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Humans of Campbell River: Master Carver Bill Henderson

Humans of Campbell River is a collaboration between Destination Campbell River and Bluetree Photography. Showcasing the stories of those who call our coastal community home. Each week we deep dive into a new story and the connections between people and place. This week we’re sharing the story of master carver Bill Henderson. 

I am Kwakwaka’wakw Master Carver Bill Henderson and I am a member of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation in Campbell River, BC. I am one of seventeen children born to artist Sam Henderson and wife, May Quocksister Henderson.  My father Sam originated from Ba’as (Blunden Harbour) and moved to Campbell River after marrying my mother. 

From an early age, I witnessed my father carve. Because he didn’t talk much, I just picked up the tools and watched him. Soon after, Dad wouldn’t let me use his tools because he made his own tools and wanted me to learn how to make my own tools. I didn’t carve alone, my brothers Ernie, Dan and Mark were artists too. Today, I still do not carve alone because during COVID-19,  I have never been busier with carving and painting has not slowed down. During my lifetime, carving has taken me around the world. Wow – a lot of art shows in my time. About 40 years ago my brother Mark and I went to an art show in Portland shortly after our father passed. We had to lock the doors, there were so many people – wow what an experience. Frank Nelson came with us to sing for three days, we explained to all the people, we don’t carve and practice our culture for nothing. We have potlatched to do what we’re doing. A lot of them wanted to see the masks danced. It’s more than that, we make wood talk, it’s one thing to take a block of life and bring it to life.  It’s another to bring it to life and dance with them – this is what still amazes me.

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Growing up, we had no presents but we always ate well and had dinner together at the table. Our family was poor but we grew up living off the land and wow I still had a neat childhood. We didn’t have money, so I carved my own guns and boats as a child. One time I put a string on one of the boats and pulled it along the water in Campbell River. Over the years, I did wild fishing, tree planting, logging but I always fell back to my culture from carving, fishing, hunting, and smoking a lot of fish with my family. Back in the day, our family would smoke fish for five days then just hang it on the wall. With our food, we did a lot of bartering in the community. A man came from Cumberland, with an old ford and he never wanted money. He would barter the fish for turnips and carrots. We would receive sacks and sacks for our family, once he left the house we would bury them in the ground because we did not have freezers. I can’t say enough about growing up on the land. When I was young, my siblings and I would kick our legs near the water and ask the killer whales to visit us. We thought they listened because dozens of killer whales used to come to us. Thinking back now, maybe they thought we were seals splashing in the water.

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 Before my father passed, he said look after our number, he was referencing our carving and culture because before my dad landed in Campbell River, we had little to no culture here. In our culture, we have just as much on the earth as we have in the ocean. Throughout my carving career, I try to carve with the land and seas in mind. It wasn’t until my twenties that I began taking carving seriously and selling pieces for $80.00 – $100.00 or $200.00 to collectors. Today, you can find my poles in Japan, Australia, Belgium and all over the world. I have met a lot of wonderful people and I am grateful for my culture and carving. In my lifetime, I have carved more than 50 totem poles that are around the world.

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Today I carve and partner with my older brother’s son, Junior – I am his other dad. His father became sick and I took junior along on my carving journey, teaching him how to make knives in grade 11 and now he’s 45 and still carving. I am very proud of that kid. He graduated with my daughter and during his speech, he said I know where my college is, it’s with Uncle Bill. His carvings are over and above. He’s my partner, with two metal knees and with all these totem pole jobs it’s been great creating jobs for my family. I have attended many potlatches in my lifetime and not all families are fortunate to have masks to use for them to use. We know how to carve and we have great cooks in our family. Throughout my years of carving, I have donated many pieces to families and our communities. We need to continue sharing our culture.

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