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September 29, 2021

PaRx People: A Conversation with Roy Henry Vickers

Roy Henry Vickers is best known around the world for his limited edition prints. He is also an accomplished carver, design advisor of prestigious public spaces, a sought-after keynote speaker, and publisher and author of several successful books. In addition, he is a recognized leader in the First Nations community, and a tireless spokesperson for recovery from addictions and abuse.

In 1994, Maclean's magazine included Roy as the first artist ever in its Annual Honour Roll of Extraordinary Canadian Achievers. In 1998, the Province of British Columbia appointed Roy to the prestigious Order of B.C. and in 2003, Roy received the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal. In 2003, a video featuring Roy was part of the successful Vancouver 2010 Olympic Bid. In 1987, at the Commonwealth Summit in Vancouver, the original of Roy's painting A Meeting of Chiefs was the official gift of the Province of British Columbia to Queen Elizabeth II. Limited edition prints of the painting were presented to the 48 Commonwealth Heads of State.

Roy's work can be found in private and public collections and galleries around the world including the National Museum of Man (Ottawa, Ontario), University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology (Vancouver, British Columbia), the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (Kleinburg, Ontario) and the National Museum of Japan (Osaka).

PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with Roy to learn about how connecting to the land through art has helped heal himself and others, and the role traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast can play in teaching health professionals how to be better healers.

Can you tell me about your early experiences, especially on the land, and any connection they have to your career as an artist today?

Oh yes. I grew up in the little village of Kitkatla, which is 5000 years old of continuous habitation. As far as we know it’s definitely the oldest village in Canada that’s been continuously inhabited, but it may very well be the oldest village in the continent of North America. It existed before the flood. There’s a place near Kitkatla called Anchor Mountain where the canoes anchored in the big storm.

All cultures are formed by the land, or by the environment, as some people say—it’s the same thing. So when I look at the culture that I grew up in, the culture of my father’s people, I realize that thousands of years of relationship to the land in the same place develops a very strong understanding of ourselves.

Because we are the land. We’re not separate from the land. The way it was explained to me, is I am my mother, I am my father, I am my grandparents, I am all of my ancestors. And you know, as a doctor, that their DNA runs through my veins. And so if they are part of me and they are the land, then I am the land. It’s a powerful concept that I learned at a young age.

Young Roy helping his mother garden, and camping with Boy Scouts. Photos supplied.

I spent a lot of time with my grandfather growing up. He was Heiltsuk from Bella Bella. My grandmother was Tsimshian and Haida, and went to residential school, so she carried those scars to her death. My grandfather never went to residential school, and the way he thought of his relationship to his world was formed completely by his relationship to the land.

So I would be out with him—and I remember this just so clearly. He would say, “So Roy, tell me what you see out there.” I’d look around and say, “Ya-a,”—that’s Grandpa in our language—“I see the sky and trees and ocean.” And he would bat his eyes at me, kind of disappointed. And I would wonder, “Oh, what did I say wrong?” He would say, “Could you look again and tell me what you see?” And I would think, Okay, I’d better be more observant.

And I looked, and I saw the clouds were moving from the west, and I said, “Oh, the west wind is blowing, and the tide is running out. And there are some really beautiful logs on the shore we could take home for firewood. And there’s an eagle sitting up in a tree.” And he would say, “That’s really good, grandson.”

Later we were towing logs down the inlet in a rowboat, and I heard church bells coming across the water. All of a sudden it struck me that it was Sunday and I didn’t have to be in church. I was so happy (laughs). And so I said, “Grandpa, it’s really nice to be out here and not have to be in that church. How come you don’t go to church?” He looked up at the sky and the water and the forest and everything that was happening, and he looked at me and he said, “This is my church.”

It was so powerful—I never forgot it. He was a trapper, a hunter, a fisherman, he raised nine children with not even Grade 1. He never went to school.

So those lessons I learned from him were lessons about our relationship to the land, and how everything that Mother Nature and Mother Earth have is available for us—all of our medicines, everything to keep us well in this world.

