For more-recent arrivals to the Downtown Eastside, there’s a new and not-so-subtle reminder about the history of the Coast Salish Territories and the First Nations people who were there first.
Walk down the 00 block of West Hastings just east of Abbott Street and you can’t miss it. The art installation stands nearly four stories tall and hangs more than 100 feet off the ground, covering a massive section of the west-facing wall of the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) building there.
Patrick Smith is an organizer with the grassroots movement Culture Saves Lives, the group behind the project.
Asked what he wants people to take from the art installation, he replied, “The eagle staff traditionally represents a flag of sovereignty. And so because the Downtown Eastside is going through such gentrification, it is a symbol that says we’ve been here since the beginning of time, and we’re not going anywhere.”
The project’s installation on the wall at 58 West Hastings Street was celebrated with a powwow last Sunday (September 13). The photographs below were taken at that event by Kent Apa’tsti Danielson.
Smith recounted the founding of Culture Saves Livesearlier this year as an organic reaction to two developments that had profound and upsetting impacts on the community. The first was the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation report, which explores the legacies of Canada’s residential schools. The second was the May 2015 publication of the Paige report, which documents how a 19-year-old First Nations woman repeatedly slipped through cracks in the system to eventually die of a drug overdose in the Downtown Eastside.
“We were feeling very oppressed, systemically,” Smith recalled. “We had to start doing something, so the very first thing we did is put up Hula-Hoops from the dollar store and hung them on BCH and City Hall’s lawn with a little sign that said, ‘Culture Saves Lives’. That was on a Monday. And then on a Tuesday, we hung up a 16-foot eagle feather on the East Van cross….And so it’s just kind of grown from that.”
The Culture Saves Lives installation at 58 West Hastings was completed with support from the Portland Hotel Society, Raincity Housing, the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, and the UBC School of Social Work.