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Rita Point Kompst shares xʷmәθkʷәy̓әm heritage with young and old through cedar-weaving and natural-dye workshops

Rita Kompst
Musqueam artist Rita Point Kompst weaves cedar hats in her home workshop. Photo by Charlie Smith.

Rita Point Kompst’s life took an abrupt turn in 2014 with the death of her father. Joseph Becker Tsetcultun was a highly regarded Musqueam (xʷmәθkʷәy̓әm) carver and fisherman.

“He was one of the artists chosen to do artwork for the 2010 Olympics,” Kompst tells Pancouver. “In our culture, when someone passes, we have to keep our hands busy for that first year.”

Because she had grown up around cedar trees, she decided to try cedar weaving. This was a way for Kompst to strengthen a connection to the land and to her ancestors. She had five brothers and five sisters, but spent much of her adult life off-reserve after marrying a non-Indigenous man.

But for Kompst, cedar weaving didn’t end after 12 months.

“In eight years, I lost seven people in my immediate family,” she reveals. “When my father passed, I became a matriarch in my family. So, I had to make a choice—and I chose my culture because I have a young family. I had just moved them from Hawaii. They had never lived in Canada before.”

Nowadays, the xʷmәθkʷәy̓әm cedar weaver and natural-wool-dye artist leads cultural workshops and creates countless pieces in her East Vancouver home workshop. Kompst also trudges into the forest periodically with her daughter to harvest cedar bark. They do this in a sustainable way to ensure that all the trees continue to thrive.

“The tree has to be old enough,” she states. “There’s no greater honour. I am practically tearing up when we go and see a tree that our ancestors have harvested from. We’re in a place where we know our ancestors were before us. That goes straight to my heart.”

Rita Kompst
Rita Point Kompst harvests cedar from living trees.

Kompst makes many products from cedar

When she’s out in the woods, Kompst pulls a long slice of bark off the tree. Then she uses her hands to split off the cedar underneath.

“Once you take that one piece of cedar off the tree, there are eight layers,” she reveals.

Kompst then leaves the bark the forest to return to the Earth as part of the cycle of life. The only time she uses a machine is when she puts the final strips of cedar through a lace stripper in her workshop.

With cedar, she makes a wide range of products, such as graduation caps, baskets, bracelets, headbands, and hearts.

“I call them my Hearts for Reconciliation,” Kompst proudly declares.

Kompst
Rita Kompst wove this Heart for Reconciliation.

She must prepare the cedar in different ways for each item. And with the end of the school year approaching, she’s been busy weaving cedar caps for Indigenous nursing students.

Kompst speaks with equal enthusiasm about one of her other artforms: applying natural dyes to wool. Last year, she partnered with the Vancouver school board, taking gifted children out foraging on morning expeditions.

“Then, we spent two days dying wool with mushrooms, plants, and lichens, and three days of weaving,” Kompst says. “It’s a huge process. With both of my mediums—the wool and the plants, and the cedars—the process times before class take weeks.”

She also teaches basic wool weaving.

cedar
Cedar can keep the hand cool while picking up a hot beverage.

Sourcing cedar becomes more difficult

Her current life is a far cry from much of her adult existence. She has taught English in Japan, worked in the tourism sector on Maui, and done office jobs in Las Vegas. In Canada, Kompst spent nearly five years as the personal executive assistant to Indigenous leader Miles Richardson, a former B.C. Treaty Commission chief commissioner.

She decided to teach cedar weaving and natural-wood dyeing on the advice of her mentor, Haida artist Todd DeVries.

“I had to quit my day job because I was getting so busy,” Kompst states.

According to Kompst, elders benefit from learning about cedar weaving because it helps them recover from the devastating effects of colonialism. And young people need to connect to the land to embrace Indigenous heritage.

Kompst
Cedar must be converted into strips suitable for weaving.

One of her biggest worries, however, is securing enough cedar to maintain these ancient Indigenous traditions.

“There’s no place in the City of Vancouver—in my own territory—for me to harvest cedar,” Kompst says. “In the past, we have relied on our Squamish relatives. They’ve always invited us to harvest cedar in their territory.”

But now, as a result of wildfires and the need to sustain forests, she no longer has access to this supply. Fortunately, the Katzie people made cedar available in their traditional territory. However, there’s no guarantee that this will be available in the future for her and her daughter Zoe, who helps as her assistant. The alternative would be to travel to Vancouver Island to obtain cedar.

“I work with educational facilities, so I’m not an artist who does tables and sells wares,” Kompst states. “That’s not me. I’m at different schools every month.”

Kompst
Rita Kompst was thrilled to meet Indigenous banana-fiber weaver Yu-Ying Yen (right) and her daughter, Shu-Chin Chieh (left), in Taiwan.

Touring Taiwanese craft studios

Last year, Kompst travelled to Taiwan with two other Vancouver craft artists, Bettina Matzkuhn and Chantal Cardinal. The National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute helped arrange the tour. It included stops at studios specializing in working with banana fibers, bamboo, bulrush, and indigo and other natural dyes.

One of the most emotional moments came when Kompst met Taiwanese Indigenous banana-fiber artist Yu-Ying Yen. The 85-year-old member of the Kavalan tribe is regarded as the master of this craft in Taiwan. Yen’s daughter, Shu-Chin Chieh, is secretary general of the Hualien Kavalan Development Association.

It was especially touching for Kompst because she could see how Indigenous people in Taiwan are working so hard to revive their cultural traditions.

“I had no idea who this lady was the day before, but the minute I met her, I started tearing up,” Kompst recalls. “It’s like I’ve been waiting my whole life to meet her. I just felt such a deep connection to her—and she couldn’t speak English! But her daughter could, and her daughter’s a master as well.”

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.