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Vancouver Island artist connecting to Nuu-chah-nulth heritage in the city

Handful of talented and dedicated people working to keep under-represented aesthetic alive
Vancouver Island artist Joslyn Williams embraces her Nuu-chah-nulth heritage in her work, which can be seen on her Instagram account, joslyn_williams_art. (courtesy

By Melissa Renwick, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter HA-SHILTH-SA

Growing up in the city, away from her Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw homelands, Joslyn Williams struggled to understand her own identity. Without anyone around to teach her about her culture, she felt disconnected from herself.

“I always felt like there was something missing,” she said. “It’s so hard to connect back to your roots when there’s no one there to teach you.”

Williams’ mother, Rodrina Peter, shared what she knew by teaching Williams the basics of the Nuu-chah-nulth language, but had connection issues of her own. As a teenager, Peter dealt with the loss of her own mother. She was raised by “amazing” foster parents, but Williams said they weren’t Nuu-chah-nulth and were unable to “teach her anything about her culture.”

In high school, Williams said there were no Indigenous teachers at Mount Douglas Secondary. She recalled applying for a class about the history of First Nations peoples on Vancouver Island in Grade 12, but it was cancelled.

“There wasn’t enough interest in that class,” she said. “Which really sucked.”

In an attempt to learn more about her culture, Williams became involved with the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, where she was introduced to the Eagle Project in 2015. Along with being provided with career counseling, First Aid training, and business development programs, the Eagle Project led youth through the process of carving a totem pole under the instruction of master carver Moy Sutherland Jr.

It was the first time Williams was exposed to the Nuu-chah-nulth style of carving, and from that moment on, she was hooked.

“I didn’t want to stop carving after that,” Williams said.

The project led to a two-year long apprenticeship with Sutherland, who taught her how to create her own designs and carve paddles. But more than carving itself, he taught her how to distinguish the Nuu-chah-nulth aesthetic from other West Coast nations, as well as stories about the animals commonly referenced in Nuu-chah-nulth art.

Art, she said, is used to share these stories.

Despite having Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry, Williams chose to develop a Nuu-chah-nulth aesthetic because she said there’s only a handful of people that continue to carve in the style.

“There’s not a lot of representation of Nuu-chah-nulth carvings,” she said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Sutherland, who said “there’s only a handful of masters” who are represented in the commercial-art world.

After Sutherland’s mother landed a teaching job in Alert Bay when he was 13 years old, his family moved to the remote Cormorant Island, near Port McNeill. There, he was exposed to cooperative carving spaces where community members could access bandsaws, chainsaws, wood, and teachers.

“If you didn’t know how to make something, someone would be there to show you,” he said.

But when he moved back to Port Alberni in the mid-90s, no spaces like it existed. It took him around five years to find someone willing to teach him how to carve, he recalled. Then, along came Art Thompson.

Sutherland met Thompson at the Royal BC Museum during an exhibition in 1999. Soon after, he started a three-year long apprenticeship that ended when Thompson passed away in 2003. On his deathbed, Sutherland recalled Thompson telling him to continue passing down his teachings.

“I learned a lot from that man,” said Sutherland. “And it wasn’t just about the artwork and art. It was about how to be a better dad and a better community member.”

He attributes the “revival” of Nuu-chah-nulth art in the 1970s to Thompson, Tim Paul and Ron Hamilton.

“Those were the three guys that retained so much of our artistic knowledge that was handed down through the generations,” he said. “And now, we need to keep on with that struggle so that more people become empowered to pass it on.”

For the last 18 years, Sutherland has been working with apprentices to share Thompson’s teachings. It’s a sense of duty he takes seriously.

“It’s one of the coolest things to see somebody teaching someone else the things that you taught them,” he said. “That’s empowerment. The more people that we can empower to have their own voice and have their own opinion — that’s how you change lives.”

Williams stepped out on her own as an artist in 2019, using Instagram as a way to share and sell her pieces.

On any day of the week you can find wood shavings covering the dining room carpet inside her Victoria apartment, where she has created a makeshift studio.

Nuu-chah-nulth art was the missing link that connected Williams back to her culture, and to herself.

The shapes and patterns found in Williams’ designs often come to her in her dreams.

“I love designing birds,” she said. “Any type of bird.”

Ravens, eagles and the thunderbird are commonly found throughout her work. The birds are free, much like her designs.

“Living in the city, you can easily forget your heritage,” she said. “It’s almost like you forget that you are native. It’s something that I don’t want to forget because I want to be able to pass down our language and our stories and our artwork to my children. It’s important not to let it go.”

At seven months pregnant, Williams said she’s finding it increasingly difficult to lean over the panels she’s carving. Soon, she will be packing up her tools and doesn’t know when she’ll be able to pull them out again.

“I wonder if I’m going to carve less, or if I’m going to carve more,” she contemplated. “I definitely wonder if my designs will change.”

The 23-year-old isn’t putting any pressure on herself. She is letting the future of her art be steered by her heart.

Williams often thinks about sharing her knowledge with her unborn daughter, and how her designs might morph from free birds into mother bears with their cubs.

Now having found her place within the city, Williams said she has no plans to leave Victoria.

“Art helped me to remember who I am and where I come from, and where my family comes from,” she said. “I don’t want our language to become so rare that people forget how to speak .125it.375, or our stories to become so rare that people forget them. I don’t want my culture to disappear.

“I want to make sure that it stays alive for the younger generations.”