A detail of the new totem dedicated yesterday at Edmonds Community School
In Canada, June 21st is not only the first day of summer; it is National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Formerly called National Aboriginal Day, it celebrates the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding achievements of the First Nations.
Indigenous peoples in Canada have traditionally inhabited six cultural areas. One of these – the Northwest Coast – is home to several distinct nations.
The earliest settlement of the Northwest Coast probably was established following the last ice age, around 14,000 years ago, Societies centered around hunting and gathering, with the most valuable resources being salmon for food, and cedar for construction and artwork.
First contact with non-Indigenous peoples on the Northwest Coast likely occurred as early as the 16th century. However, recorded interaction between First Nations people and European explorers / traders began in earnest in the late 18th century. Unfortunately, the Europeans brought smallpox that killed large numbers of the land’s original population. In fact, from the 1770s through the 1860s, epidemics took the lives of thousands. The most devastating outbreak occurred in 1862 at indigenous camps around Victoria. Authorities forced those infected to move back to their home communities; the illness spread, and eventually killed approximately 20,000 people. As well, other diseases dramatically reduced the population throughout the 19th century and early 20th century.
Of all the cultural areas in Canada, the Northwest Coast peoples had the most diversity in language. These include Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Salish languages. Enforced assimilation — the policy of missionaries and government administrators until the late 20th century – outlawed many Indigenous Peoples’ traditional practices. Compulsory education in centrally-located residential schools forbid the speaking of traditional languages, which had devastating effects on the students as well as on community structure and socialization. From 1885 to 1951, the “Indian Act” also banned cultural practices; and as a result of the policies forced on the Indigenous culture, most First Nations peoples in the Northwest Coast area now speak English as a primary language. The ancestral languages and their dialects are critically endangered.
Northwest Coast Indigenous people associated music and decorative arts with both sacred and secular activities. Songs, sometime accompanied by dance were associated with every activity. As well as the pivotal role the songs played in ceremonies, they transmitted family and society traditions – soothing infants, playing games, expressing love and sorrow. Whistles, drums and horns sometimes accompanied the voice.
Sculptural and decorative artwork was also part of daily life. Artists embellished tools, houses, baskets, clothing and items made to represent the supernatural. Wood sculpture and painting are probably the most distinctive Northwest Coast art form; totem poles are the largest examples.
Hewn from millennia-old logs, totem poles are sacred. The carvings often symbolize and commemorate ancestors; they recount cultural beliefs and familiar legends, clan lineages, and / or notable events. The poles may also serve as functional architectural features and welcoming signs for village visitors. They may embody a historical narrative of significance to the people carving and raising the pole. Given the complexity and symbolic meanings of totem pole carvings, their placement requires careful thought.
Yesterday I was invited to pole dedication at Edmonds Community School in South Burnaby, which borders Vancouver. This area is home to residents from 48 countries, and is recognised as Canada’s most diverse nighbourhood. Led by the school’s community coordinator, John Nanson, it is proof that multiculturalism DOES work and that it is a positive and enriching way of life.
Supported by the federal Member of Parliment, Peter Julian, funds were procured for the commission of a totem to commemorate the values of the community.
Jackie Timothy is the carver who was selected to create the masterwork. He told the crowd that at 4 ½ years of age, he was forced to attend a residential school, where he remained for seven years. He was not allowed to regularly visit his family or speak the language he had learned in his home. He was not even called by his name; he was known as “Number 51”. Corporal punishment was the norm for even minor infractions. Unfortunately, Jackie’s treatment was not unusual; and after years of such abuse, it is understandable that the children who attended these schools had great difficulties re-adjusting to life back home. In an emotional voice, Jackie spoke of this experience. “When we were allowed to return home, we were rejected,” Jackie continued, “Many people said we had renounced our heritage, but we were just children. We did the best we could to survive.” Over the years, Jackie learned carving from his elders and with the support of his wife Kim, he has done much to reclaim the heritage that had been taken from him and his peers.
The couple’s three adult children all have University educations, and the grandchildren are their greatest joy. Jackie Timothy’s totem depicts his personal, as well as his peoples’ journey through life. It vividly portrays the goodness and abundance found in this part of the world. But it also testifies to the pain inflicted on some who live here. Ultimately the totem pole depicts the artist’s hopes for reconciliation, forgiveness, and a rebirth of harmony in our shared community.
The totem resonates like a chant – like an eloquent prayer for peace – may it come in our time.