About the Inkameep Day School Art Collection

For years, the Inkameep Day School art collection sat unobtrusively amid the eclectic range of artifacts at the Osoyoos Museum.  It was not until Leslie Plaskett, former president of the Osoyoos Museum Society, took special interest in the collection that things began to happen and the remarkable story behind the collection surfaced into public knowledge.

hHeads-with-WingsThe Osoyoos Museum partnered with the University of Victoria and the Nk’Mip First Nation to receive grant funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council so that the collection could be properly documented and researched.  University of Victoria professor Dr. Andrea Walsh headed up the work on the project, and under her care 300 slides of the collection, students, and related people were produced.  In addition, textual artifacts from historical societies in the Okanagan, the Special Collections at UBC and UVic, the Junior Red Cross, the Empire Exhibition of 1938, and the Royal Drawing Society of London were reproduced.

A selection of artwork from the Osoyoos Museum collection was displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the summer of 2003.  In 2004, an on-line presentation entitled "Drawing on Identity:  Inkameep Day School and Art Collection" was posted on the Virtual Museum of Canada website.  This In 2005, the Osoyoos Museum Society and the Osoyoos Indian Band published the Nk'Mip Chronicles:  Art from the Inkameep Day School, which was edited by Dr. Andrea Walsh.  In 2007, curator Gayle Cornish received grant funding from the BC Arts Council and Spirit of BC to create a touring collection of fifty-five framed pieces.  The collection has been displayed in several cities of BC's interior, including Penticton, Kaslo, Grand Forks and Nelson.   

The Story Behind the Art

(from “A Brief Overview of the Inkameep Day School Art Collection”, By Dr. Andrea Walsh, Dept. of Anthropology, UVic)

The art program at the Inkameep Day School began with recognition by Anthony Walsh and his students that there was a rich visual history of Okanagan peoples who preceded them.  The place of the Inkameep Reserve where the Day School was located was surrounded by hills in which evidence of early rock paintings was found.  “There were days,” describes Walsh, “after the closing of the school when pupils and myself would ride off and sketches would be made of these designs, and then transferred to the top of the blackboards of the school.  Then further sketches were made of the designs on bags and moccasins.”

ink-1980-27-1It took about two years for Walsh to believe he had established a trust and rapport with the students and their parent to overcome the barrier of him as he described as “a white man”.  At the approach of Christmas during this second year, he asked the children, “How would you like to make some sketches for Christmas cards?”  The children responded enthusiastically.  This question was followed by “If the Nativity had taken place in the lower Okanagan Valley, what would have been the setting?”  The children answered, “There would be no stable, but there would be calves in the hills of our reserve.  There would be no ass or ox, but there would be deer, coyote, and rabbits.”  As Walsh describes the events that ensued, “Every available space on the blackboards was made use of.  There was tremendous concentration, and along with the sighing, considerable erasing of chalk lines.  What eventually emerged was a tepee made of bull-rushes.  The Baby was laced on to a brilliantly decorated papoose board.  There was a tree and an owl, a deer and a coyote, and a boy and a girl dressed in fringed buckskin.”  Walsh asked, “But where are Mary and Joseph?”  Wash states in a memoir that the children said Mary and Joseph were visiting relatives, and the boy and girl were left to tend the baby.  These rough sketches were made over in finished form by the student who showed artistic excellence and promise, Sis-hu-lk (Francis Baptiste, who signed much of his work Batiste).  This story was later published and the proceeds were used in aid of sending Francis to the School of Indian Art in Santa Fe after his graduation.

Meanwhile, Walsh continued the children’s art studies and used them to enrich the more difficult subjects within the curriculum.  In many places in his writing, he mentions that hardly a week would go by before the students would experience some new artistic development.

ink-0102One such occasion happened during the event of a community feast day to which Walsh was invited.  That day, in the midst of games and entertainment, Walsh recalls a young boy named Thith-hak-key (Johnny Stelkia) coming up to him.  As Johnnie’s English was not well developed, he simply stated to Walsh, “Teacher, me know Indian story”.  As Walsh says, “I was all ears”.  Others tried to stop the boy from continuing, for this was forbidden territory to tell such stories in an age of cultural prohibition.  But Walsh responded, “Let him speak.”  In Walsh’s words, “A very strange thing happened, this small boy became like a bear – for his story was about a bear.  And there before our eyes the bear walked and rolled and talked in the Okanagan dialect.  I was spellbound, as were all the other children as they sat enthralled by the ability of one of their own number to portray the actions of an animal so vividly.  There flashed through my mind the thought – here are the elements of drama in which birds and animals act and speak like human beings.”

