him in his life and he is reminded to keep pushing forward and not let things bring him down.
One of the challenges he faced in his own life is as an Indigenous man with long hair, facial hair with tattoos, he fit the profile many police were looking for and would get hassled by law enforcement. Even after he started following the Red Road and letting go of some of the things he had been doing before exploring his spirituality, he would be approached because of racial profiling. His mom would bring him to roadblocks to protest and he shouted trying to inspire change. What Nahanee noticed was people weren’t listening and he had to try another way: educating police officers.
When he was invited to the Pulling Together canoe journey, he was able to spend time paddling with the very people he used to be in conflict with: law enforcement. His brother was doing the journey and asked him to help. The first year Nahanee helped move cars around and after that he was helping youth with the canoe, something he’s done for two decades, giving him opportunities to work and share with police communities.
Thinking of the impact of those experiences, he recalls three officers who wanted to thank him because it was the first time they had heard the drum and a song in that way; typically they only hear those drums in protest and anger. He admitted that once he would engage with police that way but now he has chosen to educate instead. Nahanee explained to them that the anger they saw was colonized onto Indigenous people. In conversation, they were able to find mutual understanding.
Over the years, he’s learned from his mistakes and choices, choosing to move away from physical discipline and raise his daughter differently than he was raised, without spanking. His children inspire him, along with the love of the people he shares time with. He’s found culture has brought him more friends than drugs ever did. Relationships with people are what fires him up.
If he could give youth any advice, it would be to learn who they are as human beings, to break down the borders and recognize that we are all family, with divisions coming from government. Nahanee made the decision not to be stingy and be so focussed on himself and his family, challenging himself to think about everybody. He wants to learn about other Indigenous families in the province he calls home and respect their teachings.
He learned to walk with a foot in two worlds, the Western world, and that of his ancestors. Now, Wes Nahanee is paddling with youth and police, bringing people together to let go of their anger. He’s reaching out to learn what he can, share what he knows, and raise his children on the water to know who they are.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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