Jill Baird, Curator, Education, shared a warm conversation with artist and dancer Mike Dangeli of the Nisga’a, Tlingit, Tsetsaut, and Tsimshian Nations. Recently, Mike gifted a ridicule mask to MOA’s Teaching Collection, where students will be able to learn from and interact with this unique piece.
In this conversation, Mike shares the inspiration behind his thought-provoking mask, and how ridicule masks are used to facilitate conflict resolution. He and Jill also discuss how his artwork has changed while living in Terrace, BC during the COVID-19 pandemic, his love-hate relationship with museums and why it’s okay to get sweat stains on your regalia.
Listen to their conversation below:
Mike Dangeli is of the Nisga’a, Tlingit, Tsetsaut, and Tsimshian Nations. He belongs to the Beaver Clan and carries the names Goothl Ts’imilx (Heart of the Beaver House) and Teettlien (Big Wave). He grew up in his people’s traditional territory in Southeast Alaska and Northern British Columbia. Mike is a renowned artist and carver whose work is collected and exhibited throughout North America and Europe. He is also a singer, songwriter, and dancer.
At an early age, Mike began to attend feasts, potlatches and other ceremonies in BC and Alaska where he danced with his family and began to study the art forms, histories, and cultures of his diverse background. From these experiences, he learned how to host his own feasts, potlatches and totem pole raisings, prepare traditional foods, speak for his family, and to perform the songs and dances of his people.
While living in Vancouver, Mike founded the House of Culture Studio, where he organized programs to teach Northwest Coast art to urban First Nations children, youth, and adults through classes, workshops and seminars. In partnership with his wife Mique’l Dangeli, Mike leads the Git Hayetsk Dancers, an internationally renowned First Nations dance group based in Vancouver, BC. He has carved over 50 of the masks performed by their group. The group takes pride in continuing the traditions and songs of their ancestors, while also creating new songs, dances, drums, rattles, masks, and regalia to reflect and record their experiences as First Nations people today.
Mike Dangeli is currently working on a 22-foot totem pole honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, to be raised in Kitsumkalum territory west of Terrace in September. Dangeli is carving the pole alongside his sons, Nick and Michael.
This ridicule mask created by Mike Dangeli is a recent addition to MOA’s Teaching Collection. He describes how ridicule masks are used for conflict resolution and accountability: they are created when two parties are having a disagreement. The mask is placed in the Feast Hall, and remains on display until there is an apology or restitution, upon which the mask is burned.
The mask’s vibrant colours are a nod to recognizing the different Coast Salish nations whose territory Vancouver is built on. Alongside wing, hand and human figures, he captures both the beauty of the city, but also the social and ecological impact of humans on the land, and the culture of displacement in the city. The plastic bags knotted around the mask symbolize our society’s addiction to petroleum byproducts, plastics and consumption.
The ridicule mask will join MOA’s Teaching Collection. The pieces in this collection are used during MOA’s School Programs. It is important that students and their supervisors are encouraged to touch and interact with these objects as a form of learning during their visit to MOA.
Mike and Mique’l Dangeli gifted this hand-painted drum to MOA Curator Jill Baird during a Potlatch. She now uses it to celebrate healthcare workers fighting COVID-19 at 7 o’clock every evening. “I looked at [the drum] the other day and one of the little flecks of paint has come off. And instead of going, “Oh, no,” I felt like it became alive now,” she says.
Full audio transcription:
Jill Baird: Hi, Mike, it’s Jill from MOA. I’m checking in. How are you?
Mike Dangeli: Hey Jill, it’s good to hear you! Wow, it’s been too long. I hope you’ve been well.
Baird: Yes, well enough. My family’s safe and sound. It’s interesting to be in the city as it quiets down a little bit, at this time.
Dangeli: I hear ya. Both Mique’l and I really miss the city. But it’s been good to be here in Terrace for the last four years, going on four years. We have a six month old son, which is beautiful, and his name is Hayetsk, which means “copper shield.” I have my other two sons, Nick, who’s 22 and Michael, who’s 28. And before all this craziness happened, they actually came to assist and be my apprentices for a 22 foot totem pole that I’m doing for the murdered and missing men, women, girls and boys, and LGBTQ. We were supposed to have the raising in June but because of the quarantine and the outbreak, they postponed it for September. [Note: To read more about this pole, click here.]
Baird: Where is it going to be raised?
Dangeli: Well, there’s a truck crossing as you’re leaving Terrace that’s literally just down the street. My parents’ house is right on top, big three story log home. And so it’s actually going right there. And yeah, the Ministry in the province was super excited about doing this. So it was a bit of a challenge with all of that; it goes into the statement of the frustration of living in a smaller town. There’s things that we really miss about the city, about Ts’a’mis, about living in Vancouver.
