The Robson Tribe

Alex Mountain, a 30-year-old Kwaguilth Nation member, sets a small red cedar bear on an upturned milk crate and lays out his carving tools beside him on the sidewalk of Vancouver’s busiest, glitziest shopping street. Slightly built, with waist-length black hair, Mountain was raised in East Vancouver; he calls himself a “concrete Indian.” “Bears are strength, agility and wisdom,” he says about his carvings. “Eagles are power and prestige. Raven is the trickster.” He’s just started a new work, a “cannibal raven.” What does it do? “It eats people,” says Mountain, with a grin. He clacks the raven’s mouth together.

“The raven likes dark meat,” says Dennis Rose, smiling. “The dark meat is always the juiciest.” Rose has tattooed forearms and wears two medicine bags around his neck. He and Mountain are two of four carvers who’ve gathered here today. For the past eight years, a group varying in size—sometimes six carvers, sometimes seven—has gathered here to turn English Bay driftwood and Stanley Park deadfall into works of art. They are Salish, Haida Gwaii, Ojibway-Cree, Dene and Kwaguilth, but they call themselves, informally, the Robson tribe, after the place where they ply their trade.

“I was tired of selling through stores,” explains Mountain. “The stores in Gastown tried to pay me $10 for an $80 carving. So first I walked up and down Robson offering people my carvings for sale. It didn’t work. So I sat down on a ledge near Duthie Books and carved. People came up. I sold out the first day.”

Mountain’s grandfather, George Bee, often sold his carvings through the UBC Museum of Anthropology, and Mountain learned his craft by watching his grandfather, father and uncles carve. He first picked up the tools when he was nine but didn’t work at it seriously until his teens. “When I was 15 or 16, my father said, ‘Either find a job or start carving, because I’m not going to support you anymore.’” Mountain started carving.

The old Duthie Books location is now a clothing boutique, but the carvers have remained through Robson Street’s many changes, sometimes sitting on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, sometimes in front of the boutique. A well-dressed man comes over to ask about the bear carving. Mountain carves wolves, eagles, ravens, bears, salmon and hummingbirds. He makes letter openers, wall plaques, pendants, paddles, walking sticks. Curious passers-by often stop to watch and ask questions.

Mountain is asking his cousin Andrew, whom he is teaching to carve, what animal he should make next. “Should I do a salmon?”

“Do an eagle,” says Andrew.

“What about a salmon?” asks Mountain.

“No, do an eagle.”

“I’m gonna do a salmon.”

“Then why do you bother asking me?” says Andrew.

Some years ago, they say, they were harassed by “one or two” police officers, who confiscated their tools and carvings. There have been no further incidents since. After their tools were taken, a man approached Mountain and handed him $50, saying he enjoyed watching the carvers and wanted them to go buy more tools.

The Robson tribe seems to generate much civic goodwill. They’ve become fondly regarded local fixtures—even a kind of low-key tourist attraction. A middle-aged tarot card reader comes over to where Mountain is sitting, takes his face in her hands and calls him sweetheart. Rose tells me that one of their customers flew in from Hungary on the word of a friend who’d told her to look for “the carvers” on Robson Street. She bought a piece from each of them that day, he says. Most of their customers are tourists from across Europe and regulars who come up from the United States, some buying 20 or more pieces at a time (for personal collections, they tell the tribe, though one suspects the pieces may eventually resurface in a shop in Boston or Buffalo, priced with a tidy mark-up).

“My father used to be out here with us till he passed on,” says Mountain as he sharpens one of his carving tools on 600-grit emery paper. His father, Jim Mountain, died of cancer three years ago.

Dennis Rose, meanwhile, has just finished making a salmon. Rose was born in 1967 to an Ojibway mother and a Cree father but grew up in Vancouver. He used to carve with Alex’s father, he says, and brought the older man Fudgesicles while he lay dying in hospital. “He was the dad,” says Rose. “His word was law.”

Rose calls the small group of carvers an anchor. “We have a hierarchy,” he says. “George (McKay, who hasn’t shown up yet today) is chief. I’m the spokesman. And we have rules. First, always sweep up your shavings. Don’t leave your shit around. Second, no women. Unless they come to work.”

He riffs off a list of famous and semi-famous customers: Daniel Baldwin, of the brothers Baldwin; Rutger Hauer, the “head replicant on Bladerunner”; Gordon Jump, the station manager on WKRP in Cincinnati, later the Maytag Man, recently deceased; Gordon Tootoosis from North of 60; Michael Moriarty from Law & Order; Sherman Hemsley of The Jeffersons; and Robin Williams.

Rose recounts the day some young punks walked past them, making comments about “f-ing Indians” and “bums begging.” They were overheard by passersby who “tore up one side of them and down the other,” says Rose. “They said ‘they’re from here; they’re working; they’re not bums.’”

A couple of tourists pause to look at the beautiful salmon carving Rose has made from a chunk of red cedar. He’s asking $75. “You can pick it up. It doesn’t bite,” says Rose, who’s got serious sales patter. “I do all the biting.” The salmon is “the provider,” he explains, showing how the four panels on its body equate to the four seasons. Then he goes off-message by pointing out that its wide teeth are “Alfred E. Newman teeth,” inspired by his boyhood love of Mad Magazine.

George McKay, soft-spoken and, at 47, the oldest of the group, arrives. McKay is Salish. He refers to the younger carvers as “the boys.” His friend Susan, who is Haida Gwaii and a grandmother of eight living in Chilliwack, weaves the tiny, delicate pine needle baskets that he displays next to his carvings. Their work demonstrates more maturity and patience than that of the younger carvers. “It took me eight years to learn to carve,” says McKay, who also paints. A bear-head comb, brightly painted, took him four hours to make and sells for $50. Like Mountain, McKay learned from family: his own grandfather carved bowls for the family to eat from when they lived on a reservation near Boston Bar. Of all the subjects he carves, salmon are his favourite. “I fished them most of my life.”

He’s not very interested in the celebrities, and didn’t recognize Robin Williams when he shook his hand. But carving has led him to meet “Indians from across the United States” as well as Chief Dan George’s son, Leonard George. Mountain’s father died on Christmas Day, he tells me. As we talk and he sands a sculpted leaf carved from beechwood, a light dusting of wood shavings covers us both.

-Vancouver magazine, 2003