When he had his first heart attack, carver Jerry Harris Wushq dreamed his Canoe Mask. “I found that I would have some really good dreams,” he said of the experience.
A couple of months later, he was struck by a second heart attack, and another dream. “I woke up with the song that goes with the Canoe Mask,” he said.
That was about six years ago. Now the completed mask travels with him in a specially designed and constructed case, adorned with chevron and canoe symbols that are an important part of his cultural heritage.
Opening the case is like opening the door to another world – a parallel universe where European notions about what’s real, and not, no longer apply.
The mask looks out from its red casket, the canoe’s ceremonial paddles neatly stacked below it, and you can’t help but wonder, who’s behind it. What does the spirit in there think of me, glimpsing into its world.
You can’t help feeling like an intruder.
Masks, real masks, don’t have to be worn to have a spirit in them. At least not masks carved purposefully, out of thoughtfully selected cedar, with vision and culture guiding chisel and mallet.
Real masks have a life of their own.
At some point you find yourself asking: What would I see if I put that mask on? If I sang the song that goes with it? Danced the ceremonial dance?
One of Jerry Harris’ proudest moments was seeing his grandson put on the Canoe Mask – the first person to wear it. On that occasion, the mask was worn “to honour books in Hul’qumi’num that are coming out for school kids.”
As well as being a carver, Jerry is training to continue teaching Hul’qumi’num, the language his mask speaks, the language of his ancestors. He hopes that by June he may be teaching Hul’qumi’num full time.
At 67 he’s still recovering the meanings and nuances of words he remembers from a time – until the age of five – when he was living with his parents on their boat.
Passing on his language and the skills of a Stz’uminus carver are the passions of Harris’s life. So he’s in the process of converting his garage into a studio where he will teach people how to bring out the shapes ingrained in cedar.
“Most of my art is all spiritual; it all comes from dreams,” Jerry said.
“I think everybody’s got a spiritual side, and once you step into the spiritual side you begin to tap into your dream.”