In a moving traditional ceremony, Ecole Argyle Secondary’s Coast Salish welcome figure Kayachtn was blessed and unveiled to the community during an assembly to officially open the new school in North Vancouver.
The welcome figure is the finishing touch to the modern, energy-efficient school – which cost more than $61 million and opened to Argyle's 1,300 students in January.
With open arms, Kayachtn – standing approximately 5.5 metres tall – now greets all who enter Argyle and offers protection to the school community.
The striking cedar sculpture, at the front entrance of the school, at 1131 Frederick Rd. in Lynn Valley, was installed in August to acknowledge the school sits on the unceded territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and Səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.
“The key thing for me is the continued understanding and the visible presence of the local First Nations in the North Vancouver School District,” said Brad Baker, North Vancouver School District principal and administrator of Indigenous education, ahead of the ceremony.
Kayachtn was carved by Coast Salish artist Sinámkin (Jody Broomfield) from a red cedar log estimated to be more than 200 years old, sourced from the Squamish Valley forest and donated by Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nation.
After delays due to COVID-19 restrictions, Kayachtn was officially unveiled to the community on Oct. 13.
Before the traditional ceremony began, Aaron Williams, who is the language project specialist in the Language, Culture and Affairs department at Squamish Nation, explained to the audience that what they were about to witness was both “sacred and celebrational” for Broomfield.
“A little encouragement is to have an open heart and an open mind, to what you may feel, and experience based on what you’re going to witness here today,” he said.
Spoken largely in the Squamish language, with Williams explaining parts along the way, the ceremony included drumming and boughs being brushed over Kayachtn.
Witnesses for Kayachtn’s unveiling were also called forward to speak.
John Lewis, former superintendent, North Vancouver School District, was among the four chosen witnesses, along with Betty Forbes, Acting Mayor, District of North Vancouver, Whonoak (Dennis Thomas) of Tsleil-Waututh Nation and Sxwíxwtn (Wilson Williams) of Squamish Nation.
“We are here to make sure things are successful going forward in the future,” Lewis said at the event, explaining the role of the witness. “It is not just the responsibility of me as a witness, but for all of us that are here today.”
He went on to say that the unveiling was “an in important reminder of what is not taken away but what is revealed inside and this reveals the best in each of us.”
“It’s an opportunity to remind ourselves of how important it is for us to be able to acknowledge the environment, to care for the environment, to care for this building and to care for each other,” Lewis said.
He added that it wasn’t always easy to “do that work by yourself” but it was something that could be achieved “when you work together.”
Whonoak added it “really lifts his heart” to see the cultural ceremony take place.
He first made mention of the school’s “new sustainable ways” and “cedar accents,” saying the elements were “good energy for the school district,” offering students an opportunity to “really look at the power of the cedar.”
Speaking of artist Broomfield’s work, he noted that carving a welcome figure was a “sacred journey.”
“It's such a sacred journey a carver goes through putting his heart, his spirit, his energy [into it] for months,” Whonoak said. “It flows so smoothly when you look at the design.
“He is leaving a bit of his spirit in this wood for all of us to enjoy when we walk in here.”
He added that the students, transforming to adults and higher education, “are being blessed every day” when they walk through the school’s entrance and by Kayachtn.
Artist Jody Broomfield's carving journey began in March
Speaking prior to the ceremony, Baker said the carving of Kayachtn offered an important opportunity for the school community to learn about the history and culture of the First Nations craft.
Broomfield began the process months ago by brushing the raw log with boughs to cleanse it for its new role at the school.
Broomfield, whose journey as an artist began in 1999, then began chipping away at the cedar in March, first stripping away the bark, which exposed branches and tree knots he had to work around as well as a fall crack on the top portion of the log.
The Squamish Nation carver worked off-site on the project at the Mosquito Creek Marina for a few months before the pole was brought to the school to be worked on with students in June.
Broomfield was at the school for four weeks, sharing Indigenous history and stories, teaching students the intricate ways of carving, the importance of the cedar tree to local First Nations as well as the reasoning for the design.
During that month, students and staff were able to soak in all Broomfield’s knowledge, as well as help carve and paint the pole.
“For it to really come back to life we wanted the students’ hands on it,” Baker said.
“Being a part of the process of working on a log that's hundreds of years old and seeing that come back to life through a Welcome Figure, and hearing the stories of Indigenous peoples, is so important for students."
The meaning behind the welcome figure's design
Broomfield’s vision for the welcome figure was to reflect the general area of the North Shore and the Sea to Sky, with symbols representing the ocean, mountain, and sky, he explained in an interview with North Shore News in March.
The design features the Two Sisters (the Lions peaks) and a human figure at the top, overseeing the school community.
The finished result is nothing short of “impressive,” said Baker.
Along with the pole’s design representing the beauty of the North Shore, Baker said it also symbolized protection and strength for the school community.
He explained that welcome figures – which differ from totem poles in form and function – are used by Coast Salish peoples as markers to welcome visitors to their territories and were usually carved in a gesturing motion.
“Part of a welcome figure is to have open arms and welcome individuals to the school,” Baker said.
Broomfield added that they are also "a symbol of peace."
Looking to the future, Baker said the “ultimate goal” was for every school in SD44 to have a welcome figure to acknowledge the local First Nations and their territories and to provide positive learning opportunities. Currently, all seven SD44 secondary schools either have welcome figures or wall-mounted wood carvings, along with roughly 20 per cent of elementary schools.
Broomfield has created more than 10 public art pieces in North and West Vancouver which can be found on the North Shore Culture Compass, including the Strength and Remembrance Pole for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls at Stella Jo Dean Plaza. He works with many different media – wood, glass, ceramic, metal, and stone – to expand his mind and creativity.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.