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Sisiyutł serpent ready for the new Bighouse

The triple-headed serpent is one of several intricate carvings artists have made for the Bighouse
As the Bighouse carving work nears completion, the team of eight artists — four masters and four local apprentices — are looking back over the enormous project, feeling grateful to have been part of it, and sad to see its end. Left to right: Junior Henderson, Talon George, Johnathan Henderson, Walter George, Jeremy Wamiss, Greg Henderson. (Zoe Ducklow photo)

In the carving shed on the Tsulquate reserve there are four house posts and two cross beams, carved and painted. Lying flat they are like slumbering monsters, each measuring about four feet in diameter and a couple of dozen feet long.

Beaver, Human, Thunderbird, Dzunukwa and K’olus depicted on four of the poles will hold the weight of the ‘Bighouse,’ the gukwdzi. They tell of each nations’ history, origins, legends and teachings. The two cross beams, one a sisiyutł and one a grizzly-human, will rest above the floor where ceremonies, potlaches, dances and songs will take place.

The eight artists worked full time for a year and a half, with some delay when COVID-19 interrupted plans. The project has given four young people the opportunity to study under the master carvers. This Bighouse is helping to revive cultural ways of life – from design to building, and eventually active use.

“It’s been the joy of being able to be part of this project, my brothers and I; this is our dream job. We have a love for the art form, but also the passion we have for our culture, and more importantly our traditions,” said master carver Johnathan Henderson.

He and the other three Henderson master carvers, Bill, Junior and Greg, have deep roots in the ‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation; through their father and grandfather Sam Henderson, a renowned carver from Blunden Harbour.

Stories of the Sisiyutł

One cross beam is carved as a triple-headed serpent called sisiyutł, that is said to represent balance, said Henderson. His father told him one of many stories about sisiyutł, and Henderson shared a shortened version of it last week after the beam had been completed.

“A long time ago, the serpent actually only had two heads. One day, a young warrior was feeling despondent after getting in trouble with his dad. He’d been ridiculed by his dad and others in the village. The young man walked away, feeling unwanted. He reached the shoreline and stood deep in thought, head down.

“From the water, a sisiyutł saw the young warrior and came closer. The warrior saw this powerful creature come up. Both the man and the serpent were entranced with each other, imagining the power they would have from seeing the other.

“And the sisiyutł devours the young warrior. Not to eat him because he was hungry, but so they could go through a metamorphosis together.”

That’s how this double-headed sea serpent ended up with three heads. The middle head depicted in sisiyutł art is generally a human face, and often hands are included. On this carving the artists showed its arms as well. That’s how the serpent would get around on the ocean floor, Henderson’s father told him.

“Quite often we’re told sisiyutł is a representation of balance, how in our lives of today we’re trying to maintain a healthy balance in life,” Henderson said. It parallels other culture’s teachings of the medicine wheel, where mental, spiritual, physical and emotional life is to be balanced.

Some stories tell of sisiyutł transforming into a canoe. The Hendersons included a reference to that tale by putting human faces in sisiyutł’s fins, representing paddles of the canoe.

RELATED: Totem poles almost complete for Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Big House

There are a few things left for the carvers to do, but most of the project is finished.

The next major step is to break ground on the location for the Bighouse and start construction. There’s no confirmed date, but the Project Coordinator Joye Walkus is working on funding applications and other plans.

Elders said it was important for the Bighouse to be near water and to face east. Tsulquate reserve is not an easy place to build.

The higher ground is mostly granite, and lower areas are softer, wet land.

The house was originally promised by the government when the two nations were relocated to Tsulquate from their homes in Gwa’sala from Takush (Smith Inlet) and ‘Nakwaxda’xw from Ba’as (Blunden Harbour) in the 1960s.

Delayed but not abandoned, the house has been discussed and dreamed about for decades, and is being carefully designed to represent both nations.

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The human head centre of sisiyutł for the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Bighouse. (Zoe Ducklow photo)
The three-headed sisiyutł creature carved across a thick trunk of cedar for the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Bighouse. (Zoe Ducklow photo)
Close-up of one of sisiyutł’s two serpent heads. (Zoe Ducklow photo)
Close-up of the sisiyutł’s fins with human faces as paddles, representing its ability to transform into a canoe. (Zoe Ducklow photo)