My name is Kelli Clifton, I am a Ts’msyen Northwest Coast artist and educator. My father is from the community of Txałgiiw (Hartley Bay) and my mother is of European ancestry. I grew up in Kxeen (Prince Rupert) and left after high school to attend the University of Victoria’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program. It wasn’t until I left home that I started experimenting with Northwest Coast art. I believe that moving away from my community helped me realize how special all aspects of Ts’msyen culture truly are, and my artwork helped me to celebrate our traditional ways of being. I am blessed to come from a large fishing family and to have grown up on the ocean and river, therefore many of my pieces reflect my love of food harvesting. Thankfully, this is an aspect of our culture that wasn’t completely destroyed after European contact.
Over a period of time, I found myself wanting to give my artwork Sm’algyax titles. Sm’algyax is the traditional language of the Ts’msyen people and unfortunately, due to acts of colonization (such as residential schools) our people were punished for speaking our language. This resulted in the loss of numerous speakers and today, it is rare to come across someone who is fluent in the language. So when it came time to give my artwork a title, I did what anyone my age would do when looking for help – I went to google and typed in the word “Sm’algyax”. I was thrilled to find the Sm’algyax Living Legacy Talking Dictionary, a website that translates English words to Sm’algyax. For a while, this sufficed when giving my pieces titles. However, I eventually found myself wanting to learn more of our language and dreamt of creating sentences to describe my work rather than one word titles. After attending the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art to further develop my design skills and learn to carve wood, I decided to move home. This is when I found out about Sm’algyax community classes and decided to attend for fun. At the time, I had no idea how big of an impact these classes would have on my future. I became very passionate about learning our language, and thanks to many resources created by the Sm’algyax Language Authority and the fluent speakers who work to revitalize our language, I was able to incorporate more and more of our language with each new piece that I created.
I have since gone on to complete my Sm’algyax Language Certificate through the University of Northern British Columbia and received my teaching certification from Simon Fraser University. I have taught Sm’algyax in our school district for five years and absolutely love hearing our youth speak our traditional language. I am very hopeful for the future of Sm’algyax and will continue to use my artwork as a way to explore, celebrate, learn and share it with the rest of the world.