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Tony Hunt Sr. with his Sun Mask in 1974. The mask is designed to hold a family crest for display at a potlatch.

ERIK CHRISTENSEN/The Globe and Mail

Plainspoken and proud, renowned artist Tony Hunt Sr. lived a life that was marked by nicks and cuts as he painstakingly transformed cedar logs into stories of creation, lineage and kinship. A hereditary chief of the Kwakiutl people of Fort Rupert –or Tsaxis as it is called in Kwak'wala, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island – his world was steeped in the tradition of the ceremonial "Big House," where potlatches and other rituals are held.

"Tony was a natural leader who always had all the answers," said his sister, Leslie Dickie. "He lived the old knowledge. I expect it will be a long time before we stop hearing the phrase, 'If Tony was here, he'd know what to do.' Maybe we never will."

Mr. Hunt Sr. died in hospital in Campbell River on Dec. 15 after undergoing what was supposed to be a simple surgery to cauterize a bleeding ulcer. He was 75 years old, a man who worked hard, played hard and had suffered a series of health setbacks since the death of his oldest son – Tony Hunt Jr., also a noted artist – last October.

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"He was devastated. You aren't supposed to survive your children," said John Livingston, a protégé and long-time friend of Mr. Hunt's. "How do you recover from something like that?"

Mr. Hunt was a major figure in the world of West Coast native art, Mr. Livingston continued. The head of a large, sprawling family of artists, he was instrumental in pushing their métier out of kitschy tourist shops and into galleries frequented by monied international collectors.

He had honed his craft by working with his maternal grandfather Mungo Martin, the master carver, singer and teacher, at Thunderbird Park in Victoria. All his life he felt an acute sense of responsibility to pass on what he had learned and fight for respect for the work, for the land and for his people.

"Tony was able to change what the public wanted," Mr. Livingston said. "When he started, there was a lot of bad art being created but he was able to persevere through the dark ages of that time and stake his place in contemporary art history."

Part of his legacy derives from the ground-breaking gallery in Victoria, B.C., called Arts of the Raven, that he co-founded with Mr. Livingston. The two men opened it in 1969 as a space where quality was the rule, no matter an item's cost. Even pieces at lower price points – partially hand-made graphics and prints, for example – had to meet their high standards. The gallery also incorporated a studio where artists, sometimes up to five at a time, could properly learn their craft.

"Tony had a critical eye and a no-nonsense way of speaking," Mr. Livingston said. "If something was bad, he'd say so, just like that. You'd get this snowball effect, with Tony teaching people and his students teaching others, so that directly and indirectly, he influenced a huge portion of artists working today."

Even as he ran the Arts of the Raven, Mr. Hunt won commissions around the world and was featured in shows in larger centres such as Toronto and Chicago. His career and mission continued unabated after the gallery closed in 1989, a victim of its own success and higher rents in the city's downtown neighbourhood.

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"Tony was a teacher and an ambassador," Mr. Livingston said. "He opened the world to us, and he opened us up to the world. If I close my eyes right now, I can see him saying in his special way, 'Everybody, listen to me.' And you know what? We would."

Tony Hunt was born on Aug. 24, 1942, in Alert Bay, a village on Cormorant Island, traditional Kwakiutl territory about 40 kilometres southwest of Port Hardy on Vancouver Island. The oldest of Henry and Helen Hunt's 14 children, he spent his early years in Fort Rupert – or Tsaxis – where he attended elementary school. He was an indifferent student who preferred to try his hand at carving – just like his father.

In 1954, Henry Hunt, who'd worked as a logger and fisherman before taking up carving full time, uprooted the family, moving everyone down to Victoria, where he began to work as the chief apprentice carver to Mr. Martin. (Mr. Martin was the adoptive father of Mr. Hunt's wife, Helen.) Their base was Thunderbird Park, which surrounds the Royal B.C. Museum, and their mandate was to repair and replicate existing totem poles and create new ones.

At first, the family bunked at Mr. Martin's home, located behind the provincial legislature. But Ms. Hunt, who managed to be a homemaker, community volunteer and cultural activist, all while working at a local fish processing plant, saved her wages to make the down payment on a two-storey house.

