History was made in Port McNeill on Thursday as the first Kwakwaka’wakw carved totem pole in the town’s 50+ year history was finally unveiled in front of North Island Secondary School.
The project took three years to fund, and the actual carving of the totem pole officially started during the 2017 school year.
‘Namgis Chief Don Svanvik, Kwakiutl artist Mervyn Child, and numerous NISS students all pitched in long hours carving and painting the totem pole to make sure it was ready in time for the May 17 ceremony, which saw a crowd of 1,200-1,500 people show up to watch the cultural festivities.
Back in September, NISS Principal Jay Dixon, who is one of the key people behind the project coming to fruition, stated he felt the totem pole “Represents integration of cultural programs. Within all of our courses, we want to see more and more First Nation’s programming, representation, and identity. This project is a statement of identity that our students and community can be really proud of.”
Dixon stopped for a quick interview before the start of the ceremony, stating the support the school has been given since the sun came up has been nothing short of remarkable. “People have been coming to the school all day long asking what they can do to help — we are so excited to show everyone the finished product because the totem pole means family, NISS is a family, and today if you look around, you will see truly how much of a regional family our school is.”
Dixon is also a councillor for the Town of Port McNeill, and he spoke briefly about what the totem pole also means for the town in general. “Port McNeill is looking forward to building stronger relationships with our neighbours, we want to keep having more cultural events like this,” he said, adding Port McNeill is the hub here on the North Island, “And we’re proud to be that hub and we want to work together with everyone to make sure we’re doing it properly.”
Dixon took the microphone and gave a brief speech before introducing the Master of Ceremonies, Chief Robert Joseph. Joseph is one of approximately 150,000 First Nations children who suffered years of abuse, isolation and trauma in Canada’s residential schools. He is also the hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation.
“Gilakas’la,” said Joseph, “We are all one, one with each other, every person on this special site. This is such a momentous occasion that I want to ask you to seek the deeper meaning of this very special gathering on this sacred site… We who call this area home, where we live and play and learn and work together, we are starting a new journey today, the first step of rebuilding our relationships. Looking back on the past and learning from that, but more importantly, visualizing the future together, and there is no future more powerful than inspiring the young people who will be taking our places — the idea behind this school, it’s intention and the promise that it creates for our young people, should inspire all of us together on the North Island to embrace each other, to celebrate each other, to hold each other up… This is a moment of paramount transition of how we see each other, how we listen to each other, and how we commit to the idea that we are one, and that is why they have carved this ‘Namwiyut pole… There’s a movement going on called reconciliation and this moment is a monumental moment of reconciliation — I’m so proud of all of you.”
After Joseph’s speech, the 20-foot totem pole was officially unveiled and the hereditary chiefs performed a blessing, before the Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreement, a document that promises new relationships and commitments to improve the educational success of Aboriginal students, was signed by all the North Island First Nations Chiefs who were at the ceremony.
Following the signing, there were cultural dances and readings, before Svanvik gave the closing remarks, talking about how the thunderbird and the bear carved on the totem pole are inclusive to Kwakwaka’wakw culture. “I want to thank the students who came out to help, there was great enthusiasm, and all in all it was a really great experience for us.”
Svanvik also thanked Mervyn Child, Thomas Bruce and Joseph Rufus for all their help with the totem pole. “We got it done and we stood it up and we’re very pleased — this project has had a life of its own. I think this pole is part of all of us now, it’s something that reminds us that we are the same, even if we are different.”
Port McNeill Mayor Shirley Ackland was the last person the Gazette spoke with at the ceremony, and she said the ceremony really made everything come “Full circle — Not only do we have the Kwak’wala speaking peoples that we acknowledge at the beginning of each council meeting, we also have the protocol agreement on our wall, because we believe in it with our hearts — this is just an illustration that shows we are all family, we are all a part of the community, and we need to go forward together.”
Before becoming a politician, Ackland spent the majority of her career as an educator, and she noted she thinks the enhance agreement “Is one significant step towards true reconciliation — the fact that what they signed today recognizes that the nations will be able to get learning with their own cultural references, with their own cultural examples in their own cultural language, and honouring it in a way that works for them, nothing could be better from the perspective of a child or a student, and it’s been a long time coming.”
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