And the other part of that was just being out there and feeling it all, knowing that I’m part of this. All I have to do is stay connected to it and I’ll be fine.

When I was a child living on the res in Kitkatla, I didn’t know my mom was white. I didn’t know my father was Indian. Those words weren’t used. So when I got to Victoria at the age of 16, I wound up in Oak Bay High School, with, like WASP—white people—and I didn’t know until I saw my class pictures. Oh see, it’s really easy to see Roy! There he is, one brown face among all these white kids. And to me it was kind of funny. There was nothing negative about it until the day I came across discrimination. And it was devastating, it was shocking, it was like being slapped in the face with a cold wet cloth on a hot day, and I didn’t know what it was about.

Roy's mother, Grace Isabel Freeman, and father, Arthur Amos Vickers. Photos supplied.

I asked my very good friend Bill Goward, who was white, to ask this guy what his problem was, why would he not like Indians. And it took some time for him to go and find out, and his first answer was, “He thinks that all Indians are lazy.” And I laughed! He was a little shocked and said, “I didn’t expect that. Why do you laugh?” I said, “I grew up in a village where people couldn’t afford to be lazy. You had to hunt, you had to fish. If you were lazy you would starve and get cold in the winter because you couldn’t get firewood. That guy just doesn’t know. He’s ignorant about Indians.”

This guy also said, “All Indians live on welfare.” And I laughed! I said, “Welfare didn’t even happen until a few years ago. Up until then our people lived off the land. During the Great Depression nobody in Kitkatla even knew there was a Depression. People lived for 5000 years without money.” (Laughs) It was just so crazy.

“And they’re all drunk.” And I laughed again! Bill was shocked—he said, “Why do you laugh?” “There’s a big sign when you get to the dock in our village that tells people this is a dry reserve. No alcohol is even allowed in the village.” I grew up not knowing what a drunk was. I didn’t know. So this poor guy just needed an education.

My mom would always say, “Roy you’re responsible for the knowledge that you carry.” And my realization was, I know all of these things about this beautiful culture and these beautiful people, and it’s my responsibility to teach people about First Nations people.

And so I went to the school library, and there were no books there about the Indians of BC. So I went to my art teacher, and I complained to him. And he said, “If you follow this curriculum I have to teach you, I will give you time off and you can go study in the public library, but you have to come back to this classroom and teach us the lessons you learned.” So my life as an artist was formed by my desire to teach people about the culture.

Roy (second from right) as a young artist at K’san in Hazelton, BC. Photo supplied.

All languages come from the land, from nature, the sounds. And the way our language is spoken is like prose, like poetry, and if you understand someone speaking in our language, you understand the land and the relationship to the winds and moons and how the tides are moving, There’s 13 moons in the year, and all the names of the moons are about food, hunting, fishing, being home with family. This is the culture of my father’s people that formed the artist that I am today, and the storyteller that I am today.

There. As we say in our language, Niis wan, so it is. Or Amen, or I’m finished now. I have spoken.

You live in a beautiful home in the Kispiox Valley, and often enjoy a cup of coffee surrounded by the mists of the Skeena River to start your morning. How does spending time in nature help your health and wellbeing now, and how has it through your life?

It just continued. My relationship to nature is where my inspiration comes from, whether that’s from nature outdoors, or from people who are connected to nature. I would say that most of my inspiration comes from the land, the sun and the moons of the year, and the sky and the winds, and my relationship to it all. But also I’ve been inspired by people who stop and talk to me, and listening to their stories.

I’ll give you an example. I went away to deal with addictions as a young man, and it happened at the height of my career. It was Valentine’s Day, 1992, and I was struggling with addictions, and had made the most money I could even dream of. Uncomfortable with notoriety, I call it. I got to a place where my third marriage was coming apart, and it broke me completely. And I went away to the Meadows in Arizona, and I learned about emotions, and how our emotions are so much a very big part of how we work.

So when I came back from that, it was my desire to have conversations with people. So if someone liked my work, then I really wanted to understand what it was that they liked, what did they see. One day this lady was in the gallery, standing in front of one of my prints. And I walked up to her and realized she was crying. So I respectfully stood back, and said, “I’m touched by your emotions to my artwork,” and then she began to tell her story. Then out of the blue she asked, “Have you ever thought of trying to draw the human body with feathers all over it?”

