Richard Hunt: Indigenous Artist and Elder

By James Ellsworth

View all articles by this author

Artist Richard Hunt working on a 15-foot totem pole in his Victoria workshop. Photo: Sean Doe

Richard Hunt lives in a modest bungalow on a crescent in Victoria with a large workshop shed in the back. Currently, he is working on a new 15-foot totem pole in his workshop, but we met in his dining room surrounded by his various forms of art (masks, carvings, paintings) and several framed awards.

It is not because he is egocentric or ostentatious, reminding himself and others of his prodigious and long career. No, it is because he is proud of his accomplishments and has every right to be. But it is more, too. Richard’s surroundings reveal a principled and energetic person, conscious of his cultural lineage and the responsibility of his heritage. Richard likes to share, but never show off.

He presents himself as a solid and confident person who doesn't suffer fools gladly. His humour can be iconoclastic, but his demeanor is generous and fair.

He may be motivated by a kind of “tough love” because he is an independent person and sometimes can bristle just like his hair style, but it is love nevertheless. He gives as good as he gets and professes that it comes from a belief in the golden rule to treat others as you want to be treated.

Richard has the aura of humility, but not one to be trifled with. No doubt, it originates from the influence of his ancestors. He feels strongly that his art is for all the Kwak’wala culture, it belongs to everyone. And it shows in his prolific work in various forms, from carving wood to engraving silver.

“When I make something, I am claiming the rights to it for myself and at the same time for our children and all Kwakwaka’wakw people. They are the ones who really own it.”

Richard comes by his giving honestly. He traces his background from Alert Bay, where he was born in 1951. His forebears were his great- great-grandfather, Robert Hunt, an English Hudson’s Bay fur trader, who married a Tlingit woman, Mary Ebbets, and settled in Fort Rupert, now Port Hardy.

His great-grandfather was George Hunt, a famous guide and ethnologist, who was a consultant to American anthropologist Franz Boaz, who exhibited Kwakwaka'wakw art at the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition.

His father, Henry, was the assistant to Mungo Martin at the Royal BC Museum and then Master Carver of the Thunderbird Park carving program for 12 years, passing that role on to Richard in 1974.

His oldest brother Tony carved totems for Expo '67 in Montreal, Chicago's waterfront and Bonn, Germany. So, it comes as no surprise that Richard grew up steeped in the Kwakwaka'wakw culture, through his father and mother, Helen, and what is sometimes referred to as the Hunt dynasty.  

Much of what is known about Kwakwaka'wakw art comes from oral history, archeological finds in the 19th century, inherited objects and devoted artists educated in Kwakwaka'wakw traditions. Richard is one of those keepers.

Kwakwaka'wakw arts are exemplified in totem poles, masks, wooden carvings, jewelry and woven blankets. And Richard feels the obligation of that tradition. His Kwak’wala name is highly appropriate, considering his accomplishments. *Gwe-la-yo-gwe-la-gya-lis* means "a man that travels and wherever he goes, he potlatches.”  
And he still loves to work. Richard remembers starting as an apprentice, carving five masks a day as a 13-year old, contributing to potlatch collections at the museum. He learned to be efficient and patient, too, working on his talent so he could create art.

Two years after his father died, he felt he had fulfilled a promise to be a presence at the museum for his dad, and decided to leave in 1986.

He says of going freelance, "I was nervous, at first, but I was always busy."

He still has commissions and will work three hours a day (or as long as his hands will allow him), but never on Friday.

"There is no Friday for an artist," he says with a sardonic smile.

Even so, his art has been in high demand, allowing him to travel and to receive numerous awards of recognition. In 1991, Richard was the recipient of the Order of British Columbia, the first indigenous person to do so; and, in 1994, he became a member of the prestigious Order of Canada.

Even though he is now an elder himself, he keeps moving forward, spending time with his old “buddies” at the Legion Britannia, playing golf with his friends at Bear Mountain.

He counts Frank Mahovlich, who also received the Order of Canada in 1994, as a friend. In 2004, Richard received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Victoria. This prestigious award carries special meaning for him, as his father was awarded the same degree in 1983.

Richard values his inclusion in the rarified society of the Order of Canada recipients a great deal. But he belongs to another special Kwakwaka'wakw society, the Hamat'sa. An important part of his artistic activity is producing pieces for ceremonial use and Richard, an accomplished dancer himself, has owned the Hamat'sa dance two times over.

An extremely honourable society, it requires a four-day ceremony of storytelling and purification to be a Hamat'sa.

Usually, the Elders select a family’s eldest male to become the Hamat’sa. Sometimes, he is a person who the people regard highly for the respect he shows to others and himself.

When a family chooses a Hamat’sa, he will be trained to be a leader. A Hamat’sa must be a role model and a protector of the people.

