From the Bentwood Post, Spring 2008
Remembering Gisela Mendel
By Louise Avery
“Each delicate flower of the mountainside, each intricate fossil, each
weather-worn totem pole has held a fascinating interest for her.”
From “People”, by Cynthia Loewen,
Northern Sentinel, April 23, 1972
Gisela Mendel passed away recently, and it is fitting to remember her energy and drive and the legacy she left for Kitimat. Gisela had many friends in both Kitimat and Kitamaat Village. She was born in Germany and was working as a pharmacist in East Prussia when the Russians invaded. She fled the Russians and in 1952, immigrated to Canada. Unhappy with the geography of Southern Ontario – in her words, she was a “mountain woman” – she chose Kitimat as her home.
In her earliest years in Kitimat, Gisela collected botanical specimens for the provincial museum in Victoria. Gisela was the first curator of the Kitimat Centennial Museum, beginning in 1969 when the building opened. She was not only responsible for showcasing the local art and history of the area but building a strong and varied permanent collection of artifacts and archival items that were the basis for future curators to build on. As she was working with a new town without a lengthy history, community history was not the priority so much as natural history and Haisla first nations cultural traditions which Gisela documented with great intensity. One project was creating an ethno-botanical dictionary with the help of Haisla elders, identifying the Haisla names for herbs and their traditional uses. She was very driven to educate herself and others. In 1972, the Northern Sentinel reported that each weekend Gisela made the rounds of her secret botanical hunting grounds to replace the display of wildflower, tree, and other natural specimens in her exhibits. Of note, the wild blueberries on display tended to disappear. (April 23, 1972). She also established a reading corner at the Museum with copies of documentary material of the many people who came to the area during the Methodist Mission years at Kitamaat.
She was the museum custodian for 12 years until her retirement in 1981. Gisela and husband Hans then moved to Smithers. In the 1990s she received the Award of Merit from the BC Museums Association in recognition of her work. Her thirst for information was incredible. The Museum benefited immensely from her passion for gathering and recording the human and natural history of the Kitimat area. She took her camera everywhere and painstakingly recorded stories from our area, such as one of the last Oolichan harvests on the Kitimat River.
She could speak some Haisla. She took lessons, and had also begun recording on paper the language, culture, traditions, and technology of the Haisla, and collecting traditional artifacts from the people.
Gisela was a tremendous record keeper and journalist, had a great love of the outdoors, and was incredibly active all her life with outdoor pursuits. As fitting to her academic training with a degree received in Germany in Pharmacology, Gisela was always ready to learn more about the flora, fauna, and history of an area, and record what she had learned. She discovered a new fern and long before she became involved in the Kitimat Centennial Museum, Gisela collected botanical specimens for the Royal BC Museum.
A number of years ago, I was making improvements to the native plant garden beside the Museum and thought of adding interpretive signage and naming the garden, “The Gisela Mendel Native Plant Garden”. She said that honouring her work with the Museum was not required. After that first conversation, I often contacted her with my questions about past Museum activities and artifacts and a parcel would often arrive in the mail with documentation of a recent project.
In October when the Museum opens its exhibition, “Forty Years of Collecting”, it will honour the work of the Gisela Mendel whose legacy lives on with us. She recorded in much detail oolichan grease rendering by the Haisla on the Kitimat River and the flora of the area for her Kitimat Museum unpublished work, “Plants of the Kitimat Valley.” The Museum continues Gisela’s tradition of annual art shows that exhibit works created by local schoolchildren and artists. Many of the objects she so painstakingly collected and documented remain on display, and the work she began in 1969 – to build a vibrant and ever-growing Museum – continues.