There’s still racism from everywhere, but at least in the city—well, there’s enough of us that are aren’t of that mindset that you know, we can step away from that craziness. Yeah, so it’s been it’s been a bit challenging in that aspect. Just a lot of different ways of thinking and being—not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I think if we’re open to them, being them, they need to be open to us doing us. And unfortunately, systemic racism and all of that ugliness is still very prevalent. The social justice work that we’ve done in Vancouver—with Idle No More and, you know, working with our Coast Salish relatives, to help bring awareness to a lot of these social issues that have plagued all of us. We’ve had a lot of allies in in Vancouver, both First Nations and non First Nations. They’re few and far between up here. Which has been challenging, but on the other hand, it’s been beautiful to be in the territory, being able to go out and get out on the Skeena and the Nass [Rivers] and do some fishing and beautiful things like gathering medicines. Alder is always a tough thing to get in Vancouver, we’ve been able to go out and harvest alder in our territory, and birch and cedar and it’s just been beautiful, in healing, in that aspect. And being able to create, I found my work to have changed greatly in the way of my. with my formline and even my carvings. I’m not sure if it’s because I have more time or if it’s just because I’m finding myself attached to the land more so than I’ve ever been.
Baird: That’s super interesting, because one of the reasons I wanted to call you and talk to you is because you gave us such a beautiful gift to the museum’s Teaching Collection. This remarkable mask that’s—well, frankly, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And I’m not a Tsimshian art specialist, I leave that to you. So I’m sure you’ve seen ones like it before, but it’s colouring is vibrant and almost Pop Art-ish. And it’s got this kind of half a face, not a face, and then it’s got this beautiful, kind of almost like a feather and cedar bark ring around it, but it’s made out of plastic bags. So I wonder if we could shift from your thinking about how your work is changing while being on the land in your territory, to helping me understand what is this, and why did you make [it]? Who is it? Is it a who?
Dangeli: Yes it is. So within our masks amongst the Sm’algyax-speaking people—the Nisga’a, Tsimshian, and the Gitxsan—our masks are called nax nok’. Nax nok’, meaning “beyond human power,” and they are ceremonial beings. And they’re—they tend to be genderless. They can be both men and women qualities. But this particular mask is called a ridicule mask. Ridicule masks have been something really special to me. You know, as you know, I’m a veteran: I served 10 years as a US Army Airborne Ranger and four tours as a combat. When I came home, I had a lot of baggage and so part of that healing process for me was to create ridicule masks. For us, “ridicule” is something completely different. You know, the English word “ridicule” is something of a negative. But actually when, when we’re corrected publicly—and that’s what these ridicule masks do, which I’ll explain, is something very important in a culture: to be able to call out things, and doing it in a way that is gentle, but also firm. That’s what ridicule masks do. And this particular mask is carved on one side. There’s lots of different ways of making ridicule masks—up and down. And sometimes they call them shaming masks and what have you, up and down the coast. It just depends on your teaching.
With me, this is kind of my artist’s rendition of what I think of ridicule, because sometimes they’ll have [the mask] burnt. And it goes from an adawx [teaching] about this prince or young nobleman who was being abusive with his power and showing how wealthy he was by throwing eulichan grease and the grease splashes back and burns half of his face. So that was Creator, the universe’s way of kind of putting him in check. And so, you know, half the—sometimes you’ll see masks that are burnt on one side. For me, I kind of dug it out. And the reason I did that is to show that it’s half a human being. And again, that was part of me going through my own healing as an artist, but also as a veteran. And so the one side is usually done [as] an effigy of somebody, and then the other side is dug out, kind of [to] show, you know, they’re half a human being. And what the reason we have ridicule masks is, say there was a problem between you and I. And you asked my wife Mique’l to able to carve a mask, because we couldn’t come to some sort of agreement of an apology or something to that effect. And so that would be carved and then put in the Feast Hall, and that would be on display until I apologized or gave some sort of restitution and then that mask is taken and then burned, and we don’t talk about it. It’s a beautiful way of conflict resolution.
