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Cecil Dawson: Standing in the Gap

A Look back into the History of the Campbell River Area
Artist Cecil Dawson holding his family copper at the opening of Cecil Dawson: Standing in the Gap at the Museum at Campbell River. Museum at Campbell River photo

By Beth Boyce,

Museum at Campbell River

What does it mean, to be Standing in the Gap? For Kwakwaka’wakw artist and Hereditary Chief Gixkastallasame-gi, or Cecil Dawson, it is to hold a place for those to come, to keep the position, prerogatives, songs, dances, and history alive for future generations.

They were all at risk of being lost because of the impacts of colonization: the high population loss to wave after wave of epidemic, the deliberate persecution and erasure of Indigenous cultures, languages and life ways through the residential school system, the enforcement of the potlatch ban, and the many other laws and restrictions contained within the Indian Act.

In the exhibit Standing in the Gap Cecil interprets this hurtful history and its impact upon our society today through his artwork, and the stories he tells of the history of this coast from an Indigenous perspective.

Cecil was adopted by Norman and Ruby Dawson (née Dick) shortly after his birth in Ladysmith Hospital in 1961. Both Norman and Ruby had attended St. Michael’s Residential School in their youth and had been deeply affected by it. Norman wanted nothing to do with his culture, refusing to take up his Chieftainship. Ruby contracted tuberculosis while at the school and was sent to the Nanaimo Indian Hospital and later Coqualeetza Indian Hospital. Following her experiences in these institutions, she was unable to have children.

It was important to Cecil’s grandparents that the family continue, and that there be someone to take up the hereditary positions and keep the culture going.

As Cecil puts it, “they lost their children to the Residential Schools, so they downloaded all their knowledge and hopes onto me, and to my generation.”

Cecil’s early years were spent in Kingcome Inlet, spending time with his paternal Grandmother Louisa Dawson (née Coon) and fishing with his father from an early age. He spoke only Kwak’wala until he was nearly school aged. The family relocated to Campbell River when Cecil entered grade three at Cedar Elementary. Many weekends were spent in Alert Bay with his maternal Grandparents, James and Mary Dick [A’nitsa], learning about his family history, their community connections, dances, songs and regalia, and other important cultural practices such as smoking fish, and carving cedar.

Cecil’s Grandmother A’nitsa would look through Audrey Hawthorn’s book Art of the Kwakiutl Indians and Other Northwest Coast Tribes (all from the Museum of Anthropology at UBC’s collection) with him, and she would point out their family pieces.

She said to him, “I want to show you this book, these masks belong to us, they got taken. When you get older, you’re going to carve these for us, to get them back. We can’t get these ones back, but you can make one… Sometimes we sold things to get by. Sometimes they were stolen. But these things you carve.”

This exhibition of Cecil’s work includes old family pieces of regalia that have been in Museum collections for many years but never truly lost their connection to their family. Many continue to be used through Potlatch, others have been replicated by Cecil so that the prerogative continues with a new generation of masks.

Today, Cecil is a Hereditary Chief, Gixkastallasame-gi, taking up his father’s position at a Potlatch in 2015. He supports himself through his artwork and has worked over many years to uplift his family, making regalia, and continuing to potlatch, his most recent was held in Alert Bay in August 2019.

The opening ceremonies were live streamed on March 5th, and footage can be found on the Museum’s YouTube page alongside other videos of Cecil sharing the stories and histories important to the exhibit.

The exhibition Cecil Dawson: Standing in the Gap will be on display at the Museum at Campbell River until Nov. 6.