By Mindy Ogden
MOA will soon feature an exhibit on the art and life of Doug Cranmer, an influential artist known for pushing boundaries and broadening the definition of Northwest coast art. It is difficult to succinctly describe this complex and multi-faceted man, who was at once “a person of integrity and wisdom, a chief and a leader, a maker, critic, fisherman, logger, inventor, entrepreneur, teacher, builder, conservator, son, husband and father” (in the words of Anthony Shelton, MOA’s director). Perhaps the best way to introduce him would be to acquaint you with his roots. In Western culture, we usually meet the person before the family, but on the Northwest Coast, it was, and is, the other way around.
Born on January 18, 1927, Doug was the firstborn son of Dan Cranmer, Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief, and Agnes (Hunt) Cranmer. Agnes was from the more northern Tlingit tribe – her father George Hunt is famous for
having worked closely with anthropologist Franz Boas. She was the second wife of Dan Cranmer. Dan divorced his first wife, Emma Mountain, in 1921, because she was unable to produce any children to inherit Dan’s chiefly status and privilege. As was the custom, the divorce was accompanied by a potlatch.
The Canadian Indian Act had outlawed the potlatch in 1884; however, prior to 1921, no arrests had ever been made in enforcement of the law, and many potlatches were still held illicitly. Dan’s potlatch was held at a remote location (Village Island) to escape the eyes of the Indian Agent, but his plans were to no avail. Forty-four of his attendees were arrested and charged with various felonies, such as singing, dancing, and giving or accepting gifts at a potlatch. They were given the choice of either surrendering their potlatch goods or serving a term in jail. The result was one of the largest seizures of potlatch goods in Canadian history (pictured above).
Gloria Cranmer, Doug’s younger sister, made it her life goal to see these goods repatriated. She was seminal in the founding of the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, which now houses these items. Here Doug is pictured holding one the masks danced at his father’s potlatch, which was repatriated due to his sister’s determined efforts. Note the resemblance!
“Doug with Imas (ancestor spirit) mask from the repatriated Potlatch Collection, owned by Ned Alvin Innis, 1980. Courtesy of the U’mista Cultural Society and the Audrey and Harry Hawthorn Library and Archive, moA A000961c; photo by Vickie Jensen.”
That ought to suffice for famous people in one family, but nonetheless, Doug has even more well-known relations. His step-grandfather, Mungo Martin, has been credited with the revival of Northwest Coast art in the twentieth century, and was key in Doug’s own training as an artist. Clearly Doug and his family have played a pivotal role in the history of Canada and of the Kwakwaka’wakw.