Reopening the Treasure Box: Francis Dick leads the Atla’gimma at Wawadit’ła

 Francis Dick (Pictured) Led the Atla'gimma

On June 17th, 2023, Kwakwaka’wakw artist Francis Dick led the Atla’gimma (Spirits of The Forest) dance at Wawadit’ła (Mungo Martin House). The big house was filled with Francis Dick’s friends and family, Kwakwaka’wakw community members, and visitors who were eager to witness the masked dance. Notable participants included Chief George Shaughnessy, UVic Elders in Residence Doug LaFortune and Kathy Horne, the great-great-grandson of Mungo and Abayah Martin, Tom Child, and the twenty-one masked dancers. The gathering marked the first time that the Atla’gimma, the cultural property of Francis Dick’s father Chief Kwaxsistalla wath-thla (Adam Dick), was danced since his passing. 

The "Stump" Spirit Engage In Dance

Kwakwaka’wakw oral tradition describes the Atla’gimma dance as relating to a vision experienced by a man from Wukinuxv. The man learned of a successful hunter who gradually began to kill for sport rather than necessity. This violence caused an imbalance in nature, provoking a grouse spirit—accompanied by other spirits of the forest—to teach the man a lesson in his sleep. The masks donned by the Atla’gimma dancers represent their respective spirits, including “stump” and “laugher.” Tom Child stressed the significance of the dance’s cultural origins: Traditionally, the Atla’gimma is a gift taken from the chiefly “box” for ceremonial occasions, having been hidden away to protect it from an enormous flood described in oral tradition. In this instance, Adam Dick’s daughter Francis, with the permission of her brother Russel, the current Chief, led the dance for family, elders, and the public.

There were twenty-one dancers the Atla'gimma

The dance was preceded with a word on the importance of the location: Wawadit’ła held the first potlach in 1953 after prohibition ended two years prior, and the significance of the Atla’gimma—a piece of cultural property protected by Adam Dick and his fathers before him, stretching back thousands of years— being danced in the celebrated big house was not lost. UVic Elders in Residence Doug LaFortune and Kathy Horne provided cultural protocol, welcoming witnesses and blessing the food. Their words emphasized the longevity of the dance and the endurance of its teachings. Lorilee Wastasecoot, UVic Legacy Art Gallery’s Curator of Indigenous Art and Engagement, spoke about the Walking Thru My Fires exhibition, which was co-curated by Wastasecoot and Francis Dick. Kim Recalma-Clutesi was integral to the preparations of the Atla’gimma, fitting dancers for their masks and instructing them in the movements of their characters. As conductor of the dance, Chief George Shaughnessy led the singers and dancers in their roles. He worked closely with Recalma-Clutesi to ensure the dancers were familiar with their movements. In addition, Chief Shaughnessy provided and prepared salmon for a feast that followed the dance.

Following Francis Dick’s lead, the combined influence of traditional ethnobotanical teachings of healing and a celebratory air of freedom from prohibition created an illustrative and liberating atmosphere. The audience was treated to an intricate and exciting narrative re-enacted by the masked dancers, whose movements were coordinated to the sound of ceremonial song. The dance concluded with thanks and applause, followed by a community feast. Afterwards, participants were invited back into Wawadit’ła for a final dance and celebration, concluding the ceremony with shared community action.

The Stump spirit dances around a fire

Francis Dick spoke of her previous experiences with the Atla’gimma, and how this occasion marked the first time she engaged in the dance without her father. Nevertheless, Chief Kwaxsistalla wath-thla’spresence permeated the event. A Chief foretold in an Ola’galla mee’kie’y (prophetic dream), Adam Dick had a life textured by experiences of evading the residential school program and resistance to the potlach ban, but defined by the teachings, songs, and practices passed on to him as he was protected from authorities. In his role as a cultural educator Adam Dick frequently provided others with an understanding of the Kwakwaka’wakw practice of qw’aqw’ala’owkw, or “keeping it living,” which emphasizes the protection of sacred wildlife such as grouse or salmon, so that they might extend that same respect to human beings. The story and moral of the Atla’gimma exemplify this practice.

Walking Thru My Fires is on exhibition at Legacy Art Gallery (630 Yates Street) until September 9th, 2023. Free and open to the public, from Wednesday to Saturday.

Article: Alexander McLauchlan

Images: Anahita Ranjbar