Available now, Knowledge Within: Treasures of the Northwest Coast proves itself to be a treasure in its own right. A project over a decade in the making, it’s a breathtaking compilation of over seventeen sites and museum collections in the Pacific Northwest region that makes it a library must-have.

Courtesy of Figure 1 Publishing

If I’m completely honest, I have to admit that one might expect a book about museums like Knowledge Within to be boring or dry. But the result is an anthology that is easy to read and breathes life into a field otherwise hallmarked by its impersonal objectivity—a welcomed and long overdue change.

Over the course of seventeen chapters, each written by a different author, Knowledge Within takes readers on a tour of select indigenous sites and museum collections across British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest Region. Every chapter offers a snapshot of what spans thousands of years of diverse indigenous cultures, histories, artwork, and practices. Accompanied by a variety of hand-picked photographs ranging from indigenous artifacts, artworks, museum holdings, or people of interest, Knowledge Within effectively brings an entire region of artifacts and history right to you.

Readers will recognize familiar names such as the Bill Reid Gallery, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, the Vancouver Art Gallery, or, for our own Vancouver Guardian readers, the Nisga’a Museum.

Bill Reid's famous sculpture, "The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe, 1994". Photo by Kenji Nagai.
Bill Reid’s famous sculpture, “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe, 1994”. Photo by Kenji Nagai.

Impressively, Knowledge Within goes beyond an already daunting task of touring Pacific Northwest museums and their indigenous collections. With every page, photo, and essay, a complex story emerges.

On the one hand, it’s a story that addresses the complicated relationship between indigenous peoples and the museums that were, and remain, funded and run by colonial systems intended to oppress and destroy them. Authors share their experiences with events such as the potlatch ban (which ran from 1884 to 1951), the prolific Residential ‘School’ system, or how their art and culture were taken from them to be displayed in museums they would never see.

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Graffiti of a young boy dressed in priests' robes painted on a boarded-up window of St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Alert Bay. Photo by Trevor Isaac, courtesy of U'mista Cultural Society and Figure 1 Publishing.
Graffiti of a young boy dressed in priests’ robes painted on a boarded-up window of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay. Photo by Trevor Isaac, courtesy of U’mista Cultural Society and Figure 1 Publishing.

On the other hand, the beauty of Knowledge Within is how it invites readers to join an ongoing story of Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples and cultures. Each essay is perfectly candid and features stories from authors of varying backgrounds that make the reader feel like they’re talking with an old friend. You’ll read empowering stories of reclaiming indigenous identity and culture, bringing family heirlooms home to where they belong, and the efforts being made behind the scenes to ensure that the future will be different. For all that the content may be troubling, readers will walk away with a sense of familiarity and hope for the future.

Cedar-root case and smaller lunch basket, mid-twentieth century, attributed to Annie Chapman and Jeannie Dominick. Photo by Bill McLennan.
Cedar-root case and smaller lunch basket, mid-twentieth century, attributed to Annie Chapman and Jeannie Dominick. Photo by Bill McLennan.

It’s hard to capture the unique approach Knowledge Within offers in just a single post. At its core, it takes readers on a personal, curated journey of Pacific Northwest indigenous history, culture, museums, and art. It set out to challenge traditional Western frameworks of memory and curation, and I can confidently say that it did so beautifully. It reminds readers of the complex histories and cultures that surround us in the Pacific Northwest, and the importance of recognizing them outside of colonial frameworks.

(It might also remind you that British Columbia and Vancouver have some stellar museums with ethically-sourced indigenous collections—and that you should go support and check them out! But maybe that was just me.)

Knowledge Within: Treasures of the Northwest Coast is available now. Click here for more information.