Born in Alert Bay, Vancouver Island, Beau Dick grew up in neighboring Kingcome Inlet, an area known for its preservation of Kwakwaka’wakw cultural heritage. Beau’s grandfather, James Dick, and his father, Ben Dick, along with other master artists such as Willie Seaweed, Charlie James, and Mungo Martin, dedicated themselves to ensuring that Kwakwaka’wakw artistic and ceremonial traditions would be passed along to future generations.
Beau began carving at a young age and continued to focus on First Nations art after moving to Vancouver in high school, gaining early recognition for his skill as a painter and carver. He studied carving with Tony Hunt Sr. in Victoria and Doug Cranmer in Vancouver and also acknowledged Bill Reid as a significant influence. Among the most prolific and celebrated artists of his generation, he fulfilled numerous major commissions, including a four-way split transformation mask for the Canadian Pavilion at Expo ‘86 in Vancouver and an eleven-figure pole for Vancouver’s Stanley Park. His art reflects both the rich Kwakwaka’wakw cultural legacy and influences from Europe and Asia, and has been exhibited around the globe.
An activist as well as an artist, Beau was devoted to the cause of justice for First Nations people. He will always be remembered for both his art and his humanity.
In the Hamatsa dance ceremony, one of the most important dances in Kwakwaka’wakw tradition, members of the sacred Hamatsa society perform dances that narrate tales of the cannibalistic giant from the north end of the world, Baxbakwalanuksiwe’. In the story, several brothers lost on a hunting trip come across a mysterious house with red smoke rising from the smoke-hole. The owner is away, but one of the house posts is a living woman with her legs implanted into the floor. She warns the brothers about the owner, Baxbakwalanuksiwe’, who has four man-eating birds as companions: Gwagwakwalanuksiwe’, the man-eating raven; Galugwadzayi, Crooked-Beak of Heaven; Hamasiwe’, a smaller bird with a duck-like bill; and Huxhugwadzayi, a spirit-crane who cracks people’s skulls to suck out their brains.
The brothers manage to lure Baxbakwalanuksiwe’ into a pit and throw hot stones on top of him until he dies. With the giant’s death, the men acquire mystical power and sacred treasures from him, including wooden whistles, a bear mask, bird masks, costumes, and a Hamatsa pole, all used in later ritual performances.
In preparation for the dance ceremony, members of the Hamatsa society abduct the Hamatsa initiate, a young man about to enter adulthood, and take him into the forest to a secret location, where he learns the secret traditions of the society and undergoes ritual cleansing to increase his receptivity to the spirit of Baxbakwalanuksiwe’.
During the dance festival, attended by many clan members and guests, Hamatsa society dancers call forth the spirit of the cannibal giant and bring the initiate to the ceremonial house. He wears hemlock boughs to signal his wild state. The veteran Hamatsa dancers guide him about the longhouse as he gnashes his teeth and even attempts to bite members of the audience. Subsequent dances recount the tale of Baxbakwalanuksiwe’, and the giant man-eating birds dance around the fire. Ultimately, the society members, together with a female relative, the Hiligaxste’, succeed in taming the Hamatsa initiate, replacing the hemlock with woven cedar-bark ritual garments. For the final dance, the Hamatsa initiate appears in a blanket with skulls to represent the taming of the cannibal spirit, his readiness to assume a leadership role, and his achievement of inner balance that will shape his relationship with the world around him.