From this point of inspiration, Walsh and the children began to create paper-mache masks of birds and animals.  The stories they acted could easily have been carried out with just the masks, but Walsh pushed the children to create the rest of their costumes and spent his salary on materials for them to do so.  Although very crudely done, small but brilliant plays came into existence.  The children performed these plays locally in Penticton, Oliver, Kelowna, and on the coast in Vancouver and Victoria.  Archival records detail their invitations to perform across Canada, and even the Department of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC, invited them to perform.  The children were not able to attend the festival held in Washington due to the increase of activities in 1941 associated with the war.  However, in 1941 they were invited to Victoria as part of the opening of Thunderbird Park at the Provincial Museum (now the RBCM).

The events at which the children performed were attended by both native and non-native audiences and were often held to raise money for charities such as the Red Cross.  The children also raised money toward the purchase of a Spitfire plane in connection with the BC Indian Spitfire Fund, and they sent their works to London, England to be auctioned off for the war effort (in once instance raising $800.)

As Walsh continued on at the school, the children’s artwork acquired some degree of fame, after being sent to competitions and exhibits in Europe and across Canada.  The local community threw their support behind Walsh’s efforts by forming the “Committee to Promote the Revival and Development of their Latent Gifts Among Native Tribes of British Columbia” in 1939.  This committee endured under various names for many years afterward, prodding the Provincial and Federal governments to improve health and education on Reserves.

To read the story as written by Anthony Walsh himself, click here.

The Teacher

from “A Brief Overview of the Inkameep Day School Art Collection”, By Dr. Andrea Walsh, Dept. of Anthropology, UVic

The story of the Inkameep Day School and its art and drama productions has much to do with the efforts of Anthony Walsh who taught at the Inkameep Day School from 1932-1942.  Walsh is the person credited for initiating the innovative art program through which Inkameep students produced art that achieved international acclaim.  Born in 1899 in Paris, France to Irish parents, Walsh spent most of his childhood in Scotland and England.  In 1923 he immigrated to Canada, and in the late 1920s he was engaged in agricultural work in the area of Kelowna, B.C. 

ink-1036In the late fall of 1930, he was asked by one Father Carlyle of Bear Creek to teach the remainder of the term at the Indian School at Six Mile in the North Okanagan.  Walsh had no teaching background when he accepted this position.  At the request of authorities in Ottawa he stayed on at the school for another year and used his holiday time to learn about the aboriginal peoples and cultures of the Okanagan Valley.  At the end of 1931 Walsh requested a transfer to a ‘quieter’ place and was given the job of teacher at the Inkameep Day School.  He started teaching in 1932.  Immediately, Walsh got along well with the chief of the reserve, George Baptiste, an elderly man at the time, who Walsh described as “a man ahead of his time” and “a man of wisdom and vision”.  It was George Baptiste who insisted on children being able to attend the day school in Oliver instead of the residential schools in Cranbrook and Kamloops.

Walsh’s philosophy of teaching and learning through artistic endeavour was progressive for the time; his writings demonstrate his belief that racial tolerance and democracy could be achieved through the production and exchange of artistic efforts.  Walsh encouraged his students to produce art that honoured and utilized traditional Okanagan culture.  At the same time he recognized the children’s knowledge and identity was to be formed by a combination of their traditional knowledge and experience and their increasingly Westernized lifestyles.  He encouraged such layers of identity by having the children sign their art with either or both their Indian names and their Western names.  The principle areas in which the students worked were two-dimensional drawing and painting, singing and dancing, and theatre.

Anthony Walsh resigned as teacher and principal of the Day School in January of 1942 so that he might join the Legion War Services.  He was stationed first at Port Alberni and later at Gordon Head.  In 1949 he left British Columbia and his legendary reputation behind, and moved to Montreal where he went simply by ‘Tony’.  Three years later he had started the Benedict Labre House for destitute men and worked there until he was forced by ill health to retire in 1967.  In 1975 Concordia University recognized his efforts through his life and awarded him with an honourary doctorate.  On April 18, 1990 the Order of Canada was conferred on Dr. Anthony Walsh.  Walsh died in 1994 at the age of 95 in Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.  According to his wish, he was buried in a homemade pine coffin in a community plot for the homeless at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery.

Drawing on Identity

Inkameep Day School Art Collection

The Virtual Museum of Canada provides a comprehensive look at the history of the Inkameep Day School. It contains a gallery of the artists' work as well as an audio and video catalogue.

Virtual Museum of Canada