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After death and fire: a new beginning

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My friend Charles Joseph (known as Boone), a West Coast native carver, suffered the loss of his wife, still young, only a few weeks ago, leaving him with three children, all under eight years old. This was bad enough--but two days ago his carving shed burned to the ground, along with his adjoining house, right in the middle of the brutal central British Columbia winter. Fortunately, he escaped, with the kids, suffering no more than the loss and some minor burns.

Charles is a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw people. I met him about twenty years ago in Comox, on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada. My wife Tammy had convinced me to go to a craft fair there one day early in the summer. I wasn't particularly looking forward to it, as my needs for soap, candles and dream catchers are easily fulfilled in other ways. But it was a beautiful day, and the fair was in a park, so I went anyway.

There were the usual displays of honey and CBD nostrums and plenty of old hippies and new hippie wannabes. But I came across a remarkable carving outside one of the tents, a mask made in the classic Kwakwaka'wakw style.

I have always had an affinity for West Coast "Indian" art. When I was a kid, my Dad and Mom would take us, upon occasion, the several thousand miles we had to drive to get to the western shores of Canada, through the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, across the ferry from Vancouver to the amazing island just off Canada's coast. Fifty years ago, the art produced by the people who were the original inhabitants of that area had already become emblematic, and I liked it as soon as I saw it.

I bought prints and postcards of Haida and Kwakiutl ravens, eagles and sisuitls (a two-headed dragon) and even a small argillite totem pole when I was about ten and squirreled them away in my treasure drawer--which also contained some Marvel and DC giant-sized comics, including a special edition featuring both Superman and Spiderman and a silver dollar from 1922 that my great-aunt gave me and which was eventually stolen by someone who clearly wasn't the friend I thought he was.

It was immediately evident to me that a real artist had carved this work. So I went into the tent and met Charles. We got along immediately. He showed me his portfolio; photos of much of the work that he had done over the years. It provided evidence of a deep talent: brilliant portrayals of the mythic inhabitants of the West Coast symbolic universe, all done with a great professionalism; characterized by a remarkable diversity of style.

I bought a few pieces that day, More importantly, I made arrangements with Charles to send me a major piece, a substantive mask or carved plaque, every three or four months, and to charge me what he thought reasonable, and that we would just continue that, if it went well, into the future.

I was very pleased, therefore when a great raven arrived in the mail a few weeks later. Over the next decade, I collected a variety of pieces from Charles: an eagle, a wolf (using a coyote hide, with fur, that my Dad had shot and had tanned years before), a sun mask for my wife, Tammy, about four feet across, a "crooked beak" mask, which is the current pride of my collection (although I have since accumulated many stellar pieces).


About eight years ago, my wife and I decided to build a third floor on our small Toronto semi-detached urban home. We joked together about making it a log cabin--a building style we are both very fond of--but then took that vision seriously. We contacted a local architect who specialized in the use of wood, structural and decorative, and began sketching out what a third floor "cabin" might actually look like. Then I had a dream where I saw the gods of the West Coast people streaming through the clouds, over the Rocky Mountains of BC and Alberta, heading east thousands of miles to where I now lived. So I called Charles and told him about my experience, and invited him out to Toronto to help design the third floor. He got on a plane for the first time in his life and stayed with us for three days. We decided to build an analog of a Kwakwaka'wakw "big house" (the ceremonial central gathering place in a traditional West Coast native village) as a twist on the log cabin idea, and started to develop the idea with the aforementioned architects.




I also learned a lot more about Charles' terrible past at that point. He was a survivor of one of Canada's most reprehensible "residential schools". In the first seven or eight years of the twentieth century, it was government policy to separate Indian children, as they were known then, from their parents and societies, so that they could be enculturated into what was now the mainstream European culture. This provided some children with genuine entry into the modern world, and some good schools were established, but it came at a terrible cost: the disruption of the family structure of many people, and the deliverance of children without proper supervision, in some cases, into the hands of true sadists and pedophiles.

It was Charles' fate to have been placed into one of the latter institutions. After spending many months in the hospital, in isolation, for measles, mumps and chicken pox, which he contracted simultaneously, and which presented a very great danger to the native population, lacking immunity to such imported diseases, he was picked up while waiting at a dock for his grandparents' boat after hospital discharge and held for four years in one such school. He spoke no English--and to say he was brutalized catastrophically in that institution is to say almost nothing.

