More and more I hear people say that their traditions are being lost. They don’t put up a real tree at Christmas or they never gather for a big meal on holidays. Although these are your family’s traditions, I’m really talking about deep-rooted Indigenous traditions and culture. To lose these traditions has a lasting impact. They hold these traditions sacred and for very good reason. So they are not forgotten.
If you went to Haida Gwaii over 50 years ago, you wouldn’t see any totem poles. You would find only the stumps left behind. It wasn’t until a young 22-year-old Indigenous artist, Robert Davidson decided to make one and bring the tradition back from the shadows. A film had been made 50 years ago about the amazing event but it fell short of capturing the essence of the event. Thanks to Indigenous filmmaker Christopher Auchter, that essence can now be appreciated through his film, Now Is the Time. It’s an amazing and stunning portrait that explains the ceremony surrounding the placement of the totem pole. Christopher is a very talented artist and storyteller that created a film from old footage and found audio from that remarkable day. The film will be playing at VIFF and can best be appreciated for its beautiful story and images by watching it on the big screen.
I spoke to him about the film and the process in creating it.
“This short film is amazing and you really captured the essence of tradition and celebration. How did the idea transpire?”
“This story had actually been told 49 years ago and Barbara Wilson, who is an elder from our community was one of the key members on the first project. The National Film Board was teaching Indigenous People how to make films and had an Indigenous film crew. Barbara was a big part of it and brought the crew up to Haida Gwaii and participated in the filming but when it came time to make any decisions; in terms of what they’d focus for the story after it was on film, she was pushed out. It wasn’t until 50 years after the ceremony that she thought they might do a Potlatch to commemorate the 50 years. Barbara and Reggie Davidson thought that the film could be part of the Potlatch. When Barbara had asked to see the film, she wasn’t happy with it so she asked the NFB’s Michelle van Beusekom, who’s the head of documentary if something could be done. I happen to be in the office talking to Shirley Vercruysse about the potential of a new animated short film. She said that it all sounded good but that she’d just heard from Michelle and they were wondering if I’d be interested in taking a look at the film for a re-edit and make a new film from an Indigenous perspective, a Haida perspective. They provided me the film to look at, including the B-roll. What really grabbed me was seeing Haida Gwaii 50 years earlier and the people. I hadn’t realized the importance of the pole and the meaning associated with it. After watching the film I realized it was a very important story that needed to be told and if I wasn’t familiar with it then others probably weren’t either.”
“In the film, it’s made apparent that all the totem poles were cut down prior to the totem pole going up 50 years ago. Do you know why?”
“In many cases the Haida people themselves had cut them down. I couldn’t believe it myself, it just didn’t sound right. I kept searching for answers and found out that it was the Missionaries. They thought that the Haida Gwaii people were worshipping the poles and told them they couldn’t go to heaven unless they cut them down. They had been decimated by the smallpox epidemic and the Missionaries were offering to save them. It’s still a bit perplexing in terms of going through this journey and telling the story properly.”
“What had you learned the most when making the documentary?”
“It was a good time for an education of my own culture even though I already thought I was well versed. My uncle Mike, who was an outstanding and very knowledgeable individual on our culture, was instrumental in saving the forests, had been my teacher and a chief counselor in our village. I learned the significance of the totem pole. When one is raised, it triggers all the other aspects of our culture, such as the dancing, the songs and the Potlatch. If someone from the Raven Clan wants a pole then they need to get someone from the Eagle Clan to carve it. It really is a community event and you need help to put on a Potlatch and raise a totem pole. Before that moment in August 22, 1969, it wasn’t happening.”
“How difficult was it to find the archived footage?”
“We had lots of it provided from the NFB and we approached the CBC for more as well but the audio was missing. All we had was audio from B roll and the edited film had a lot of narrative over it. I was really interested in hearing the speeches of the day, the crowds and what people were saying. That part was difficult. I called radio stations up in Terrace and Prince Rupert to ask if they had any archived audio. Fortunately Robert Davidson was a huge help with BC Archives. He had done an interview way back and had also recorded a lot more audio on his own on carving the totem pole 50 years ago. I used it to try and place the audience back to that day. I wanted them to feel like they were there experiencing the pole going up. There were some very nice tidbits in the old footage where The narrator in the film proclaimed 14 year old Robert that “This boy could be the last” of the Haida carvers. The NFB didn’t even realize they had it because Robert and his father were not even listed in the credits of the film. He was a much younger man of 22 at that time.”
“How long did it take to dismantle, add more footage and reconstruct it all back together?”
“It took about a year of my efforts to have the entire film completed. I worked with a phenomenal editor, Sarah Hedar, who edited Edge of the Knife, the Haidi Gwaii feature film, which was not that long ago. It was a great experience working with her.
About a year effort in research and creating as well as shooting new footage in Robert’s studio.”
“There was some animation in the film, did you create that?”
“Yes, I did the animation for the Haida Spirit and Alicia Eisen did the stop-motion. I thought it was important to add the animation and thought it was a good fit. My initial reason was to give some context to the audience so they could better understand why it was such a pivotal moment. Many of us have seen poles go up because it’s fairly commonplace but I didn’t think the audience would get the importance without using the Spirit to give context. I originally had a page and a half of dialogue for it, which would’ve taken half the film to tell the story. I was able to distill it down to a few lines. It came down to capturing the essence of the film and what Robert and his brother had done. I’m quite happy with how it turned out.”
“How many times did you travel to Haida Gwaii during the filming?”
“I actually didn’t have to travel at all because Robert lives here and his brother Reggie came up for the interview. Barbara lives in Skidegate, so we co-ordinated a time when she was in Vancouver to interview her. We had all that beautiful footage from that day and the more I thought about it the more I really wanted to focus on that day. Having found the audio recordings, it became more important to place the audience back to the story of that time. Having Barbara Wilson on audio saying back then that ‘it was her most proudest moment culturally as a Haida person’ but she didn’t think it would be enough and that they were grasping at straws. It really shows how dire the time was in terms of our art.”
“Did more totem poles go up after Robert Davidsons?”
“I don’t know if more had gone up shortly after but I know Robert and others had gotten excited about it and started carving more poles. From my perspective, it became okay again to practice the art. It became okay to sing the songs and perform the dances. Once they had seen that they wouldn’t get in trouble for erecting the pole, they had gotten excited and believed once again that their art was beautiful. I was born 11 years after the pole raising, which was quite a different time than Robert. When I grew up I was surrounded by art, by the songs and the dancing. In the film, Robert from today says, he didn’t hear his first Haida song until he was 16.