Tla-o-qui-aht artist Hjalmer Wenstob recently helped resurrect an Esquimalt First Nation village site in front of Victoria’s Parliament Building for five days of cultural sharing and celebration.
“That building is situated on an old Esquimalt village site. Not a lot of people know that. It’s common knowledge, but sometimes it doesn’t get out to the greater public,” Wenstob told the Westerly News.
Wenstob collaborated with the Pacific People’s Partnership on the longhouse project as part of the tenth anniversary of the One Wave Festival in Victoria on Sept. 16.
“It’s a festival that celebrates indigenous peoples of the Pacific Ocean, sharing culture and sharing songs, dances and stories with the greater public,” Wenstob explained.
“It wasn’t about pointing fingers about the history people don’t know, it was about sharing history so that people do know. It’s alright to ask questions and that was the big thing about the day.”
“If there were questions about the performances, the dances, the songs, or the games that were going on, we really said, ‘Please ask those questions,’ because that’s really the first step towards becoming one…We talk about words like ‘reconciliation’ and we’re not there yet because we don’t know if we’re allowed to even ask the questions.”
To recreate the village, Wenstob put together four, eight-metre-wide, cedar longhouse fronts, each one attached to a roughly nine-metre-long pipe structure to create spaces participants could share within.
“The idea was to put up these houses to be able to go inside of and share and celebrate and invite people into these houses to be part of this festival,” Wenstob said.
“What we wanted to do was bring people into our homes, truly and honestly do it. Bring people into our homes and share. Share a meal and share a conversation and share a story and learn a little bit about each other and the history and how we can move forward together.”
Prior to the event, a competition was held for youth 21 and under to paint a design for each longhouses’ front with the four winning designs representing the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw Nations as well as a young Maori artist from the South Pacific.
“As a Nuu-chah-nulth artist working in Coast Salish territory, I wanted to work with the Chiefs and the local Nations here to make sure we did it the right way,” Wenstob said. “There were so many beautiful submissions that came in.”
He said he worked with the four youth through a roughly two-month mentorship program, helping them recapture their designs onto the longhouses and he was elated to see the artists’ families join the effort.
“We had little brothers and sisters and grandmothers and fathers and mothers joining us in the creation of these houses,” he said. “To see the houses go up on Friday, to me, was in itself just so beautiful, but it was overshadowed by the work I got to do with those youth and the mentorship where we shared and their families became part of our family.”
The longhouses were erected in front of the Legislature on Friday Sept. 15.
“Because it represents the government, a lot of people go there in protest to bring to light something that needs to be brought to light. As an artist, I didn’t want to do that. We wanted to bring this forward as a way to invite people into our space, into our homes, into our houses and find a way to celebrate together, to share together; to share history, to share stories and to really grow from here on going forward. It was a really beautiful thing because everyone came with happiness in their hearts and a really good feeling to come and share and learn about each other,” he said.
“To have these longhouse structures standing in front of the legislature building was such an iconic image to see. To see the old village be back where it belongs and put it in contrast and in conversation with the Legislature building really opened people to talk about what we’re doing today, where we are today, and where we’re moving forward from as well. It wasn’t out of disrespect. It wasn’t out of protest. It was out of coming together.”
He said Sept. 16’s main event “exceeded” his expectations.
“Saturday was one of the most beautiful days as an artist I’ve been able to partake in,” he said.
“I think it’s because of the words that were used. There wasn’t words like reconciliation or reclaiming or decolonizing. It was truly just love and honesty and coming together and sharing and gathering; words that were really humbling and beautiful to use was all that was spoken at the event and that really shone through.”