So for this particular piece—I made it super bright and vibrant to talk about Ts’a’mis, to talk about the city. To talk about the urban areas that we, at the time I was living in. I’m told Terrace is an urban area, even though it feels much like a village or a small town. And so I was talking with this [mask], I have the hand going across the face and just talking about our print on the land. Because as we know, Ts’a’mis, Vancouver is actually Coast Salish territory. So normally on the dugout area, I have an upside down face, which is usually, you know, like upside down flags usually represent the international sign of distress. But for this, I put a wing, I put humans on there. I put just designs on there representing the different nations, the different peoples that live in the area, and of course, using all those very beautiful bright, vibrant colours. And talking about, “Yes, we bring beauty and culture to the city, but at what cost? What are we doing?” And so even on the back of the mask, on the inside—something I don’t normally do—I actually sanded it and painted the inside of the mask to show that specifically areas like Vancouver or any major city like Toronto that were once villages have become… In this particular case, I was talking about the housing shortage in Vancouver. I was talking about how people who’ve lived in work there for like myself over 20 years were pushed out of houses that we’ve had for almost 10 years being pushed out because of the way the market was, for housing and businesses.
Baird: And economic prices just went through the ceiling.
Dangeli: Yes, and it was ridiculous. And so we’re a part of that and then of course, what you thought would look like feathers, which are plastic bags, I was talking about our addiction to petroleum byproducts, and how petroleum byproducts are in everything from our computers to make up. Everything has plastics. You know, and what are we doing to our addiction to the over processing of the land, oil, addiction, all of these things? What are we doing? And I was posing it as, “I don’t have any answers.” You know, there’s something that’s so beautiful that is Vancouver that we really miss and love. But were we part of the problem?
Baird: Our challenge is—our challenge is to try to find our small solutions so that we [take] small steps forward, but we acknowledge that it isn’t someone else’s responsibility to make change. It’s ours. Personal and collective.
Dangeli: Definitely. And I find it really interesting now. And I’m actually working on some masks that are about COVID. The mask is really interesting. It has a lot of check marks and knots, a knot on there. And I’m playing with that using the idea of the ridicule, but I’m switching it around and talking about [it] through all this ugliness and all this massive death, massive amount of loss of lives. I mean, we can’t trivialize it but there’s been so much memes and other craziness, jokes about being in quarantine. And I talk about as an Indigenous person, or as a person in general, we have a history of looking at a really terrible situation. And laughing at it because it gives back power. You know, and that’s the same thing with a ridicule mask, is it gives back power. But it also poses these questions of what exactly what you said, “What can we do? What are we doing?” You know, these—all this ugliness that’s happening, and death and frustration, but there’s still, you know, looking at the beauty that, as human beings, we’re coming together. Looking at the beauty of people working really hard to support each other…. and then there’s people who are hoarding toilet paper. I mean, there’s just, you know—as human beings, we have this whole spectrum of love and kindness to just pure outright craziness.
Baird: Yeah, I think some of it is craziness but for me, you know, people have a weird way of expressing fear. And so, “How are your fears manifested? And how are you fears fuelled by less than generous people?” So now, you have inherent fears when your situation changes, and this is a big situation changer for all of us. So how do we respond by respecting people’s fears, but also not exacerbating them, by feeding into the lowest common denominator?
Dangeli: Yeah. And then just looking at things culturally too with, you know—social distancing is such an interesting concept. You know, anybody who’s gone to residential school or who is a descendant of somebody who’s gone through a residential school, we understand social distancing, because that’s what they did in residential schools. That’s what my grandparents were, you know, very military about how we do thinsg. And going out in public and watching some people’s privilege, really get offended… you’re thinking, “You gotta step away.” You know, what I was trying to talk about as well is that it’s been beautiful to see the earth heal itself. Because we leave our footprint, our handprint, our being forced to stay inside, and the earth has changed so much. It’s been beautiful. To see some of that, that beautiful change and to be a witness to that and saying, yeah, that you can, we can make the changes, we can do these beautiful things. I think if we focus on the negative and the ugliness, that’s all we’re going to get. And if we try to find the goodness.
Baird: Is it fair to say that if we, if I was using your mask—because I’m so thankful that you gave it to the Teaching Collection. So, I’m allowed to hold it, and we’re allowed to work with kids who can look at it and turn it around and really examine it closely. Would it be fair that it’s kind of a challenge to them? That you’re passing on a challenge, that they need to to take this in and think about these ideas when they hold that mask? What do you want them to be thinking?
