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Mungo Martin, known in Kwakwa’la as ’Na̱ḵap̓a̱nḵam (lit. Potlatch chief "ten times over") or Datsa (lit. "Grandfather"), was born in Fort Rupert, (ʦax̱is) B.C. April 1, 1884. He was known in Kwak̕wala by several names: qu̕selas, ya̕y̓akal̓as (always has a house full of wealth), gway̓i̕msi (big whale), Ła̕łba̕I (leader of a school of whales), si̕słwal̓as (good in canoe), k̓i̕uyakyalis (great Kisu, a Potlatch name), he̕nakyalasu (invulnerable to ridicule, a Ḵwiḵwa̱sut̓inux̱w Potlatch name). He is renowned as a gifted artist whose work is considered some of the best Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw ceremonial art of his generation. His father, YAX’NUKWALAS (meaning “always giving gifts to guests”), was a high-ranking member of the Ḵwiḵwa̱sut̓inux̱w band born on Gilford Island. His father was known as Martin by the settler community. Inter-band violence drove YAX’NUKWALAS to Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island. His mother was Sara Finlay Na̱geg̱a (meaning “mountain) was a member of the Kwagu̕ł tribe. His parents were committed supporters of Kwakwaka'wakw traditional arts and Martin was encouraged to learn them. When he was a child Martin’s mother asked a respected local carver, Yaḵudłasa̱me̕ to offer any advice to encourage Martin’s artistic talents. The artist is storied to have taken two eyelashes from each of Martin’s eyelids and used them in a paint brush. It was believed Yaḵudłasa̱me̕ transferred his skill to Martin as he used the brush. Similarly, Martin’s mother approached an uncle known for his musical talent and asked him to encourage Martin’s musical talent. The uncle placed Martin into a traditional drum and then the uncle played a traditional song on the drum. The uncle performed this ritual four times over four days. Other relatives encouraged Martin’s talents as they passed through this artistic family. An injury brought Martin to Alert Bay where he was briefly enrolled in the local residential school. After a short time he escaped and returned home; it was the only formal, state-sponsored education in his life. When Martin was a teenager his father died. His mother married Charlie James, known in Kwak̕wala as Yaḵudłas. James was a talented carver who taught Martin much concerning Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw artistic design. Martin worked frequently with James. The two created numerous pieces of art for ceremonies and rituals, events designed to mark significant events in Kwak̕wala culture. “Raven of the Sea” was one of Martin’s first important commissioned poles. John Drabble, ‘Kwax̱a̱la̕nukwa̱ma̕, of Alert Bay requested the 34-foot pole at the turn of the twentieth century. It was intended for a potlatch where the names and kinship hierarchies of the family Kwax̱a̱la̕nukwa̱ma̕, were documented. UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (M.O.A.) acquired the pole in 1947. Martin worked on its restoration at M.O.A. nearly 50 years after he first designed it. It was at the turn of the twentieth century in his voluminous traditional and ceremonial work with Charlie James that Martin honed the Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw culture, tradition, and artistic perspective that informed his life’s work. It was also from James that Martin learned to read and write. James taught him a phonetic transcription of Kwak̕wala from the work of Reverend Alfred James Hall of Fort Rupert. Like James, Martin would later mentor significant Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw artists such as Tom Omhid, Dan Cramer, and Willie Seaweed. Kwakwa̱ka̱'wakw ceremonial artwork declined greatly after the 1921 potlatch prohibition. The potlatch prohibition combined with James’s death in 1938 convinced Martin to become a commercial fisherman to support himself financially.
