by Becca Clarkson
VANCOUVER – As he spells out his ancestral name, Mlo:yhleq, for me over the phone, Ronnie Dean Harris is parked beside the river in Yale, BC. Harris, or Ostwelve when he’s rapping, was given this name in the very same place 27 years ago where his five times great grandfather, James, was Chief during the 1913 Hells Gate Landslide. Harris knows this because his greatest passion, besides hip-hop, is research. As one of six artists showcased in Bill Reid Gallery’s upcoming installment Intangible: Memory and Innovation in Coast Salish Art, Harris is putting his passions together through a spoken word video titled “Speak of What You Know.”
For Harris, an organizer for the NGO Wild Salmon Caravan, it is a full circle moment to be in the same place that his people carried wild salmon over that landslide to safety.
“Our names are given to us as a responsibility to carry the history,” Harris tells me.
Like his ancestors who wove baskets, Harris weaves words. Hip-hop, which he claims is responsible for his impressive titles (graphic designer, podcast host, actor, composer, editor, academic, musician, and dancer) allowed for him to transcend the limits of his origin. Design and branding became an important part of his career — not just for artistic promotion, but also because of the historical significance.
“Indigenous people have used design and branding to express themselves for centuries,” Harris explains, citing totem poles, living spaces, traditional clothing, and eating tools as examples. Canada’s tourism industry has co-opted Coast Salish art, yet many aspects of Harris’ culture — ceremonies, artifacts, songs, and stories — are too sacred to show or share. The mediums that Harris combine in his work speak to the complexities within Coast Salish identity.
As we speak, he is still writing the piece that will be showcased between September 13 – December 10. Taking the time to research his ancestors and inhabit the spaces they and their stories come from are his priority. The deadline doesn’t phase him. He’ll be satisfied knowing that the project will be the most current dialogue between him, his ancestors, and future generations.
Intangible runs from September 13 – December 10 at the Bill Reid Gallery.Bill Reid Gallery