Me & My 2 Dead Brotherz
This provocative piece, a house post totem pole created in red cedar by renowned contemporary Gitxsan carver Ya’Ya Heit invokes the connections between creative expression, lived experience, place, story, community, and health. Here is the story of how the totem pole came to be as written by the artist in the book “Seekers and Travellers: Contemporary Arts of the Pacific Northwest Coast” by Gary Wyatt (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012; pg. 104).
Me & My 2 Dead Brotherz
By Ya’Ya Heit
“I woke up to answer the telephone one morning. It was the saddest phone call of my life. I heard that my bro Mike had died. I am sad every time I think about it. I can’t think about Mike without thinking about our bro Andy. Both of my brothers died with AIDS.
Our Kispiox village is a small place, and we all know each other. My parents grew up with Mike’s parents. I did a lot of growing up with Mike. My kids are growing up with Mike’s kids. Right here at the centre of our world. That’s how the world spins the right way.
Andy is from nearby Gitsegukla village, but he grew up far away from here. I first met him in Vancouver. Years later he moved back home to our Gitxsan homeland. He and his wife and new baby wanted to live with his granny in Kitwanga village, just down the big river a little ways from my Kispiox village. We got to see each other a lot. Then we both ended up working for our land claims for a while. When he got a divorce, he came to stay with me for a few months. Soon enough he took a new wife. One sunny day they went up a mountain, and he went blind!!? They took a few days getting down from there. That’s when he found out he had HIV/AIDS. His scary time started then. A time of denial. He refused all treatments.
After Mike died, I didn’t want to go down to his parents’ place. I knew it was going to be a very sad place. He was their fourth child to die. But that’s where my heart took me. I couldn’t let those people mourn without me. I love them and they love me, just as if I was one of their own. Always have and always will. My Fireweed Clan buried Andy and Mike in our Gitxsan fashion. We gathered ourselves together and took care of each other, and then we took care of our business. It is difficult losing someone who is close to you. That is why we Gitxsan gather together and help each other, especially in hard times.
Andy and Mike and I were all members of the Gitxsan Fireweed Clan, and we were all proud of that. Both Andy and I were chiefs in our families. Little chiefs. All three of our families have long, long, ancient histories around here. Ancient privileges and ancient crests and ancient histories. I was thinking about all of that as I sketched. When I was satisfied with my sketch, I looked at it again. I started to see that the sketch was mostly about me and my feelings. I was starting to feel pride. I realized that I was still proud of my two dead brothers. Not just sad for them. Good old Native Pride.
I added in some more details on my family’s crests from my brothers’ families. Mike and Andy were dead, and they left us “naked”. They didn’t take anything with them when they left us. They were dead, and that’s how I drew them. They were dead and could no longer see in this world; I put no eyes on them. Just some fireweed leaves for all three of us.
When we Gitxsan die, the father’s side will call out our baby name. I had drawn my two brothers small, so we could remember them from their earliest breaths – when they could do no wrong, when they could make no mistakes; such innocence. That’s when we look upon them with such love and envy and pride. When we have the greatest dreams for their futures. when we are the happiest for them, so happy to just have a peek at the little ones. When love and pride and happiness fill our eyes with tears. That’s how I drew those two. I drew them with all my feelings.
All over the world people are losing friends and relatives to HIV/AIDS. I want the whole world to remember them, all of them, to look at them the same way. With love and pride. Not just with regrets. both of my brothers died with AIDS, but they both died with lots of love, too. Giving and receiving love and happiness and pride.”