"None of us had any idea, not even our Dad," Ms. Dickie said. "The day she bought it, Mom simply phoned two cabs, loaded us all in and had the drivers take us to 1320 Johnson Street. 'This is our new home,' she announced, and she held up the key."

Built in the early 20th century, the house featured lots of mahogany wood and had five bedrooms, three fireplaces and one bathroom. Every Sunday, there was a big dinner with relatives and friends. There was another on every holiday. When the family moved in, Ms. Dickie was two years old and Tony Hunt, who was 18 years older, was living on his own and making a name for himself; following the death of Mr. Martin in 1962, he had become the chief apprentice carver to his father at Thunderbird Park. Together, they created a series of important works, including a totem pole that stood sentry outside the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal and a 9.75-metre (32-foot) pole that was erected in 1970 in Alert Bay in memory of Mr. Martin, their mentor.

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When Tony did show up at Johnson Street for visits, his little sister would answer the door and call out, "Mom, it's that guy who comes over sometimes!"

All of that changed in 1972, when their mother died and the big brother took over the rearing of his youngest sister, making sure she got good grades and graduated from high school.

"Sometimes, it seemed he had no rules for himself but he always said that Mom made him promise to look after me," Ms. Dickie recalled. "He took that promise extremely seriously."

At the time, he'd left Thunderbird Park to open and run the Arts of the Raven gallery with Mr. Livingston, while also teaching and pursuing commissions outside of B.C. Calvin Hunt, a cousin and former apprentice of Mr. Hunt's, remembered travelling with him to Europe and the U.S, where people were sometimes ignorant of native peoples' cultures and way of life.

"Tony was so proud of lifting up our culture, in telling the truth about us," he said. "And in Europe, he'd tear apart ideas of how we lived, informing people that we also had things like telephones and cars."

He loved the ceremony of the potlatch, Calvin Hunt continued; how it conferred status, defined kinship and created solidarity between clans. When an intolerant federal government introduced an amendment to the Indian Act in the mid-1880s to ban the potlatch – ostensibly because it treated personal property in a wasteful, un-Christian way – the Kwakiutl people secretly kept the tradition alive until the amendment was repealed in 1951. The first legal, public potlatch in more than six decades was held at the "Big House" in Thunderbird Park in 1953, with Mr. Martin at the helm.

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Tony Hunt inherited the role after his grandfather's death.

Mr. Hunt's totem poles can be found in Victoria's sister cities of Morioka, Japan, and Suzhou, China, in international museums and in the Canadian embassies in Bonn and Mexico City. He gave Queen Elizabeth II three works of his art.

He was awarded the Order of B.C. in 2010 and has also received an honorary doctorate of law from Royal Roads University and citation of merit from the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

Along the way, he married Marilyn (Lyn) Tacfor and they had two sons and a daughter. When they split up, Mr. Hunt had a fourth child, a daughter, from another relationship. She was raised by her mother, Suzie Baker, in North Vancouver and only met her father's family 18 years ago.

In 2014, Mr. Hunt moved from Victoria to Fort Rupert to be with family. He was lonely living down south; back home, he knew there were people who would ensure he had a hot dinner and take care of him if he fell ill.

"He had that golden finger," Ms. Dickie said. "He'd point and people would do what he wanted. And he had such a wicked sense of humour. He could make us all laugh."

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And so he did, the last time members of his family saw him conscious, lying on a hospital gurney, waiting to be wheeled into an operating room. All of a sudden, he grinned and raised his hand to give a wave like the Queen, as if he was royalty saying goodbye to his subjects.

He never woke up from the anesthetic.

"One day, we'll hold a potlatch for both Tony Sr. and Tony Jr.," Ms. Dickie said. "They would love that – and we'll erect a totem pole in their memory."

Besides Ms. Dickie, Mr. Hunt leaves his siblings Richard, Stanley, Henry, Noreen, Dorothy and Val Hunt, Shirley Ford, Fran Gourdine and Darlene Peeler; his three surviving children, Debbie and Steven Hunt and Nadine Baker; eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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