He secludes himself to find out who he is as a person. He cleanses his spirit to have a clear vision of life. Through this spirituality, he comes to know what his role is in his family.

An initiated Hamat’sa has acquired the highest Kwakwaka’wakw spirituality. The ceremony teaches the Hamat’sa to live in harmony and balance within himself. When he achieves this, he does the same with everything in this great universe. Richard exemplifies the role.

His obvious talent and sense of cultural obligation keep him motivated. Richard has contributed locally, nationally and internationally.

In Victoria, his designs were chosen to adorn t-shirt logos for two *Times Colonist* 10km road races (2015 with the Dancing Heron and 2016 with Kulus, the young thunderbird) and in 2016, his latest work, "My Family" was on permanent display in the new Harbour Air Seaplanes Terminal.

For the country, he designed three coins for the Royal Canadian Mint in 2015; and, internationally, he has carved totems for Liverpool and Edinburgh.

He says he agreed to this interview because "I would like people to know that I am still around; still doing what I love even though I am aging."

Aging well, in fact! His reputation means a great deal to him and he would like to be remembered for what he did.

Let's say Richard Hunt embodies daily, throughout his past, present and for the future, what his many awards attest to, "recognizing outstanding achievement, honouring those who have given services to Canada, to their fellow citizens or to humanity at large."

Snapshot with Richard Hunt

If you were to meet your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give him? 
“I was born in 1951 and I’m 65 now. Knowing what I know now, I would say to plan for your future. Get an education above all else. I was the first of 14 kids to graduate from high school. If you want to be an artist, then hone your skills as a sideline or be prepared to be a ‘starving artist.’ I started freelancing when I was 24, so I would have welcomed the advice. Also, don't mess with your reputation; work on it, and guarantee the quality of your art.”

Who or what has influenced you the most? And why?
“I had a lot of help in my life and the idea of giving back is strong. My mother, Helen, was the adopted granddaughter of Mungo Martin. He included my dad, Henry, in the project to create works of Northwest Coastal Art as display pieces and examples in the Royal Museum in Victoria. So, he and my dad were great influences. I was just a kid in the Fifties, but I remember the huge totem pole and long house erected at Thunderbird Park in front of the museum. I started carving with my dad at the museum when I was 13. Mungo or ‘grandfather’ (Datsa) taught us to keep the Kwak’wala traditions alive. He wanted to keep our history going by storytelling and by insisting that he was creating art, not just crafts and replicas.

He brought honour to the Kwakwaka'wakw (formerly Kwakiutl) by presenting Queen Elizabeth with a 100-foot totem that stands in Windsor Park and by creating the Wawadit'la, or the Mungo Martin Big House in Victoria. Both Mungo and my dad received many honours for their work and they taught me the craft and the art, the skill required to be creative. After Martin’s death in 1962, my dad became the Thunderbird Park master carver. My father and Mungo Martin carved the Beacon Hill totem that is over 127-feet tall.

I come from a line of artists that some have called the Hunt dynasty. George Hunt's descendants also include my brother, Tony Hunt; my cousins, Barbara Cranmer, the award-winning filmmaker for a documentary on residential schools, and Corrine Hunt who designed all the gold, silver and bronze medals for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and Paralympics.”

What does courage mean to you?
“Courage means you follow your heart and don’t listen to everyone. My mother taught us to work hard. I sold papers and picked berries, so many berries that I started dreaming about them. But I wanted to be a carver more than anything and had to listen to my heart and follow it.”

What does success mean to you?
Success means being happy. Work doesn’t pay enough to feel bad or be sad. Sometimes, it’s as simple as making sure my wife is happy, then I’m happy and that is a successful day. Sometimes, it’s doing what you love, whether it’s fishing or playing golf. Sometimes, it’s tweaking the boss’s nose, such as carving a phallus on a bear front, so the museum couldn’t use it. Having fun makes me happy.”


INSPIRED senior living october 2017


This article has been viewed 669 times.


Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

As the eldest niece of Richard Hunt, I would like to offer the following comments to the article: 1) Henry Hunt carved for the Provincial Museum for 20 years, from 1954 to 1974. 2) The pole for the Indians of Canada Pavilion at the Expo '67 is attributed to Henry Hunt, with the assistance of his eldest son Tony Hunt. 3) I would like to add that aside from his outstanding talent as an artist and his philanthropic contributions to the community, Richard is also an exceptional teacher and a staunch advocate for establishing and maintaining cultural integrity.

Posted by Leslie McGarry | October 7, 2017 Report Violation

Post A Comment

Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, or antisocial behavior such as "spamming," "trolling," or any other inappropriate material will be removed from the site. We will take steps to block users who violate any of our "terms of use". You are fully responsible for the content you post. Senior Living takes no responsibility for the views and opinions of members using this discussion area.

Submit Articles

Current Issue

Search For Articles


Subscribe To
The Magazine