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North Van school's Welcome Figure recognized with heritage award

'Every single student who is in the school that year got to actually use the chisel and carve a small piece out of the pole.'

A Coast Salish Welcome Figure that stands tall at North Vancouver’s L'École Cleveland Elementary has been recognized with a heritage award for helping to preserve First Nations culture.

The District of North Vancouver awarded the Welcome Figure with a 2020 Community Heritage Award in the category 'compatible new design in a heritage context,' which recognizes the integration and acknowledgment of Indigenous heritage in the district.

The detailed figure of a Skipper holding a paddle was carved by Latash, Maurice Nahanee, a Squamish Nation Elder, traditional artist, and mentor, with the support of his assistant, Chris Fyfe at the school in the fall of 2018 – along with a little help from eager students.

The annual Community Heritage Awards program, co-ordinated by the Community Heritage Advisory Committee and awarded by district council, has been recognizing special projects and accomplishments in the field of heritage conservation since 2011. The latest award winners were announced at district council's April 12 general meeting. 

Nahanee, whose visual art career began in 1993, said it was “a great honour” to be acknowledged by the district with the award.

“I’ve been working in schools for the past 25 years, so it's very nice to be acknowledged for the work that we did at Cleveland,” he said. “I feel it's also an acknowledgment of the leadership of the school’s [former] principal, Bill Reid, who was the one that approached me to do the project.”

Work in schools promotes 'peace and harmony'

Nahanee said each school project was an opportunity to share Coast Salish and Squamish Nation culture and history.

“The teachers and the students really enjoy the experience, and they're getting to interact in a positive way with another culture,” he said, adding that the work also tied into Reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

“It gives a chance to show Aboriginal culture in a good light to all people. I think we're all learning from each other about our cultures, and it promotes peace and harmony.”

In this case, he taught students about the history of Welcome Figures and the intricacies of carving, while sharing wisdom and traditional stories along the way.

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 sculpted in the shape of a human figure that stands with its hands raised up in a gesture of welcome and friendship.

“It's a pledge that we welcome you, we will feed you, we will celebrate with you and you're safe as long as you stay and visit with us,” he said.

The Welcome Figure is meant to be an icon representing teachings and values important to the Coast Salish, including respect for oneself and for each other, explained Nahanee.

“We chose to carve a Welcome Pole at Cleveland because the values represented by this sculpture tie in with the values of the mission statement of the school,” he explained.  

The school’s mission is: “To provide an environment that fosters the emotional, social and physical well-being and the intellectual development of all students. Cleveland School will promote a positive self-concept, respect for self, respect for others, respect for the environment, fitness and health.”

To portray this, Nahanee decided a carving of a Skipper would be most fitting. He added that the carving was created from a red cedar tree that was harvested and donated by a family whose children were attending the school.

“The Cleveland Welcome pole carries a Skipper’s paddle,” he said. “This represents he is a leader. He is one who guides and nurtures the people. And, that journey is really similar to the role of the principal of the school. It's letting the students know there's a leader and that they are in a safe place for learning.”

A meaningful learning experience 

Taking place prior to COVID-19, Nahanee attended the school each Friday afternoon from September 2018 for about five months to work on the Welcome Figure, with each class getting a couple of opportunities to visit him and participate in the carving of the pole.

Laura Stewart, the school’s vice principal, also credited the school’s former principal, Bill Reid, who has since retired, for initiating the meaningful learning experience for students.

Stewart said the project allowed students to learn and connect with Squamish Nation history and teachings in an authentic and hands-on way.

“It was all so lovely to watch,” she said. “Students were so engaged, and I think it was such a neat experiential way for them to learn. Latash was able to blend Squamish teachings in with his time with the students with the importance of the process of carving.”

Nahanee has had a vibrant and varied career, working as a journalist for 10 years before embarking on a 20-year career as a First Nations Support Worker in schools. Art has always been a part of his life and in 2016, he retired to be a full-time artist and mentor. Over the years he has carved a dozen sculptures, including Welcome Figures, and painted many murals for schools.  

“Art is a great cultural expression for me,” Nahanee said. “I wanted to pass on arts and culture to the next generation, including my daughters who are both visual and performing artists.”

He said it was a “great experience” to complete the carving at Cleveland while teaching curious students. 

"Each day, I would prepare an area for them and give them safety instructions," Nahanee explained. "They were very co-operative and handled the tools in a safe way. The carving tools are very sharp, so the children had to know how to use them properly." 

Stewart added that the students “absolutely loved" learning the traditional skill. 

“It made it more meaningful for them to be able to see the carving through all the different stages and actually have a hand in it,” added Stewart.

“Every single student who is in the school that year got to actually use the chisel and carve a small piece out of the pole.”

Stewart said Indigenous education is fundamental to B.C.’s curriculum and to schools being inclusive bodies.

“We're here on the traditional lands of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations,” she said. “So, to be able to learn first-hand about traditional cultures, history, and ways of knowing, is our privilege and responsibility.”

In a previous interview, Brad Baker, North Vancouver School District principal and administrator of Indigenous education, said while many schools on the North Shore have Welcome Figures, SD44 was in the process of working to ensure all schools in the school district had one. 

A blessing and unveiling ceremony was held for the Welcome Figure in September 2019.

Read about the other Community Heritage Award recipients on the district's website

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.