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Remembering George Clutesi

April 02nd, 2008

A nephew of Tseshaht artist and author George Clutesi, Randy Fred founded Canada’s first Aboriginal-owned and operated publishing company, Theytus Books, in 1980, based in Nanaimo. Here Randy Fred shares memories of his Alberni Valley uncle who wrote Son of Raven, Son of Deer, a ground-breaking work published by Gray Campbell, the province’s first trade publisher.

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I remember Uncle Georgie was so very gentle. His voice had a bit of a rasp due to tuberculosis from his younger years.

He was quick to smile. His humour was subtle. He hated politics. He was not one to attend Band meetings as they tended to be so confrontational. He knew there was corruption in our office and felt powerless so avoided the issue as much as possible.
His wife, Margaret, on the other hand, was always very forthright in her opinions. She was not afraid to call a crook a crook. Nevertheless, she, too, felt powerless and avoided the political arena.

Margaret was simply honest. I used to chuckle to myself when I would visit her and she would be sitting in her chair knitting or weaving. With her hands moving steadily on her craftwork she could slam somebody quite harshly in her gentle voice.

Uncle Georgie and Auntie Margaret lived in an unusual house for an Indian reserve. It may have appeared normal for a middle to high class neighbourhood anywhere else other than an Indian reserve. It had a long gravel driveway coming off the Pacific Rim Highway, which we used to know as Sproat Lake Road.

Past the entrance to the driveway was a small shed where George used to paint, write, and meditate. The yard was quite large with a well manicured lawn, an abundance of fruit trees, berry bushes, and flowers. The house was always immaculately clean.
I always felt intimidated walking along the driveway up to Uncle and Auntie’s house. It seemed so out of place; so different than the other houses and yards on our reserve.

My first real encounter with Uncle Georgie was in the Alberni Indian Residential School in the early 1960s. By the time I attended, the school was massive with a half a dozen or so large outbuildings, but it was a much smaller building during his schooldays.
Being a creative soul with a great sense of humour, Uncle Georgie left the traditional Tseshaht mark on the school. Between the boys’ side and the girls’ side was an auditorium capable of holding more than 300 people. There was a foyer outside the auditorium door. This is where the rope was to pull the large bell to signal for mealtimes, church times etc.

On the foyer floor George created a beautiful motif using the floor tiles. It was an image of a whale with a thunderbird on its back. This motif within a circle is what our tribe, Tseshaht, still to this day uses as our logo. I believe it was Uncle Georgie’s way of marking the spot as traditional Tseshaht land. That piece of property has since been returned by the United Church of Canada to the Tseshaht tribe.
Uncle Georgie could see what the Indian residential school was doing to our culture. He was okay about teaching kids from other nations our songs and dances. Later he started a dance group on our reserve.

I recall Uncle Georgie asking me once why I had not joined up with his dance group. He told me I was Tseshaht and the dance group sang and danced to Tseshaht songs, my songs and dances. I was dumbfounded. I knew I loved the songs and dances. I did not know then I was feeling shame about being Indian. He never pressured me.

Today Tseshaht people appreciate what Uncle Georgie did. However, in the beginning they ostracized him for his cultural work.

Our people felt he was selling out our culture. This feeling extended further to his published works. When Son of Raven, Son of Deer was first published he was far from being a hero on our reserve.

I admire him. He persevered. He published more books and got into acting and did well at it.

Despite his fame he never looked down on any Tseshaht person. He was always welcoming. He was also forgiving.

Slowly, the feelings of Tseshaht people changed up to the point of pride for his accomplishments. Now it is well understood he was instrumental in preserving and promoting Tseshaht culture.

Uncle Georgie’s trailblazing allowed me to work in communications. By the time I started Theytus Books Ltd, much of the jealousy towards him and the negative feelings about his work had diminished sufficiently. It was no longer taboo to share our culture.
Like many creative people, George and Margaret had both been ripped off at times. It took a lot of convincing to finally get them to agree to allow me and Theytus Books Ltd. to publish The Art of George Clutesi.

What a nightmare! George had entrusted all his written collections and archival materials to a supposed writer., a non-Native who had gained George and Margaret’s trust. That project never did reach publication.

She lied to us about her progress with the writing of the book. Like an unseasoned publisher fool I believed her to the point of mocking up a book and advertising it. What a heartbreaker! I don’t even know if she ever returned the material to the Clutesis.
I was glad Uncle and Auntie didn’t hold anything against me for the failure of the project. Instead, our relationship drew closer. After that, I never felt intimidated entering that long driveway.

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In 2005 Randy Fred received the Gray Campbell Distinguished Service Award for his outstanding contribution to the development of writing and publishing in British Columbia. He lives in Nanaimo.

Essay Date: 2007

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