We discussed his experiences in some detail in a heart-wrenching episode of my podcast, which is available here: https://bit.ly/3YLaa9w

At the same time, in Toronto, I introduced Charles to a good friend of mine, someone with a vast fortune, who commissioned a fifty-three foot totem pole, commemorating the residential school experience, as well as a set of smaller pieces, for a private museum he had planned. That pole eventually ended up in front of the Museum of Modern Art, square in downtown Montreal, and stood there for many years, although it has recently been moved to a more permanent resting place in Winnipeg, Manitoba: https://bit.ly/3K8nBMQ

We completed our third floor, in due course, and it is one of the most beautiful rooms I have ever seen. Charles made me three totem poles about eight feet high: an eagle, featuring Tammy on the front and my kids Mikhaila and Julian on the side; a bear, representing my father, with me standing in front of him; a double-headed sea serpent (the aforementioned susiutl) spanning the thirteen feet between those two poles, and a welcome figure, with outstretched hands, offering gifts to visitors, with a butterfly perched on his head. The walls are covered with additional art, some made especially for the space; some made for a potlatch ceremony that took place in 2016.




The potlatch ceremony was the Kwakwakaʼwakw people's mode of dealing with emergent inequality. In all societies, wealth tends to aggregate in the hands of a few, and this can produce a distribution of resources so lopsided that the stability of the society itself is threatened. The West Coast Indians learned to hold great celebrations, in consequence, where social status was obtained through acts of generosity: those who had more than enough would hold feasts, often lasting weeks, where everyone in the community danced, sang, and wore the masks and costumes that were part of the hereditary treasures of their families, hosted by the wealthy, who would also distribute food and other goods as widely as they could manage.

Such potlatches were outlawed from 1855-1951 by the Canadian authorities, who viewed them as transgressively pagan, and the practice almost died. Charles' family had not served as potlatch hosts for decades. This all changed six years ago, when several hundred people gathered in the big house in Fort Rupert for a day of singing and dancing and community celebration: and an event where my family members (as well as the wife and husband team who had contracted for the residential school commemoration totem pole) were inducted into Charles family, and given native names: mine is Alestalegie (which means great seeker); my wife Tammy's Ekielagas: Kindhearted Woman.

That was a great day. I eventually bought all the dozens of pieces of art that Charles had produced for that event, and now have and can and do display one of the few collections of a complete potlatch that exist in Canada.

Later, when our third floor opened in Toronto, Charles flew out with a group of native chiefs and performed a masked dance for an audience of about fifty, all gathered together in our newly-revealed new space. The naming ceremony, which required multiple events, concluded there. That happened the same day, perversely enough, when I had in the morning participated in a debate over political matters at the University of Toronto, and had been accused of the usual crimes: racism, bigotry, misogyny--you know the drill.

I talked to Charles a lot about the terrible treatment he had been subjected to as a child. It took him decades to recover, as might be expected, although he has, to a great, remarkable, and admirable extent. Eventually, he became comfortable enough to reveal what happened to him to the public, on the podcast we released in 2022.

Fast-forwarding to the current situation: in early 2023, Charles' wife, Frankie, died. She had also been horrifically abused as a child, although not at a residential school, and the toll that took on her eventually made itself fully manifest. She drank too much, and that took her early. Her liver failed last December and she left Charles and their children, some of whom are still very young, without a mother.

While this was happening, Charles was also being harassed continually by social workers. Despite the fact of his full-time employment as a carver, and his absolute abstinence from drugs and alcohol, he had been separated from his children by government intermediaries several times, including the period just before Frankie's death. That interference did not help her situation. Nor did it improve things for Charles or his children. He's been fighting that battle, which is quite common on Canadian reserves, for a long time.

We've talked a fair bit over the last few months about Frankie's death, its impact on the children, and the sequelae for Charles. It's been a brutal time for his family. I was therefore shocked to hear the additional bad news from him a few days ago. He had recently established himself in Williams Lake, in central BC, near Frankie's people, and had set up a house and a shop where he was busily carving a whole new set of masks, totem poles, wall plaques and so forth for a cottage that Tammy and I purchased in Northern Ontario.

I have reached out to Charles to offer help, as have other people in his social network. But it's quite the catastrophe. The insurance situation is not clear: Charles had just recently moved into this house and the transition from previous owner to current had not been finalized. There is plenty of ambiguity about such things as ownership on the reserves in Canada, and it is not obvious how this is going to be resolved, or what Charles is going to do in the meantime.

So I talked to a few of his friends and decided to set up this GoFundMe page. I am starting it off with ten thousand dollars. I'm planning to help Charles re-establish his shop, and his house, and to help out his kids--to set him up to carve again as soon as possible. If you'd like to aid in the effort, that would be much appreciated.

He told me the other day that he is going to sift through the shop ruins to find the metal adzes and axe heads that he uses to shape the cedar that forms the basis for all his art. Hopefully, he'll manage that and he'll have some tools to use in his new place, if this all works out.

Thanks for your time and attention.

Please spread this story as widely as you might be inclined to.

Dr Jordan B Peterson

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Jordan Peterson
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Toronto, ON

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