Hand-crafted bentwood chests and stunning Nlaka’pamux regalia line the top floor of the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art in Vancouver.
While these pieces of Indigenous artistry are eye-catching with their colour and creativity, they serve a greater purpose — honouring grandmothers to understand the vital role they play in communities and embark on a journey of healing.
“13 Moons Around the Lake” is an exhibit that celebrates and recognizes grandmothers, family, the lands, waters, and salmon cycle in Southern British Columbia. It features several designed bentwood chests, chest carrier platforms, Nlaka’pamux regalia, blankets, and other artworks by Indigenous artists from nations across B.C. The art display depicts each artists’ history, story, and healing journey.
Nadine Spence is the lead visionary artist and curator of this exhibit and says its name reflects the current salmon cycle.
“When I think about the salmon being in the lake for one year, it’s almost like when a baby’s born from the womb,” Spence says.
“Similar to the channel of the river, they go into lakes, communities, and families who nurture and raise them [like] the mountains, the surroundings, [similar to] the matter of how we would take care of a baby within the human experience to raise them until they decide to leave,” she says.
“13 Moons Around the Lake” is one part of a multi-year project titled “Honouring Our Grandmothers Healing Journey,” a movement that aims to connect First Nation communities across B.C. and bring family and residents together through art and ceremony to restore relationships between generations.
The project was inspired by Spence’s own relationship with her grandmothers, both of whom had their children taken away and sent to residential schools by law and ended up living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
[My grandmothers] were abused by their husbands, and those men were also abused. They lost all their land and had their houses burnt down. … They ended up dying in the Downtown Eastside, poor, everybody judged them. Yet, no one ever talked about the reality because women were treated less than men,” she says.
Spence also says many Indigenous People face a disconnect between knowing and not knowing their grandmothers due to colonization and genocide, along with the meaning and importance of who they were in their lives.
“They’re the hugest foundation for all of us. What happened to them that nobody talks about is the oppression and violence against women,” she says. “They are the strength of our community, and yet they were the ones that were treated the harshest by all sides, even their own people turned against them.”
Spence has several of her own art pieces on display at “13 Moons Around the Lake.” In Spirit, a collection of artwork Spence enhanced was created by her father who passed away in 2020. There are also art pieces Spence worked on in collaboration with her son and granddaughter.
“My connection to my father had everything to do with visual art, and we never had that chance to work together,” Spence says. “Even though he’s gone, I find this is my way to work with my dad.”
“Honouring Our Grandmothers Healing Journey” launched in 2021 and has continued to move forward by joining the wild salmon cycle, lasting until 2026.
Each exhibit, including “13 Moons Around the Lake,” features message chests that travel to various communities, collecting written letters, photos, and tokens for ancestors, Mother Earth, grandmothers, and families. This initiative offers space for people to give thanks but also grieve, manage trauma, and find peace with what was stolen in their lives.
“Sometimes we don’t ever get to say the things that we want to say to someone, or we don’t get to celebrate them in the way that they need to be celebrated. We need to let people know that it’s not over and we can still find our own way to move forward or some sort of closure ourselves,” she says.
Spence hopes those who attend the exhibit will walk away recognizing their own personal connection to the land, their families, and culture.
“As much as it’s difficult for me, we’re educating people through this [exhibit] and giving them a sense of the struggles we’re going through as Indigenous people with the losses, genocide, and impacts of a broken family, but yet the beauty of the culture at the same time,” Spence says.
“13 Moons Around the Lake” will be on display at the Bill Reid Gallery until Jan. 28. Admission is $13, or $8 for students with a valid ID.
The next exhibit part of “Honouring Our Grandmothers Healing Journey” will be held at the Anvil Centre Museum in New Westminster in May, titled “Downstream Where the Waters Mix” which marks the time of year salmon leave the lakes and go into the waters that come downstream.
For more information about the exhibit, visit Bill Reid Gallery’s website.