This interview first appeared in The Mainlander.
The struggles against pipelines and tankers, against colonial dispossession, span from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii. The Haida were among the first to take a stand, and have done so in proud, creative and inspiring ways. Here Christine Leclerc speaks with Ken Leslie, an animator who lives in Haida Gwaii. Ken talks about “Haida Raid 2,” an animated film he and fellow community members released through the Haidawood Project. The series addresses the stresses which the colonial economy puts on the community and the earth, while highlighting revitalization of the Haida language as a key to the way forward.
CL: Will you tell us about the Haida Raid series?
KL: It’s part of the Haidawood Media Project. Haidawood, like Hollywood. And the first movie we made, I made with brothers Edenshaw. They’re carvers.
The first movie was made in 2007 and basically the project’s about making animated movies in the Haida language. That’s been the main thrust, to help with language revitalization for the Haida language.
The very first movie that was a proof of concept movie called “Haida Raid.”
The thing with Gwaai Edenshaw is he’s been carving these little avocado pits since he was a kid. So we have a bunch of avocado pits, and I was like, what would it look like if we made an animated movie with these avocado pits. That was “Haida Raid 1.”
Since then, we’ve made some traditional stories in the Haida language. There’s a story called “Yaanii K’uuka” about a witch who lived in a hole in the ground and basically, kids who are naughty, she comes and takes them away. It’s the sort of thing parents threaten their kids with. You know, “eat your food or Yaanii K’uuka will get you.”
There’s a movie about that and there’s another one called the “Golden Spruce,” which is about a golden spruce.
So the project was initially focused on language, and then more recently with the Joint Review Panels happening and everything , there was a desire to use the animation technique and also send a political message, and that’s how we ended up making Haida Raid 2.
CL: I’m really interested to hear you talk about language revitalization and the role that has to play in motivating some of the work you’re doing. Do you draw and connections between, for example, tanker traffic and cultural diversity? I can give you a bit of background… I’ve been reading some articles about how a lot of the places that have the most biodiversity also have the most languages. And people are making connections between ecological devastation and the extinction of species to extinction of languages and cultures. So, I wonder if you have any thoughts on that, or if it sparks any ideas.
KL: The principle of concern here—I mean, of course in Haida Gwaii there’s a lot of opposition to the pipeline. The main concern is around tanker traffic in Haida Gwaii because people here do still live off the land and off the water, especially fish. Food fish is so important and Hecate Straight, we know, is a very treacherous and dangerous body of water. So putting tanker traffic there is just a bad idea.
It would only be a matter of time before there’s a spill and damage the commons that people depend on here to survive.
Actually, I think there’s this larger issue of Indigenous people being dispossesed from their land through pollution and other means and then they’re forced to enter into this global economy that makes a lot of people basically into slaves, wage slaves.
In a way, if I look at my own lineage, that’s happened to my people a long time ago and so we just kind of have to make our way in the global economy, which is proving to be actually, quite brutal and who knows if it’s really going to sustain us. Whereas, we do know that the land and the ocean, if they’re not polluted, can sustain us.
So, that’s one thought. And with respect to language, from my perspective, I see, I’m working with a number of cultural and language activists in the Haida community. For them, the language is very important to the sense of self and to connect with their heritage and their ancestors. Also to keep Haida culture alive and vibrant.
My work has been to support this effort. Haidawood, what’s cool and interesting about it, is we work with the language and culture to help keep it alive and modern. Cultures that are alive keep adapting and changing and evolving and transforming and that’s what keeps them alive and real, as opposed to something, like in a museum. It gives the people a sense of who they are and it helps keep the traditions alive.
The machine of Western Civilization and its global culture, especially global Capitalist culture, where someone takes something out of the earth and no one pays for what’s taken, is blind. There’s a blind side to our economic systems that ignores the environment and constantly focuses on growth. Ultimately, it’s not sustainable and the pipeline is the most, it’s the nearest, most relevant example of that and people are rising up to say: Stop! Enough.
We need to stop the madness and focus on what’s real and what is going to ensure long-term prosperity, and that has got to be clean air and clean water.
CL: Do you have any thoughts on how culture impacts your work, be it Haida culture, Hip Hop culture, or mainstream Canadian culture? How do they interact?
KL: It seems to me that in that video, a bunch of things kind of come together. Certainly in mainstream Canadian culture there has been a tradition of animation. You know, we’ve got the NFB. (The NFB hasn’t supported this particular project yet, although they do know about it.)
The video starts with a traditional song in Haida. It starts out with an idyllic scene and there’s truth that resonates with the past here. I guess what I also thought was fun about the video was presenting this—You know, there’s this idea that maybe for First Nations people, their culture’s in a museum, or that their culture’s long ago. So I present that, but the movie shifts several times in unpredictable ways. You think you know what it is, then it shifts into something else.
What it shifts into is that Hip Hop song, which is sung by Jason Alsop. He’s actually the CEO of the Haida Heritage Foundation in Skidegate. Quite an important community leader, and a cannabis activist, and a rapper. So, he’s really quite an interesting guy. It was a lot of fun to work with him.
The first time I heard that rap pipeline song, it didn’t have the swear words beeped out. We used a raven to beep out the swear words.
I think it’s important for mainstream Canada to hear the kind of anger and frustration around the impacts of this whole industrial machine on the environment and pollution in this country. There’s this need for a kind of healing or reconciliation between mainstream Western culture and Indigenous cultures. And it’s something it’s not just in Canada. It’s sort of everywhere in the world.
Part of what Haidawood is about is creating a channel of communication that allows information from First Nations culture to enter back into the mainstream. In a way, I think First Nations have had to learn everything about Western culture, but there hasn’t been enough of a flow of information the other way. And if we could have that flow of information, it could actually help mainstream culture become more aware of the land, aware of the seasons, and start to become more in harmony with nature, which is what we need as a civilization to become sustainable.
There’s an important message, important things we can learn from First Nations culture. That’s kind of the goal of Haidawood.
CL: Do you any thoughts on what makes for strong collaboration?
KL: I really enjoy collaboration, and in a way, when the Haidawood Project started, part of it was I was so impressed with all the language teachers and artists I met, like Jaalen Edenshaw and Gwaii. So I started the project with them because I wanted to spend time with them and see what would come of that. It’s similar to why I brought Jason in.
What I love about collaboration, when you’re making art or music, is there’s this creative process where you don’t know what’s going to come through. There’s novelty and surprising things that can come and when you start to bring in other collaborators who bring other talents or skills or perspectives it can be a lot of fun. It’s almost like this fellowship of people—a little team or family. Right now I’m working on two more movies. These are traditional stories in the Haida language. One is a giant octopus and the other is about Tow Hill, which is a local landmark. We’ll animate them this month and we’ve got all sorts of puppets made or being made. We’re starting to gather enough of a team to make it happen. That’s when it really starts to get fun and exciting!