I had been working, in my recovery, on this piece called “Getting My Spirit Back,” and I was struggling with it. Six years later this lady asked me a question, and I saw exactly what I had to draw. And I thanked her, I told her, “I’ve been struggling with this for a long time, and you’ve just unlocked this puzzle I’ve been working at.” And Getting My Spirit Back was formed. So it’s my relationship to the land, and to people, and as I said earlier, people are the land, we are all one, we are all connected.

Getting My Spirit Back, by Roy Henry Vickers

Nature is innately healing. And the healing happens in a mysterious way. When I hear an eagle call—oh, that’s my bird—when I hear an owl speak, when I see the whales blowing on the ocean and I see the waves moving, I’m connected with it all. People talk about vibes. I have this vibe, or these vibrations that go through my body, and they’re connected to my relationship to what’s happening to the world around me.

When I go out and put my coffee cup out there and take a picture, I’m looking at what’s happening to the river, how high or low it is, what salmon are coming up the river right now, the clouds and which way they’re going—those lessons I learned when I was young. And in all of this I come to this place of feeling that I am balanced, that I am connected to myself. And that’s very important for me as a human being, and me as an artist, learning to communicate to others in the world. That’s the only way I can explain how nature works.

You’re a carver, painter, digital artist and storyteller. What’s your favourite medium to work in, and why?

My favourite medium to work in is whatever medium I have to use to get the message across. Because the message is going to come from what inspires me. And whether it’s digital drawing, whether it’s a story that I need to share with my artwork, I’ve learned it’s just as important to write down the inspiration behind what I’m doing as it is to create the image. I was always shy. I always had a great difficulty trying to understand that maybe there would be someone who would be interested in what I had to say. Part of that shyness was being unsure with myself. And then through healing I realized I have lots to say, and I’m going to say it now.

Roy carving a totem. Photo by Simon Ratcliffe.

It was February 1992 when I came close to suicide, and nine days later I drove through the gates of the Meadows in Arizona. When I came out of there in March I went back to Tofino, and went out in a boat with my son William, who’s now over 30 years old.

We were going into this little bay in my boat, going to do some fishing. And an eagle came out of the fog above us. William saw it, and said, “Look, Dad, an eagle!” I looked up, and I couldn’t see it at first because it was quite a ways away. It wasn’t flapping its wings—it was gliding on the air, coming straight towards us. As it flew towards us, I whistled like an eagle, and as it banked a feather fell from it, and it spun like an oak seed. And I decided I was going to try to get under that feather, and catch it or land it on the boat.

As we got closer and closer and closer, I realized I might even be able to catch it in my hand, and I started to get really excited. Everything kind of slowed down for me because I was concentrating so hard on where the boat was going, how the feather was coming down, just watching and watching and throttling up and back. And as the feather got close, I went to catch it. There’s a Venturi screen on the boat which moves the wind in a different way. And so I missed the feather, and it landed on my chest. And it felt like someone just hit me with a fist, right on my breastplate.

And then William started asking questions. “Why did that eagle give you that feather, Dad? Why did that happen?” And I said, “Well, you’ll know eventually.” Months later, in August, I was telling William his bedtime story. He was looking up at the ceiling listening intently to the story, and I decided to try an experiment. I waved my hands across his eyesight, and he didn’t see my hands. I realized he wasn’t looking at the ceiling—he was totally engrossed with the images in his mind that were inspired by the story.

Roy storytelling in Tofino with the eagle feather. Photo by Lizzie Snow.

That’s when I realized how important our stories are, because they create images in other people’s minds when we share them. When I realized that in that moment, I thought, okay, I’m on a roll here. And I thought, what was that feather about? And instantly it came to me: feathers are used in healing circles, in talking circles, and when the feather is handed to you, it’s time for you to speak, and for others to listen. It was time for me to speak, from that day forward, in August 1992.

