Lou-Ann Neel

A designer with passion and reverence for traditions is an advocate for cultural justice.

Lou-Ann Neel, is a descendant of the Mamalillikulla, Da’nax’daxw, Ma’amtagila, ‘Namgis and Kwagiulth tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwak’wala-speaking people).

`In her home territory, the Kwak’wala names she carries are K’iditle’logw; Ika’wega and Ga’axstalas.

She comes from a very long line of traditional artists and carvers.

Her father was John Edward (Ted) Neel Jr. and was the second oldest son of her grandmother, Ellen Ka’kasolas Neel (the only Native woman carver of her era). Her grandfather, Edward Lyle Neel was of Irish descent.

Her great-grandfather was Charlie Yakuglas James, a master carver who taught her grandmother to carve and was a mentor to his stepson, Mungo Nakapenkum Martin.

Lou Ann was born in Alert Bay  and lived there until she was six years old. 

She spoke about her time there in an interview with Nicola Hernandez for Women Artists 

”I was about five when the first traditional big house was built (after anti-potlatch law was quietly erased from the Indian Act) in Alert Bay. It was part of the [Canadian] centennial [celebration]. I guess there was a lot of funding for these kinds of things, so our chiefs lobbied with the government to build a traditional big house so our ceremonies can start again. All the big houses were in the outlying villages, where all the traditional feasts took place. Early on, I got a glimpse into our potlatches and regalia and I was so overtaken with amazement over especially the button blankets and of course I had never seen a house that big in my life so I felt like I was really surrounded by our culture and to me, that was the world. That was normal. Therefore, to me the baseline of what was normal was strong there in Alert Bay. I went away to residential school in Port Alberni at age six and I turned seven there. At that time, they did not call it the residential school they called it the boarding school. However, that is just semantics, we actually lived in school and we were bussed every day to the public school. So [our experience in my generation] was a little bit different with the previous generation. Then, we moved to Victoria. I pretty much spent most of my life in Victoria. I come from a big family and my mum who was a single mum [who] brought up the six of us on her own. After she went to school and did her LPN – Licensed Practical Nurse training, she met our stepfather. He joined then and kept us sane: one big family.” 

Her Work

Lou Ann Neel’s favourite piece of work titled, `Four Noble Woman’, was designed for a Women Warriors conference at the Victoria Native Friendship Center.

She spoke about this painting in an interview with Nicola Hernandez for Women Artists

Her work is greatly influenced by the work of her grandmother, Ellen Neel (Kakasolas) and her great, great grandfather, Charlie James (Yakuglas). She considers it a great honour to be able to continue the artistic traditions of my family. 

“The design is titled, `Four Noble Women’, because it has four women: my mum and my three sisters. My mum is in a traditional button blanket with the double-headed serpent design. My oldest sister who was initiated to be the attendant for a Hamat’sa, was in a separate different blanket.  My second sister was initiated as a Ghost Dancer so she had on that cape and my third sister had a different cape to represent the dance she to which was initiated. It shows all four so there is black, white, red and yellow. It is for the four directions. It is a little bit of reference to the medicine wheel. I did 28 points around the outside to represent the cycle of the moon, which is so closely associated with women.”

Her grandmother passed away in ’66 when Lou Ann was only three years old.  She was about age seventeen when she found out who the surviving members of the Neel family were. She sought and found all of the other members if the Neel family who told her stories of her wonderful grandmother and her legacy. Everything Lou Ann has done since has been a very deliberate effort to continue what Ellen started. Ellen Neel was not only a carver when nobody believed that women were allowed to carve or allowed [She also really fought for the rights of indigenous artists against appropriation for the rights of women to be engaged in the arts. She was one of the only native women who not only ran a successful business in the arts, she had her own gallery in White Rock, but she also trained all of my aunts and uncles plus anybody who came by the house to learn. 

Her work is not focused just on traditional pieces. Her dedication to her culture and her belief in leaving a legacy for her family and her community is a driving force behind everything she does.

She has utilized her University education to take a position as Repatriation Specialist for the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, B.C.

Repatriation is the term used to bring back archival material removed from the communities by colonists, especially those taken during the ban on Potlatch ceremonies during the past century.

One very famous example of an underground potlatch took place at Christmas in 1921 in Alert Bay, Lou Ann Neel’s home community. 

‘Namgis Chief Dan Cranmer held a six-day potlatch to celebrate a wedding. The potlatch was held on Village Island in an effort to keep the activities out from under the nose of the Indian Agents and missionaries. Unfortunately, the celebration was detected, and under the Potlatch Law, 45 people were arrested and charged; 22 were jailed. Their crimes? Giving speeches, dancing, gift-giving. An additional injustice was the loss of hundreds of priceless ceremonial items such as masks and regalia, which were confiscated, and over time, dispersed throughout the world through collectors and museums.

Lou Ann Neel is an arts administrator with over 25 years’ experience managing arts, culture and language programs, grant/proposal writing, special event management, and community development. 

She is also the main artist for a series of informative cultural books titled Strong Stories, by Strong Nations publishing.