A pair of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation brothers collaborated on a healing song and dance to document the COVID-19 pandemic and produced a video to share it worldwide.
Nuu-chah-nulth language advocate Timmy Masso and artist Hjalmer Wenstob came up with the idea to produce a healing song last summer and, thanks to funding from the Canada Council to the Arts’ Digital Originals Program, the project evolved into a dance the brothers have published online.
“Whenever there was a major event traditionally there would be a totem pole carved or a song written and a dance made for that amazing event or even a very tragic event that happened,” Masso told the Westerly News. “Hjalmer and I both noticed that a lot more recent times or modern times there has been so much of a lack of traditional ways continuing on. We wanted to talk about what’s happening right now, talk about COVID and how this is a story of now. I think that was really important as a way of resurgence of culture and our traditional ways.”
The video was filmed at Grice Bay where Masso performed the dance wearing a mask carved by Wenstob and featuring a song written and performed by both brothers.
“Hjalmer and I work so amazingly together not only in regards to being brothers and knowing how we both think, but also in what we do,” Masso said. “Hjalmer has that focus on the culture and producing beautiful artwork and my main focus is dancing and language. So, we kind of bring those two aspects of Nuu-chah-nulth, the culture that Hjalmer carries and the language that I’m learning and we kind of bring those two together with our work and our masks and our songs,” he said. “Whenever we make a piece, it would be impossible without the other person. It’s just so amazing what we’re able to accomplish if we have each other.”
The video was published to YouTube on March 11, 2021, Canada’s National Day of Observance of those lost due to COVID-19.
“This is a day where we’re mourning, we’re remembering and we’re really coming together even though we’re apart to make this day important. So, we released it on that day,” Wenstob told the Westerly News.
Masso said he began talking to his brother about producing a healing song last summer to share with anyone needing strength during the pandemic.
“It was something we thought would be really important to make and bring out to everyone here on the West Coast and anyone who wanted to hear it,” he said. “It was that idea of bringing strength and giving people that strength to continue forward in this strange time of COVID. There’s so many struggles of just life, so when we made the song we really wanted to have it so people could find that strength.”
Wenstob explained he applied for funding from the Canada Council to the Arts’ Digital Originals Program, to produce an artwork that could be shared digitally to reach a wide fan base due to many galleries and art shows being closed due to COVID-19.
“Throughout these historical records, we can look back and really map out our history,” he said. “Recently, because of this resurgence of art and culture and language, I find we’re always looking back and recreating those objects and history is still happening around us right now. So, we really wanted to record this point in history, which is such an important time to record and recognize and write down in our own way.”
Wenstob carved a transformative mask for his brother to dance in and the mask features hands that open and close over the mouth.
“The mask has a lot of call to older work. It had a relationship to historic artwork that I’ve seen…We really wanted to find a way to capture this time. How do we capture COVID in an artwork without being too heavy-handed and without being too subtle,” he said, “The idea was to record this point in time through performance, through the dancing, through the transformation of the mask and through the lyrics.”
Along with the mask, the regalia Masso is wearing in the dance includes a Hudson’s Bay blanket.
“It’s a really amazing part of history that we were able to bring into the performance, but also a really dark history that comes with that history of trade,” Wenstob said. “The Hudson Bay blanket, not only does it have some really striking visual in the video, it has a lot of loaded history that comes with it as well.”
He added a few galleries have reached out to ask about purchasing the mask, but both he and Masso plan to keep all aspects of the performance together.
“Those were all standalone objects that really could stand alone in their own spaces if they wanted to, but we really feel that they should live together…We really feel that it’s really important to keep that song and that performance and that mask and regalia altogether, to make sure that we bring it out and we share it. When we can come together again, we hope to have big gatherings, so we can bring that out and share it and really remember this time in the best way we can, with prayers and that healing song of coming together…And, to bring the mask into educational spaces and share about it as well to use it as a teaching tool but also use it as a way to celebrate once COVID’s in the rearview mirror.”
He said the hope is the dance will be shared and he also plans to use the mask as an educational opportunity for youth.
“We have something in our community and in our culture called fun dances, and they are dances that are meant to be shared. They can be shared more publicly than some of our ceremonial dances. They can be shared at public events, they can be shared outside of closed doors,” he said. “They can be brought into spaces of education like the school, people can handle them and touch them, whereas ceremonial works you put them away and they don’t come out until the next ceremony.”
Masso added that he and Wenstob have collaborated on fun dances before, including one about language revitalization.
He noted that anyone watching their recently published video on YouTube can turn on closed captioning and follow along with the song as the words are translated in Nuu chah nulth.
“Our idea behind that was to not only have it so that people could read along with the translation, but also have that Nuu -chah-nulth spelling of these words so they can see how they sound when we’re singing them and what they look like,” he said. “What Hjalmer and I love to do is have songs that anyone can sing and anyone can share…Having these as fun dances and fun songs are so important for all these new learners that are out there to have a song that they can share with everyone. It’s just so important to have it out there so that people can share it and have it.”