The inside of your home is like an art gallery of your work—I have good memories of visiting you and your family there. What role do you think art, and especially nature-based art, can have in improving our everyday wellbeing?

It plays a massive role. I don’t quite know how it works, but it’s always worked with me to see what another artist has done, and to be inspired by them.

Two of my artistic heroes are from Japan, Hiroshige and Hokusai, and their creations were done 200 years ago. I grew up mesmerized by their ability to create wind, rain, snow. My snow I learned from Hiroshige, and how to paint rain. Hokusai taught me that the everyday natural world, nature, is full of inspiration, and we should pay attention to it.

It connected me to my roots. It connected me to my people. When you look at Hokusai’s work, stabilizing Mount Fuji is in all of his pieces. And the famous one, of course, is the great wave off Kanagawa, with men in a Japanese boat coming down the front of the wave, and Mount Fuji in the curl of the wave in the background. There’s another one, with two men sawing wood on a big ramp, and the wood that they’re sawing and the ramp that it’s on make this triangle, and there in the triangle is Mount Fuji.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai

What he was able to do was to pull nature into everyday life. And what he showed me was that things are happening all around you all of the time, Roy, exactly the same lesson my grandfather gave me. Keep your eyes open. Know what you’re feeling, and know what that feeling is about. Be aware of what’s going on around you. Don’t miss anything.

All cultures, if you listen to them, and learn from them, are about our relationship to the land. And all stories are about our relationship to the land. In order to get to a place where you create something as an artist that only you can do, you must get to a place where you know who you are. And then you can express yourself from that place.

My high school art teacher said, “Maybe one day when you learn to create from the real Roy you will hear someone say, ‘Hey, I was out the other day watching this beautiful sunset and I saw one of your paintings,’ or ‘I was out the other day fishing, and I saw your water.’ And I smiled at him because I thought, yeah, right. And now I’ve heard that thousands of times.

Again, it’s incredible what we can do as artists. We’re all artists—you’re an artist, I’m an artist. So if we can get to that place in our creativity, whether it’s as a teacher or a healer, we will be able to do amazing things no one else can do.

Raven Brings the Light, by Roy Henry Vickers

Has anyone ever told you that your art healed them?

It’s very humbling to experience that, when someone says to you, I was really struggling and looking at my life, and I saw your artwork and it changed the way I thought. Right now it brings me tears, tears of joy.

After a storytelling in Victoria, this young lady walked up to me on the street, and—it chokes me up even now. She just walked up to me and said, “Roy Vickers, what you’ve done as an artist for me, now that you’re willing to tell your story, has changed the way I look at the world. And it’s changed my life for many, many years. I’m glad I can tell you that now.”

It’s a wonderful privilege to have someone else share their story. It reminds me of what my art teacher said: Tell your story, because only you can. In order to do that, you must know who you are. And I’m so thankful for all of the teachers that have come across my path, even those I never got to meet like Hokusai and Hiroshige, and for all those who’ve had the courage to come and tell me themselves what my work has meant to them. It’s just a continual affirmation that what you’re doing as an artist is what you should be doing. Here I am at 75, all these years later, and I’m more inspired now than I’ve ever been.

Roy and Lucky Budd at a storytelling and book signing. Photo supplied.

In addition to being a celebrated artist, you’re also the author of many best-selling children’s books. What inspired you to become a children’s author, and what have you done to ensure your own children grew up appreciating nature?

When I met Lucky Budd (historian and co-author of Roy’s children’s books) after a storytelling, he told me, “You have all these stories—we have to do books, we have to do books.” And I said to him, “I’m a storyteller, not a book writer.” And he said, “Well then you have to be a book writer.” So it’s been a wonderful time as an artist, inspired by the land and the culture of my father’s people, to write books, create art, and meet so many people from around the world, knowing that as long as I continue to follow the inspiration, I will continue to do what I’m meant to do in this world.

We’re all kids. All of the stories that are important to us, many of them came to us when we were children. So today who is a storyteller? Roy the adult who is still Roy the child. And for me telling stories to children is just like my grandpa telling me stories. Beautiful. I love it.

