Porcupine Hunter - Phil Gray

By Emma DelliCarpini
Posted in News, on February 09, 2019

Many carvings made by Northwest Coast First Nations carvers represent specific stories or legends; Phil Gray, young Ts'msyen/Cree artist, centers many of his carved pieces on ancient Ts'msyen stories. His most recent piece, Porcupine Hunter, is another example of his work that not only expertly demonstrates formline design but also tells a story from the Ts'msyen oral historic record.


The Porcupine Hunter story follows here: every year in the early fall, a hunter would venture out and kill many porcupines. In the winter, the hunter would dry the meat and people from various villages would come to him for porcupine meat. There were four valleys that he used as his hunting ground, and in each there was a hut he had made for processing and drying the meat obtained during his hunt. The Porcupine Hunter had a good club made of yew wood that he would use to club the porcupines after smoking them out of their dens.

Because of this, all the porcupines were in distress on account of this one hunter. One year, after filling the first three huts with meat for drying, the hunter arrived in the fourth valley to see a large porcupine rounding the corner of a massive spruce tree. Running after it, the hunter found a door open before him leading to a great fire in a big house. A great chief was sitting before the fire, and asked his people to dance to welcome their guest. After the chief himself sang, he demanded the hunter pronounce his name. Getting the answer wrong, the hunter was struck by the Chief in the face by his spiny tail, leaving quills stuck in the hunter’s face. Three more times this happened, with each strike leaving the poor hunter in worse shape. Before the fifth round of singing, Mouse Woman touched the hunter on the sleeve and warned him that if he answered incorrectly a fifth time, he would be killed by the Porcupine Chief as punishment for killing so many of his kin. Mouse Woman warned the hunter that he must answer to the question of the Chief’s name: “Sea Otter on Green Mountain”.

Mouse Woman Whispering to the Hunter

Mouse Woman Helping the Hunter

The Porcupine Chief had finished singing and asked the hunter, who was now so injured from the quills in his face he could barely see through his eyes, to pronounce his name. The hunter answered as Mouse Woman had instructed him; in a low voice he said “Your name is Sea Otter on Green Mountain”. Having answered correctly, the Porcupine Chief asked that the man’s face be cleaned and the quills removed. The green contents of each of Chief Porcupines four wives’ stomachs were used to cleanse the hunter’s face, each time the swelling would go down and more and more quills would be loosened and fall out. By the time the contents of the stomach of the fourth wife were placed on the hunter’s face, no more quills remained.

The Porcupine Chief then had food brought to the man, and as they ate he explained to the hunter that his people were full of sorrow for having been killed in such high numbers over the years. For sparing the hunters life, the Porcupine Chief asked the hunter to not kill such large amounts of porcupines and that when he does to eat the meat before the winter sets in so his people do not have sickness in the winter, to cast the bones into the fire the meat has been dried over, and to not allow his young people to eat the heads of young porcupines lest they become forgetful.

When the hunter returned to his wife, he told her what had happened. They gathered the meat from all of the valleys and brought it back to their village where they hosted a feast. People now know that porcupines are troubled by people and that they know how to sting and will do so to protect themselves. (Tsimshian Mythology 1916 Boaz, F and Tate, H.W.)

The panel represents the point in the story when the Chief Porcupine, Sea Otter on Green Mountain, is hitting the hunter in the face and Mouse Woman is coming to his aid. We can see the man curled up, his arms raised in defense, on the bottom right of the panel and the spined tail of the porcupine coming down from above onto his head on the top left side of the panel. Phil has also recently created two new limited edition prints; Formless and Łagigyet.

Phil Gray belongs to the Killerwhale Clan and his works are created in his traditional Ts'msyen style. He began carving in 1998 with Salish artist Gerry Sheena. He also had the opportunity to work with David Boxley, Henry Green, and Rick Adkins early in his career. Phil primarily works in red cedar and creates masks, paintings, panels, poles, sculptures, and drums. In September of 2003, Phil had three of his pieces donated to the Burke Museum in Seattle, WA. In 2005, Phil was featured in the Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 2 exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, NY. In 2007, Phil completed the Northwest Coast Jewellery Arts Program at the Native Education College in Vancouver, BC, under Kwakwaka’wakw/Haida artist Dan Wallace. Phil was included in two major exhibitions in 2009. The first was the Challenging Traditions exhibition at Ontario's McMichael Gallery, a show that was dedicated to exploring innovative and experimental works from the Northwest Coast. The second was Continuum: Vision and Creativity on the Northwest Coast at Vancouver's Bill Reid Gallery, which highlighted 23 established Aboriginal artists from BC, Washington State, and Alaska. In February of 2010, Phil designed the helmet of gold medal-winning Skeleton racer Jon Montgomery. Montgomery held Phil's helmet throughout the Olympic awards ceremony. In 2012, Phil was included in the Vancouver Art Gallery's Shore, Forest, and Beyond exhibition. In 2014, Phil was awarded a BC Creative Achievement Award for his contributions to the province. In 2017, Phil won two major prizes: a YVR Art Foundation Mid-Career Scholarship and a REVEAL Indigenous Art Award, which was issued in celebration of Canada's 150th birthday.