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Subject: Art Thompson, 54; Indian Artist Influenced by Tribal Rites, Rituals

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Date Posted: April 06, 2003 4:38:39 EDT

Art Thompson, 54, an artist who helped bring attention to the aboriginal art style of his Nuu-chah-nulth people of Vancouver Island, Canada, died last Sunday of cancer in Victoria, British Columbia.

Born at Nitinat Lake on Vancouver Island, Thompson was a member of the Ditidaht First Nation. At age 3, he contracted tuberculosis. Two years later, he was sent to Vancouver Island's Port Alberni Indian Residential School, where -- as he recounted in testimony in connection with 1990s litigation -- he was sexually abused and beaten and stripped of his native name and culture. He attributed his later problems with alcohol and drugs, which he overcame, to that experience.

The school was closed in 1972. A dormitory supervisor pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting 18 boys, including Thompson, and in 1995 was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Thompson and other students later sued Canada and other sponsors of the now-abolished residential Indian schools for monetary damages.

Thompson left school at 14 and worked as a logger for seven years. Always intrigued by tribal ceremony and carving, he recuperated from a back injury in Victoria by carving and taking college art classes. He experimented with various aboriginal art styles, but gravitated to that of his own ancestors.

His expertise at carving wood and precious metals and at making prints and paintings helped redirect appreciation for native art from the formalized style of the northern Canadian tribes to the free-flowing work of the Nuu-chah-nulth, featuring brilliant greens and blues.

By the mid-1990s, Thompson, who called himself a survivor of efforts to erase his culture, had helped to gain respect for his people and was selling his carvings for $6,000 each.

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