Telling my own kids stories, taking them out in nature, sharing my excitement of the world around me is how I taught them. Taking them fishing, taking them hunting, horseback riding with them, going down the river in the raft. Going and picking the wild berries. Look at all this—it’s all free, we just have to go out there and pick it.

Roy fishing with his sons at Elizabeth Lake in Hazelton, BC and Megin Lake in Tofino, BC. Photos supplied.

When I worked in Hazelton in northern BC, I helped organize medical education rounds for our staff with you and your sister, Patricia, where you described concepts of spirituality, health and wellbeing of the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast. It was the most well-attended and compelling session I’d ever attended at Wrinch Memorial Hospital. What Indigenous concepts would you like to see incorporated into western medical practice?

I remember that. That was exciting.

First, everything that we need for our health is supplied to us by our Mother Earth. It’s our responsibility to find out what those medicines are, or how to be in nature to heal ourselves. And that’s how I live today.

Second, I would recommend that every healer goes through the process of a healing fast. Every healer. If that’s what you’re called to do and you want to make a difference—not just have a job and make money—then do this. Enter this place of healing that has been around for thousands and thousands of years, before modern medicine came here.

When you’re fasting, you’re attempting to empty your body. And when you empty your body you get this huge surge of energy just for a short period of time, and then you begin to weaken. The spiritual fast is a fast of prayer, and it’s something both Patricia and I are very familiar with. And the spiritual fast is done on the land—again, on the land—so it’s our relationship to the Earth that is helping us to enter this place of consciousness we want to be in in order to really pay attention to what’s going on. It’s a very exciting part of our knowledge of our people, who fasted and prayed when they were called upon to do something very important. The old people would go away and fast and pray and prepare themselves to be there in whatever way is necessary as a healer. So really, learning to be aware.

Roy at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, BC. Photo supplied.

I have to relate to you an experience.

I’m in my very first fast. I want to know that I’m on the right path. I want to know that there really is a Creator, and I’m going to fast and pray until I get the answer. And I’m not giving up. And so I’m in Tofino, it’s my first experience of doing something just so far beyond my realm of comprehension. I don’t even know if I can do it, but I’m going to do it.

So I’m on my fourth night. It’s four nights and four days, and you come out of a sweat and you go into a fast. My teacher Jack says, you don’t do this by yourself; you should have a teacher who’s taking care of you. He comes and checks on me every day, asks me how I’m doing, what’s happening. On that last night I’m wondering what is ever going to happen in here. I’m lying in a little five-foot circle, and I’m 5’10”. My teacher said, “You’re not supposed to be comfortable in here. You’re here to work—you’re not supposed to be sleeping. If you’re tired you’ll sleep, you’ll see.”

On the fourth night I’m lying there, and I see a light on the canvas that’s covering me, and my intellect says, Oh, Jack is coming. Wait, Jack’s not coming because he comes at daybreak, in the morning. And as I questioned it, the light moved completely over my tent from the west to the east, and I just realized, Whoa, that’s not possible. Then I thought, Oh that’s got to be the lighthouse, my intellect trying to make reason with something beyond my understanding. Wait, that’s not the lighthouse, you would have seen it every night.

Then my goosebumps came—I call them eagle bumps, not goosebumps. And I looked at the light very carefully, and as I did it completely filled the inside of my lodge. And it was like very hot rock that’s been in the fire, and it’s red, and you crack it open, and it’s this orangey-red colour. And that’s what’s inside my lodge. And then I realize I can’t hear the ocean. Then all of a sudden I realize that what is going on here is what I asked for, and now it’s here. And I started to cry, tears running down my face and tickling my ears. I looked at the light again, all around me. It’s warm. I can’t see the willows that are holding up the canvas; it’s just all red. And then a shadow came from the east, and it was black and it was scary, and I just said, “You can’t touch me,” and whoo, it faded away, gone. And I just cried in humility and fell asleep.

