Gitxsan Art
Walter Harris
Biography
by Ya'Ya (Chuck Heit)

Walter Harris is a hereditary Gitxsan Chief, a great artist and teacher, and he is a great human being.   From birth, Walter wuz raised up to become the next Chief Geel.   Walter has a wonderful gift to influence people, strangers, friends students and relatives alike, he is a great positive force.   Always courteous and helpful, Walter makes a great friend.   As a Native Indian in this country he had a rough start in life.   But he always did the best work he could, no matter what it wuz that he wuz doing.   He showed the rest of us by example, hard work does make for a better life.   For the first 20 years of his art career, Walter worked at the authentic Native Indian village we call K'san.   K'san wuz created to counter the damage dun by 100 years of brutal colonial assimilation.   Throughout the 19th century the west coast of Canada had been ransacked by collectors and museums from around the world.   They robbed graves and homes and dead bodies for anything and everything.   Very few traditional objects remained in Indian possession.   The Gitxsan ability to produce these cultural necessities had completely died out.   But in 1969 Chief Geel and all the Gitxsan Chiefs, and a few white neighbors started to change the course of that history.   They built K'san.   Walter wuz one of the first Gitxsan Indians to enter into the carving courses that were held there.   The first instructors were white people; Duane Pasco and Bill Holm.   Walter very quickly showed the world that he had a great and rare gift to create objects of beauty and intellect, and full of ancient philosophy.   His works of art found their way all over the world.   Thru his art, the world came to know of him and his people and even to start gaining an understanding of the Gitxsan culture.   For 13 years, Walter wuz the senior art instructor at the Kitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art.   This school of art had its heyday in the 1970's, it wuz the most prestigious Native art institution in Canada.   This school taught tradition and innovation, shining its light right across the Indian Art community of North America.   From the start, Walter became a key figure in the cultural rebirth of Gitxsan art, and he remains one of the most important artists to this day.   He had the traditional authority, respect, knowledge and artistic ability to lead in the resurgence of Gitxsan culture.   The Gitxsan Chiefs, thru K'san realized that they had a duty to help their neighboring tribes and so they started accepting student artists from many tribes.   Walter became a major influence to emerging artists all along the Northwest Coast and through out North America.   I noticed that all the students had a great respect for him.   Walter did not, and he could not limit himself to only visual arts.   He knew that his Gitxsan art form served 3 main purposes.   First wuz to display family crests, privileges and histories.   Secondly the art wuz used in theater, to bring to life the many mythical spiritual personalities and events.   Thirdly, the art form wuz used as decoration, everything, every possession wuz coated with art that pleased the eye.   This knowledge lead Walter to become a very important figure in the formation and development of the K'san dancers.   He wuz able to lend to the dance group, the use of many of his own family's songs and dances and masks and other theatrical devices.   All this help resulted in the now famous presentation titled "Breath of our Grandfathers".   When K'san went on an international tour, Chief Geel wuz there to introduce his Gitxsan people and their arts and culture to the world.   Thanks in large part to people like him, the world now knows us as Gitxsan people, not Tsimshian or Haida.   It's kinda hard to explain, but just to be recognized as ourselves makes such a big difference.   The creation of K'san wuz proving to be the most important development of the modern day Gitxan peoples, the Chiefs had successfully used it as a vehicle to carry their culture into the twentieth century.   But Walter wuz not yet finished leading his people.   In 1972 Chief Geel and his family raised up the first traditional totem pole of this new era.   Thus Walter had completely showed how and why the art form of the west coast wuz so very important and central to the peoples and their culture, their philosophy and their life.   The raising of this first totem pole of these modern days showed the ultimate use of the Gitxsan totem pole art form, to show the possession of the land.   Every Gitxsan family "owns" land and has the duty to use and share their lands.   The Chiefs and their people must also protect that land, ,and the land of their neighbors.   Chief Geel had now reintroduced the most important element of our art form…politics.   Now all the Gitxsan Chiefs were getting real serious about their attachment to their lands.   Totem poles are like an umbilical cord to the land.   Histories of the families and their lands is what is shown on Gitxsan totem poles.   All the Chiefs agreed with and backed up Chief Geel's claim to his family lands by helping to raise up this new totem and then to listen and witness and agree with all that wuz spoken in the feast hall that night.   Chief Geel's showing of authority, ownership and jurisdiction had inspired every Gitxsan Chief to unite and renew their claims to their ancestral lands.   The newest effort to reach a treaty settlement with the governments of Canada had begun.   By 1977 the Chiefs were ready to present their declaration to the Canadian governments and they did this in the village of Kispiox, Geel's hometown.   In 1987 the Chiefs entered the courtroom to start their land claim title case.   Delgamuukw v.   The Queen.   This Gitxsan court case has become the most important Native law case in Canadian history and is still not resolved.   That same year Walter Harris suffered a stroke.   For almost 2 years he could produce no new works of art, but he never gave up.   Instead, with the help of his family, neighbors and friends, he struggled to regain his health.   As with all other events in his life, he used this illness to strengthen himself and eventually he was able to do art works just as good as before his stroke.   Then in 1990 Walter went to Vancouver to have heart surgery.   Once again he recovered fully and began producing new works of art again almost as soon as he left the hospital.   Never, never, ever give up, that is the old lesson that Walter gives to us again.   Walter Harris, his teachings, his Chieftainship, and his works of art, have been, and continue to be very influential and inspirational to artists and collectors and institutions and educators.   No single person has dun more to help in the revival of Gitxsan art and culture than Chief Geel.   It is thru artists like Walter that the rest of us are now accepted not as merely craftspeople but as artists, worthy of display space in great and famous art galleries, institutions and collections.   30 years ago Walter wuz in the art field laying down the foundations and setting the highest standards for the Indian art market that is today worth millions and millions of dollars to so many proud people all over the world.   Every Indian artist alive today owes thanks to people like Walter Harris.   In 2003 the Canadian government recognized Walter's artistic abilities by awarding him with the Governor Generals Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts.   And now this year, because of his many achievements in his life, Chief Geel has been called back to Ottawa, this time to receive this country's highest honor, Officer of the Order of Canada.!!!