Ya'Ya Charles Heit carves strong messages into totem poles

World-renowned First Nations carver Ya'Ya Charles Heit, creates art to heal in Kispiox, B.C. His intricately carved totem poles blend ancient traditions, with contemporary themes.

World-renowned First Nations carver takes on modern struggles through ancient art styles

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      At the confluence of the Skeena and Kispiox River, nestled in a valley of cedar and hemlock, is the Gitxsan village of Kispiox, "The People of the Hiding Place."

      The 3,000-year-old community is world-renowned for its art work, especially its totem poles.Carved figures of eagle, raven, frog and killer whale commemorate the dead, and tell stories of a proud and ancient history on the land.

      "This is the middle of my world. Kispiox. It's the centre," said world-renowned artist YaYa "Charles" Heit.

      Heit's mother was Gitxsan. His father is a Saskatchewan farmer of German ancestry.

      Ya'ya Charles Heit's work blends ancient traditions, with contemporary themes. (Marissa Harvey/CBC)
      Heit’s basement is filled with cedar totem poles, and display cases of stone carvings and silver jewellery. The images are familiar, but the themes — the stories — are decidedly modern.

      Inspired by his family's rich artistic history, Heit began creating at a young age.

      "I think I was in about grade five and I just started drawing Indian art,” said Heit. "And then when I got to Prince George, I saw West Coast art designs on postcards. I was a poor boy, so I stole them. And I started drawing."

      Heit eventually quit school and enrolled at the Kitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art, in Hazelton, British Columbia. That’s where he learned to carve Northwest Coast Indian art.

      He started producing inexpensive art, as it was a big tourist destination.

      "After about three or four years of that, I discovered some customers called collectors … then I started getting away from my $10 and $12 plaques to stuff I want to make, instead of worrying about if it will sell in a week"

      Me and My Two Brothers, created by Ya'Ya Charles Heit, is six feet tall, and carved from red cedar. Ya'Ya' face stares out from the middle of the pole. Above him, his two brothers are in the Sky World amongst the fire weed. (Marissa Harvey/CBC)
      YaYa began carving pieces inspired by his own life and experiences.

      One of his most personal and powerful creations is called Me and My Two Dead Brothers, carved in the '90s, as HIV-AIDS was starting to appear in the Kispiox Valley.

      “My clan brother, Mike Star, died. He got knocked out in the shower, and just never came around. He died with AIDS; he'd already known that. And that was following my other clan brother that I hung around with a lot, Andy Clifton, from another village. He died first, and he had AIDS.… It was tough … And it left me really sad. and this carving is what came out of me."

      "I think that really helped me you know, to go through those deaths.… Back then, there was probably about three or four tribe members with AIDS. Now, I think it's over 60. Because we have a lot of people who live in cities … [it] is pretty tough."

      Pain and healing are themes running through Ya'Ya's work. He strips away layers of suffering with each knife stroke.

      "This place, my people are full of medical problems. Maybe more than non-natives, I really don't know. But I live here, and here, this local area around Hazelton, we're about 85 percent native."

      These days, politics and justice are a major influence on Ya'Ya's work. His current totem pole is a political statement on the Indian Act. He sees this as being connected to the alcoholism, the health, and economic struggles in his community.

      "I'm thinking of a title for it ... Who the Hell would want these chains?, the chains being the Indian Act. So I put myself in there again. And this time, I have my three ancestors up above me. They were free,” said Heit.

      “And so I struggle, and like my ancestors, I wish for a better tomorrow in Canada. But I don't lose hope, because I have children," Heit continued.

      "So I've got my children at the bottom as part of the future. and I'll add in some of my own family's crests. This probably is going to be the nicest totem pole I've ever made in my life."

      Ya'Ya's dream is for Who the Hell Wants These Chains to one day be displayed in the future Canadian Museum For Human Rights in Winnipeg.

      "It really belongs there ... maybe a few of my other carvings too."

      He wants his work to be a source of healing for all people.

      "I wouldn't want to spend my life being negative, or being down-trodden. I have great dreams, hopes and aspirations for my children and for everyone."

      And so Ya'Ya carves in hopes of creating a better world — one knife stroke at a time.


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