In October 2018, I had the privilege to attend the Frank Nelson Memorial Potlatch in the Gukwdzi (Big House) in ’Yalis (Alert Bay, BC). I was invited by ’Maxwiyalidzi, K’odi Nelson—a Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw people—who organized this two-day-long ceremony, supported by his uncles Alec Nelson and Gigaemi, Frank Baker. The potlatch shared their family history from Gwa’yi (Kingcome Inlet, BC), memorialized deceased family members and passed on ancestral names. As one of the thousand-plus guests present, we were asked to be responsible for remembering the rites of passage and other spiritual and social transformations that occurred.
I had come to this potlatch to witness and digitally record the dancing of Ninini (Earthquake), a supernatural being with whom the Nelson family has connections since time immemorial. “I have known for a few years now that the Ninini is a prerogative of our family,” explains K’odi; “I thought it was important to show it at our Nelson potlatch because it ties us to stories. It ties us to people and reaffirms our history: who we are and where we come from.”
Ninini is performed during the Tłasila (Peace Dances) portion of the Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch—a time when chiefly families open their K’awatsi (Box of Treasures). Gigaemi describes the K’awatsi as “the rights and privileges that come down either by marriage or by ancestors. [They] are songs, names, artworks that are directly related to the land. Each treasure [indicates that] you can fish here, or this creek belongs to you, or this clam bed is yours, or this salmonberry patch is your rights, or this stand of trees belongs to you.” Displaying family treasures in a public way actively exercises and validates a family’s rights and privileges while demonstrating its ancestral knowledge of supernatural and natural events, such as earthquakes.
The mask I saw danced in ’Yalis was carved by Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw artist Les Nelson (1934–1984); the mask is cared for by the Museum at Campbell River in ƛ̓əmataxʷ (Campbell River, BC), with the understanding that it could be borrowed for ceremonial purposes by Nelson’s family members and descendants. According to Beth Boyce, Curator, Museum at Campbell River, “The reason it went out to that particular potlatch was because [Nelson’s] daughter asked for it to be there.” The mask is a copy of an older version in the collection of the Museum of Anthropology. Both masks have prominent eyebrows that move up and down when strings are pulled by the dancer; their broad red mouths are outlined with white ripples like seismic waves. When in motion, the masks tell us when Ninini makes the land move. As Gigaemi says, “I would think when he wrinkles his face that the earth wrinkles—and that would be an earthquake.”
The Nelson family K’awatsi also contains a Ninini song, written for Tłalilit’ła, Chief Johnny Nelson. The present-day performance of the Ninini mask, dance and song reflects the living knowledge of the Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw people. We are honoured to share these treasures and relevant knowledge with our museum visitors through digital media in MOA’s exhibition, Shake Up: Preserving What We Value.
MOA has had an older version of a Nininigamł (Earthquake mask) in its collection since 1952. Sold to us over 65 years ago by Emily Watson, the widow of Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Chief Hector Webb, this mask has a deep history and ongoing significance for a number of families from Gwa’yi. Well-worn and well-loved, this Nininigamł is currently displayed in MOA’s O’Brian Gallery as a part of the Shake Up exhibition. It is a powerful example of both the current and historical interactions between Indigenous groups and earthquakes in this region.
The contemporary importance of Ninini is best understood through the lyrics of Chief Tłalilit’ła’s song, recorded by Hiwakilis’, Tom ‘Mackenzie’ Willie in 1984 and translated by his wife, Elsie Williams: “Ninini has been moving all over the world. Before Ninini comes in, the Big House begins to shake. It really shook. Ninini makes cracks open up and big rocks slide and the whole land changes shape. Whole countries change shape from Ninini.” We at MOA are paying attention!
Corrections (April 13, 2021), provided by Beth Boyce, Curator, Museum at Campbell River:
A previous version of this story used the wrong names for the Museum at Campbell River and for Campbell River. The Liqʷala name for Campbell River is ƛ̓əmataxʷ. The story has also been edited to clarify the borrowing agreement between the Museum at Campbell River and the Nelson family.