Dangeli: Oh most definitely, most definitely. You know, and that’s where I’m—I was so excited that it was gonna be going into the Teaching Collection. And I’ve shared that with you all these years and taking my students in with my mentorship classes and other students coming into MOA and talking about how, as an artist and as somebody who is a practitioner, who is a gyits’oontk in our people’s traditions of mask dancing, how there’s this beautiful position that I’m in—a love-hate relationship. And I don’t know what better word to put it. I don’t like that term “hate” because I think it’s a five year old word. But the love-hate, what I mean about it, is having that frustration of looking at masks and totem poles, things that are of a lifecycle. And everything has a, is supposed to go on to the next; just like us, go on to that next state of being. But also as an artist, I’m able to go in and study these old pieces and look at them and learn from them. So the idea that this mask is being touched and handled and having that human contact which is so important in our nax nok’, because it’s a symbiotic relationship that needs us just as much as we need it. So, in all of that and having your students and having the young ones touch [the mask] is is a huge blessing in that it is feeding itself. It’s being energized, it’s creating that beauty; our oils, our DNA is going to be attached to this piece forever. And the ability to have that but also talking about these issues.
I think that as human beings, we need to challenge each other to lift each other up and say, “Look, we didn’t do as well as we should have. But we’re doing this now.” You know, and that’s why the I love the whole idea of the ridicule mask, which is why I chose to tell the story with this is: the ridicule mask is a way for us to say, “I made a mistake. I’m going to fix this. I apologize. We’re going to burn this and it won’t be talked about, but I’m going to learn from this.” And we don’t talk about it, meaning, “we never talk about it that it becomes lost.” But it becomes more of a lesson of that individual, a very harsh lesson because there’s nothing worse than being called out in front of all your people. And there’s nothing wrong with that healthy competition. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of constructive criticism, but also the healthy push of, “Hey, you need to get this done.”
Baird: So, it’s so inspiring. Thanks. Thanks, Mike. It’s… I realize how much I miss you! [laughs] I miss Mique’l, you. Both you and your wife, Mique’l, have been an important teachers in my world and you’ve been important teachers to the volunteers at the Museum too. And I want to take this moment to thank you. And I know at some point, we’ll be able to come back and learn again from you.
I wanted to end by just telling you something that makes me super happy. Particularly as you’re talking about how the DNA and the kids and maybe even grown ups are going to interact with this mask and learn by experiencing it in a different way. Every night at seven o’clock when everybody else is [banging on] pots and pans on the porches in East Vancouver, I take out a beautiful drum that was gifted to me by you and your wife at your Potlatch. And I looked at it the other day and one of the little flecks of paint has come off. And instead of going, “Oh, no,” I felt like it became alive now. It’s something when you see yourself and your family and so many dancers and drummers when they come in and their drums are all worn from use. It started to feel that mine has now earned its use.
Dangeli: That’s very true. You know, and something within our dance group we’ve had people get really worried that their regalia was getting sweat stains, or their drum, the paint slipping off, you know. And something that Mique’l and I were really fortunate [to hear], one of our one of our elders and teachers had said, “It’s shown that it’s loved.” You know, and that becomes part of that power of that particular nax nok’, that being, that [piece] is being used and shown that it’s loved. As I said, everything in our culture and everything in our society has a symbiotic relationship and it all has a spirit. And if we don’t use it, then it mourns that. It mourns just like how we were saying “I sure miss you,” you know, and it has that same feeling of being used. It knows it’s loved. And when it rips, it means “Okay, well that means it’s time to fix it, maybe put it away or only use it for a couple of things.” And so that becomes an understanding and in that way of showing that it is loved that it is cared for.
Something else that’s been beautiful through all of this is I’ve actually been teaching online as well. I’ve done formline classes online. Yeah. With the youth and Kitsumkalum. And this was actually, the mask was actually something that I shared with them and talking about this, but also talking about using our nax nok’ and dancing. Even in singing, even in times like this: that we don’t always need, you know, a bunch of people watching this. Which is beautiful. As a performer I love that, I love being able to entertain people and being able to share our culture. But it’s been beautiful just singing for our son Hayetsk for my wife, or the both of us singing for Hayetsk or singing for my pups and my cat. Even our dance practice, we’ve switched to Zoom and we’re having our northern, you know, Terrace Git Hayetsk dancers and our Vancouver Git Hayetsk dancers come together and just sing.
It’s been beautiful to even have this and as human beings go through all this, but also show that we love and care for each other. That we don’t forget that we’re humans, that we don’t forget that we need this symbiotic relationship even though we can’t physically be next to each other, or physically kind of, like, lean on each other when we see each other. That we still can lean on each other virtually and be able to have moments like this and conversations like this that are such good medicine. So I thank you for that, you’ve been such a wonderful teacher for me because you’ve, just like my wife, have made me think a little bit more critically about things rather than just throwing it out there and say, “Well Mike, what do you think about this?” You know, and I’ve always appreciated that relationship with you, Jill, and I just cherish that, so thank you so much for that.
Baird: Well, thank you for this phone call and this. My basement office in East Vancouver is just much brighter as a result. Stay well. And love from the city. Take care.
Dangeli: You too.