Martin first married early in the century to a daughter of Sarah Constance Smith and David Hunt, the son of Tlingit ethnologist and Franz Boas guide, George Hunt. The woman’s name is unknown. Martin married again shortly after his first wife passed away. His second wife was named Sara Constance, or A̱baya̱̕a̕ (lit. ‘Mother of All’). A̱baya̱̕a̕ Martin, also an artist, specialized in weaving ceremonial curtains and aprons. Her formal name was
T̓łaḵwagila̕og̱wa. Her father, known in English as Seaweed Smith and in Kwakwa’la as Siwida̕nakwa̱la and G̱wixsisa̱la̕sa̱me̕ was chief of the Ławit̕sis band. Abaya̕a’s mother was from TSAWATI or Knight Inlet.
Among Martin’s significant work of this period of his life was a set of totems commissioned for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The work calls into question a common theme in the Canadian art world’s and political state’s relationship to Northwest Coast Art: native art was dying and only state intervention would revive it. But although local demand for Martin’s work declined, his work at the New York’s World’s Fair is evidence native art remained vital, critically appreciated, and not lost or in in need of revival. This point is reinforced by contemporary local Indian Agents’ reports documenting secret potlatches and other ‘illicit’ ceremonies involving Martin’s art.
Popular and academic interest in aboriginal culture grew in the immediate post-war era and Martin’s work became increasingly in demand in settler society. In 1947 with the financial support of UBC’s Chancellor Hon. E.W. Hamber, several totem poles were purchased with the objective of restoration and display at UBC. The same year the Museum of Anthropology hired Martin to do replica and restoration work and to work on new poles. The program progressed under the direction of Professor Hunter Lewis. In order to coordinate the work, in 1950 UBC struck a Totem Pole Committee. The Committee employed Martin in 1950 for five months paying him $1,850.00 for labour and poles. Lewis meanwhile selected carver Ellen Neel to undertake the Totem Pole Committee’s principal restoration projects. The Committee’s long term goal was to create a “totem park,” an area depicting native villages of the Northwest. By 1951 Mungo Martin had succeeded Neel. From this point, Martin would spend the rest of his life working full-time in the native art of his heritage. During 1951, Martin and his wife became well acquainted with Ida Halpern, an ethnomusicologist at UBC. Over the year Halpern recorded Martin performing in her home over 100 traditional songs. The resultant archival collection is a significant representation of Kwakwa’la musical tradition.
By 1952 the totem park project was well underway. The Totem Pole Committee wished to see Martin continue working on his traditional artwork. They combined with the BC Provincial Museum through anthropologist Wilson Duff, to set up a Totem Pole Preservation Committee in the Provincial Museum. Mungo Martin and his wife A̱baya̱̕a̕ went to Victoria and continued their work preserving and creating traditional art of the Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw people.
Later, Martin was hired in 1952 by the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, British Columbia to create works of Northwest Coastal Art as display pieces and examples. The final result was a huge totem pole, carved out of cedar, standing 160 feet tall. It was raised in 1956 and remained standing until 2000. He also constructed Wawaditł̕a, a Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw" big house", at Thunderbird Park in front of the museum. During this time he and American anthropologist Bill Holm became fast friends and Martin designed a Kwak'waka'wakw big house on the coast in Washington State.
When Martin went to work for the museum in Victoria, his son David and his family, and relatives Henry and Helen Hunt 1962 (Helen was Martin's wife's granddaughter) and their family joined him in living in James Bay near Thunderbird Park and the focus of the work to be done. His son David, and Henry Hunt, and even Henry's son Tony who was only twelve when the families engaged in this undertaking, became apprentices. Martin trained his son David in his craft but David died in 1959. Henry's sons Stanley Hunt and Richard Hunt are also professional carvers.
It is rumoured Martin also instructed the famed Haida sculptor Bill Reid although it's more likely they spent time together on a project at MOA at U.B.C. and the association was then a limited one.
Mungo Martin died in 1962 at the age of 83 in Victoria and was taken on a Canadian Navy ship to be buried in Alert Bay: http://bit.ly/1xSu3qD. His wife Abaya'a died in the following year.
Alert Bay, (’Na̱mg̕is) B.C.
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GR-2809 Research Notes of Wilson Duff