Kitkatla Winter, by Roy Henry Vickers

When I woke up I could hear Jack, my teacher, breathing really fast, and he’s all excited. I said, “Hey Jack, how’d it go?” And he said, “I gotta’ show you something.” He just untied the rope under the bottom of the tent. And he said, “Come on, look at this,” and he whipped the canvas right off the tent. There was snow on the ground, all around, but inside the tobacco ties on my tent there was nothing. And then my intellect said, Oh, well, I’m under a tree. But there was no snow on the ground all the way to the sweat lodge.

I asked, “What’s going on, Jack?” He said, “You can tell me what happened one day, but it’s too important. Are you okay?” I said, “I’ve never been more okay in my whole life.” And he said, “That’s what you’re here for. Now you know.”

That was a land-based, spiritual experience that was beyond comprehension for most people, unless you’ve been there and done it. So I have no doubt that who I am and what I’m doing is what I should be doing, and that healing is part of our connection to the land. We should always know that deep inside. I fasted four times in the same way, four days and four nights, no food, no water, and prayed and prayed. I learned something incredible each time.

The greatest thing we need today is healing in our country among our people. And the only way it’s going to happen is for dedicated people to facilitate it, like how my teacher facilitated my fast. He helped me every bit of the way, and when he was done he said, “Now you know.” And I also hear my mom saying, “Yes Roy, and you are responsible for the knowledge that you carry.”

What advice do you have for health-care professionals who want to prescribe and inspire their patients to connect to nature?

Everyone should have the privilege of being able to do this if they want to do it. How? I’m not sure. But I know that it’s something that should be done. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever.

It would be incredible to have our medical profession realize that there is a way to heal that has been forgotten for centuries. And it’s a way that we should approach again, and make available. How can we teach this? We must learn ourselves. You can’t teach it from a book. It’s an unfathomable truth that there is a way to heal that defies modern medicine.

One of my storyteller teachers, her name was Angeles Arrien. She wrote a book called The Four-Fold Way. She was an anthropologist studying people around the world, and what she came to learn was that we are all the same. Much of her information was gleaned from First Nations people, but to me that’s not the point.

She said, “Storytelling is the ointment of the healer.” And I thought, Whoa, that sounds good. What the heck does that mean? And it took years to understand.

Roy storytelling at Eagle Aerie Gallery in Tofino, BC. Photo by Lizzie Snow.

One day I was telling a story in the gallery, and it was one of those difficult stories to tell. Quite often I’ll break into tears telling a story, because it’s about emotion, about emoting. And I realized that the ointment of the healer is the story you’re telling about yourself. That ointment is not for somebody else. That ointment is for the storyteller. That ointment is for me, and I will benefit every time that I tell the story, no matter how painful it is. And when the young lady told me that her life had changed from one night she heard a story that I told, that’s a confirmation that your story is the most important you have to share with the world. And that’s how storytelling is the ointment of the healer.

To me, whether you’re a doctor or a lawyer, or a mother or a father, many of the stories that should be told that are never told are from trauma, like from residential school. And one reason people are struggling today, like some friends of mine who went through these horrific things, is because they are told never, ever to tell the story. However, what I say to them is, you must tell your story. If you tell your story, you actually will heal yourself.

We are all teachers, and so our teaching journey is very important to everyone around us—especially our children. The most important story your children need to hear is yours, and the more you tell that story, the more your children are going to understand who you are, and why you act the way you do, which is so very, very important.

That’s what’s needed today, is for people to tell their stories, no matter how painful they are. Cry, cry. It’s all right, it’s okay. Not only will people hear your story, they’ll feel your story, and your emotion is what fuels us.

Something I usually do, when I go into important conversations like this, is a centering exercise that’s used around the world. I look to the four directions and think how we are all teachers, we are all healers, we are all visionaries, and we are all leaders. Every time I feel like I’m a little off, and not feeling like myself, I turn my eyes to look at the world around me.

Roy, I can’t believe we just spent almost two hours talking. Do you have any final thoughts?

Going to church, when I was a young man, Heaven was always described as a place where time will be no more. We’ve just been in Heaven. (Laughs)

Roy leading the VisionQuest Canoe Journey. Photo supplied.

Read more about Roy’s life and work at his website

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