Finding common ground is wisdom carved into Vancouver school district’s reconciliation pole

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      The thunderbird is diving fast, its wings, turned into hands, holding Mother Earth.

      “The thunderbird is like the Creator,” Squamish man Xwalacktun says about creature on top of the red cedar.

      The thunderbird is coming down because he has a message to bring.

      “We’re all the same,” the Indigenous carver born Rick Harry told the Georgia Straight about what the thunderbird wants to say.

      “We all live on one Earth, Mother Earth. There’s no other Earth around. We need to take care of it.”

      Xwalacktun and his son James have completed a 44-foot reconciliation pole that was commissioned by the Vancouver school district.

      On the grounds of the district’s main offices at 1580 West Broadway, the totem pole was being prepared for installation.

      On June 21, the pole and two others will be unveiled as part of the observance of National Aboriginal Day.

      Under the thunderbird is an eye.

      “Down here is a Coast Salish eye to remind us that we’re always watched by the Creator, the ancestors, community, family, friends, and ourselves,” Xwalacktun said.

      Below is a frog. Like the thunderbird, it’s coming down from the pole.

      The frog is a “communicator”, and it’s like the canary in the coal mine, Xwalacktun said.

      “If the frogs all die, then there’s something wrong, and there’s nowhere else for us to get out,” he said.

      The frog is the edge of the upper third of the totem pole that was carved by Xwalacktun.

      His son James did the lower third, and at the bottom of the pole are four salmon. The fishes represent the four directions, and the four seasons.

      Above the salmon is a bear. “The bear is actually upholding the whole pole, so carrying with a lot of strength there,” Xwalacktun said.

      On top of the bear is an eagle. The eagle represents “vision”, and the bird is the last symbol in the younger carver’s lower third of the pole.

      Father and son worked together in the middle third, where one finds a buffalo.

      Buffalos represent other Indigenous peoples across Canada and the U.S.

      There’s also a blanket.

      “That blanket goes across our chest and over the heart,” Xwalacktun said, “and anybody that wears a blanket like that is working. They’re working for the family. This family’s going to be the Vancouver school board. With that blanket on, they’ve got to speak from their heart on behalf of the family.”

      “And this is a cedar blanket,” Xwalacktun continued, “and when you cover people with a blanket, you’re honouring them, so we all honour one another here. This is where we meet in the middle. We have to honour one another.”

      In its entirety, the reconciliation pole tells people that they should all pull “together as one”.

      “Meet in the middle,” Xwalacktun said. “We all meet in the middle so that we can learn about one another. And we have to move forward together in order to have a better life for all of us.”

      The Vancouver school district’s legacy carving project has its roots from last year.

      Davita Marsden, an Anishinaabe kwe and Indigenous education teacher, approached Chas Desjarlais, the district’s vice principal for Indigenous education.

      Like Marsden, Desjarlais is of Indigenous heritage. She’s Nehiyaw-Metis, and a member of the Cold Lake First Nations, her lineage running through her father and grandmother.

      “She passed tobacco, and she shared with me her vision that she received well over 10 years ago about having a pole on the grounds of the Vancouver school board,” Desjarlais recalled to the Straight. “And so she passed me tobacco and shared that vision with me, and asked if I could help bring this project within the district, and I have always dreamed about the opportunity of bringing such a project.”

      They went to associate superintendent Jody Langlois, and the latter said yes.

      Desjarlais said that from Marsden’s vision and her own dream, the pole project has become a reality.

      Chas Desjarlais with Xwalacktun at the Vancouver school board grounds, where the reconciliation pole was carved.

      Two welcoming poles will accompany the reconciliation pole.

      One of the welcoming poles will be a female figure. It is being carved by Musqueam artist Chrystal Sparrow. Assisting her is brother Chris. They are working at a location near the Britannia secondary school.

      The male welcoming figure is being done by Musqueam artist William Dan and his apprentices at the Musqueam reserve.

      “We have tons of art pieces that speak to the diversity and plurality of the Indigenous nations within the inside of our building, but we had nothing on the outside that acknowledge the long history here of the Musquem people and Coast Salish nations, but also the urban Indigenous nations because Vancouver is highly urbanized,” Desjarlais said.

      Desjarlais said that the district wants to bring people together through the legacy poles.

      “We do acknowledge that people come from all over the world, from different places. They have different histories, different cultures,” she said. “But we’re all trying to be together as one in a good way. And we’re role-modeling that to our young people.”

      There’s really no choice. Not even if there’s a new planet to live on.

      As Xwalacktun said, laughing: “If they decide to find somewhere else to live, if you’re on that flight going there, it’s going to take you probably 30 years to get there.”