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Forgotten First Nations art found in basement of Yukon Friendship Centre

It was a rare find at the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre in Whitehorse. One that could be worth thousands of dollars.

Among the 183 pieces found are 28 from well-known artist Carl Beam

Staff at the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre were shocked to find 183 pieces of art from Indigenous artists in their basement. Among them was art from Stephen Snake, shown above, and Carl Beam. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Staff at the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre were shocked to find 183 art pieces in their basement recently, many of them created by well-known artists.

"This recent discovery during this year of significant hardship has been a very welcome surprise," said Bill Griffis, the centre's executive director, in a news release.

The art was originally donated to the non-profit organization in Whitehorse back in 1997, but was forgotten over the years as staff left.

Among the pieces found, 28 belonged to the well-known contemporary artist Carl Beam. The other 155 were created by Stephen Snake and other Indigenous artists.

Joe Migwans holds Beam's piece titled 'A poem for the unborn' from the late 90s. The orange plexiglass has an unborn baby in a womb followed by the words 'you can never believe the rational.' (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Griffis said the next step is to determine the value of each piece.

"Each one [of Beam's art pieces] has an appraisal certificate with them," said Griffis. "Part of the process is to figure out what the value is now because we have a collection [and] there may be some historical value to it."

Out of the other 155, about a third of them also had appraisals from the late 90s.

Significant impact on Canadian art sector

As one of Canada's most ground-breaking Indigenous artists, the art from Beam is of particular interest.

He was from M'Chigeeng First Nation, located on Manitoulin Island, Ont. He was born in 1943 and passed away in 2005.

Beam had a significant impact on the Canadian art sector. His work, which ranged from Plexiglass to canvas and other media, provoked conversations about the Indigenous experience of injustice in Canada.

Beam's cousin, Joe Migwans, is a long-time Yukon resident and cultural mentor.

'I know Carl would be really happy to have his gifts of artwork being shared in a way that will touch so many people’s lives at this time,' said Joe Migwans. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

"He was my cousin by blood, but he's more like my uncle because in our way, when we have a cousin like that, that age, he's more like my uncle. I always listen to what he said to me because he's my elder," explained Migwans.

He said Beam's work has a powerful message and is even more relevant today.

"He's basically preserving those kind of snippets in this time and telling, and it kind of like how he perceives the world to be and what his take is on it. And then in the future, people will see kind of what was going on here from from his perspective," he says.

Towards the end of his life, Beam started to talk more about what life could be or what life is all about, said Migwans.

"What it's about is overcoming and then achieving something in your life and not having to go through what you did in the past. So your life can move forward. I mean, that's the vision, right? And a lot of us back home that knew him and worked with him, we always believed that he was more well ahead of his time," he said.

Migwans said art is used to tell a story and capture a moment in time. He added that most of Beam's work came from his anger from residential schools and injustices towards Indigenous people.

"Some of the things he would like to really do was to take any stereotype around First Nations people. One of the things was saying our people were dirty Indians. Except there never was. We never were like that," said Migwans.

Indigenous art discovered at the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre in Whitehorse is set to be auctioned off on line to help the centre. The work is by artists including Stephen Snake and Carl Beam. Skookum Executive Director Bill Griffis and Beam's cousin Joe Migwans spoke about the significance of the find. 5:06

Beam was the first Indigenous contemporary artist featured at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

"He did it on his own in his own way. Not as a First Nations artist, as the contemporary artist, which means he's just like anybody else. He's not under the guise of First Nations or the idea that he's entitled to something because he's First Nation.

"He didn't have to use that as something to get him forward," said Migwans.

Fundraiser

Out of nearly 200 pieces, some will be sold to the public and some to private galleries across Canada.

The remaining pieces will be part of a silent auction from Dec. 4 to the 14th.

The auction is part of a fundraiser between the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre and Sundog Veggies Training Farm.

Heather Finton, owner of Sundog Veggies, said the organization is grateful they can use the found art to raise some money.

The staff at Skookum Jim Friendship Centre and Sundog Veggies Training Farm going through Stephen Snake and Carl Beam's artwork. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

"Not only is this artwork like amazing and so timely but the way that some of these gifts are going to be available to the community to support the work Skookum does is ... it's just a privilege to be part of these amazing story," she said.

The two organizations have been collaborating since 2020 for the community lunch program which feeds several families in Whitehorse. They share a goal of building food security in the Yukon and creating opportunities to develop land-based skills.

With files from Danielle d'Entremont

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