Clutesi, George

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Clutesi, George

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  • George Charles Clutesi

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George Clutesi was born in 1905 into a Whaling family of the Tseshaht First Nation in Port Alberni, British Columbia. His father was Charles Clutesi, the maiden name of his mother Kathleen is unknown. Clutesi’s mother died when he was only four and his father and aunts raised him in his mother’s home village of Hupachasaht. The members of the Tseshaht First Nation are located in the Alberni Valley. During the First World War George Clutesi’s father registered him to the local residential school. This introduced Clutesi to the manual labour of “industrial education.” Clutesi attended school for half a day and spent the rest in manual chores. This was also Clutesi’s introduction to Christianity. Clutesi was discouraged to practice art at the residential school. Illness forced him to leave school after reaching the level of grade 8. Upon returning to health the following year, Clutesi took on the work of a commercial fisherman. He practiced this trade for six years before returning to Alberni to work as a day labourer eventually becoming a pile driver working on industrial construction projects across British Columbia. In September 1937 Clutesi married Margaret Lauder in Port Alberni. He became a father of six in addition to numerous “foster” children. By 1947 Clutesi began to contribute essays to Native Voice, a local Aboriginal newspaper. He was also exploring the genre of painting. With the encouragement of friends, he began to paint in oils and to exhibit his work during the 1940s and 1950s. The newly formed journal published transcriptions of Clutesi’s “folk lore of the Seshaht tribe which have been handed down from father to son for generations.” Also in 1947, Clutsi broke his back working as a pile driver; the injury forced Clutesi into extended convalescence in Vancouver General Hospital. While in convalescence in Vancouver, Clutesi met Ira Dilworth, the chief executive of CBC Vancouver. Dilworth convinced Clutesi to tailor his stories for radio. Clutesi began broadcasting Tseshaht stories to people across British Columbia. Clutesi’s friendship with Anthony Walsh and Ira Dilworth gave him the opportunity to become involved in the BC arts community. Through these acquaintances Clutesi met Emily Carr and Lawren Harris. He made such an impression on Emily Carr that she willed him her paint brushes. In 1949, Clutesi hitchhiked from Port Alberni to Victoria to address the Rt. Hon. Vincent Massey, chairman of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, during the Commission’s two-day meetings at the Legislative Buildings. In 1885 Ottawa had passed legislation to prohibit what they understood inconsistently to be the ceremonial potlatch as practiced in BC First Nations’ communities. The legislation, as enforced, effectively prohibited the performance of many Aboriginal songs and social ceremonies. Clutesi asked Massey for permission to perform and teach the songs and ceremonies of his people. Massey agreed. Working as a janitor in the Port Alberni Residential School, Clutesi began to teach traditional aboriginal songs and other local cultural detail to the local community. It was a time frequently cited as a local cultural revival. By 1951 the potlatch legislation was rescinded. In 1949 Clutesi wrote the play, They were a Happy Singing People. The play proudly depicted West Coast First Nations songs and dances. In 1959, he received the British Columbia Centennial Award.
In 1961, George Clutesi spoke to the British Columbia Historical Association on the subject of Northwest Coast aboriginal art. His speech made a noteworthy case for its preservation. In 1967 Gray Campbell, a publisher from Sydney, asked Clutesi to put together a collection of stories for a Canadian centennial project. Clutesi compiled and illustrated 12 Tseshaht teaching stories published as Son of raven, Son of Deer: Fables of the Tse-shaht People. With this work, Clutesi’s profile raised considerably. He became a leading indigenous proponent for the protection, study and preservation of First Nations’ legends and customs. The same year, Clutesi received a commission to paint a mural for the Canadian “Indian Pavillion” at Expo 67. Clutesi published two more books: Potlatch in 1969, in which Clutesi describes a winter potlatch ceremony, Tloo-qwah-na, and posthumously, Stand Tall My Son, in 1990. Adding to his popularity, Clutesi also appeared in film and television. In 1977 he played a role in the film Dreamspeaker (for which he won and ACTRA Award in 1977), in 1979 he performed in Nightwing and Profecy, and in 1982 The Legend of Walks Far Woman. In 1973 he starred in the television movie, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a story set in the Nuu-chah-nulth village of Ahousaht.
In 1971, in recognition of his work with West Coast First Nations art and culture, the University of Victoria awarded Clutesi an honorary PhD. George Clutesi became a Member of the Order of Canada on June 19, 1973 for his services to Canadian Aboriginal culture. On February 27, 1988 George Clutesi passed away at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria leaving behind his wife Margaret. He was laid to rest at the Alberni Valley Memorial Garden in Port Alberni, British Columbia.


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File Created: KFlanagan 2005-04-01
Biography added: RFrogner: 2013-02-18




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