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This Thunderbird carved from 400-year-old red cedar now watches over a North Van school

"Everyone who comes through Carisbrooke Elementary's front doors comes into the protection of the beautiful Thunderbird.”

With open wings spanning eight feet, a Thunderbird now watches over Carisbrooke Elementary School, protecting all who walk through the doors.  

The striking relief sculpture mounted at the main entrance of the North Vancouver school was carved from part of a 400-year-old red cedar from the Squamish Valley. The detailed work was created by Latash, Maurice Nahanee, a Squamish Nation Elder, traditional artist, and mentor, with the support of his assistant, Chris Fyfe.

Nahanee, whose visual art career began in 1993, said he always liked “to start an art project based on a theme” and in this case, the school aligned with the supernatural Ininyaxa7n or Thunderbird.

“The mission statement of the school and values represented by the Ininyaxa7n - Thunderbird, are very compatible,” Nahanee explained. “Among the many attributes of the Ininyaxa7n are protection and sharing of knowledge.”

With COVID-19 safety measures in place, Nahanee said he couldn't work closely with students during the four-month project, from September to December 2020, to teach them the ways of carving like he usually would, but students would come and visit and watch him work while he shared wisdom, stories and teachings.

The story of the Thunderbird

The main stories the 64-year-old shared, of course, were about the great Thunderbird.

“One of our stories about the Ininyaxa7n goes back to a time when people started to inhabit the earth,” he explained.   

“The humans struggled to survive. The Creator saw the difficulty the people were having and called upon the Thunderbird to call all the animals together and ask them to find ways to help the people. When all the animals had gathered for the meeting, Ininyaxa7n asked them to come up with ways to help the people. The deer offered himself as food for the people. The salmon did the same. The black bear said he could show the people what plants were safe to eat. And so, each of the animals had a valuable lesson for the humans.”

He continued to explain that the “Thunderbird watches over all creation and helps everyone,” relating the story back to the role of the school principal.

“The principal watches over all the children so that they're safe and looked after, and the teachers all have different gifts that they can give to the children,” he said. “Each child has a gift and each teacher helps to bring out the gift in each child.”

Lisa Upton, the school’s principal, said the story of the Thunderbird offered a message that really resonated with students, teachers, and parents, especially during pandemic life.

“It’s a time where we really need to watch out for each other, and we really need to care for each other,” she said. “So, it's most appropriate to have this Thunderbird, this protector, with its great wings mounted by our main entrance so that everyone who comes through Carisbrooke’s front doors comes into the protection of the beautiful Thunderbird.”

Despite the restrictions, Upton said students still “loved” the experience of being able to watch Nahanee and Fyfe work on the project from an outdoor studio set up at the school. Students were able to soak in the entire art process from the arrival of the raw red cedar wood, to the detailed planning, cutting of the wood, and delicate carving. Two lucky students, sisters Lillian and Evelyn Edenshaw, even got to help paint the sculpture a striking blue.

“The amount of care that the kids have shown for Latash and Chris by checking in on their work and watching them and connecting with them was a really wonderful experience,” Upton said.

Work in schools promotes 'peace and harmony'

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. Art has always been a part of his life and in 2016, he retired to be a full-time artist. Over the years he has carved a dozen sculptures, including Welcome Figures, and painted many murals for schools. He said it was a “great pleasure” to be invited to Carisbrooke to complete the carving under the watchful eye of curious students.

“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.”

As the school is on the traditional and unceded territories of the Squamish Nation and the Coast Salish peoples, and in line with Reconciliation, Upton said it was incumbent as educators to welcome in the Indigenous worldview and to create a space for Elders to share their knowledge and stories.

“I don't think it's enough to learn about people, you have to learn with people, and the best people to learn from if you want to learn about Squamish culture is from the Squamish people themselves.

“As citizens on the North Shore, we have an obligation to listen to the land and to care for the land and the really beautiful way of doing that is through learning from our Squamish hosts.”  

She added that it was always such a thrill to work with Nahanee, describing him as a wonderful, generous man and gracious teacher.

“It's so important to create relationships with our Elders, and not just those one-off experiences. Latash has very graciously adopted us, and we're so privileged to be part of his extended family now.

“It's been very special for us.”

Upton said the school was planning to have a brushing-off ceremony for the Thunderbird when social gatherings resume. The project was made possible by a North Vancouver Recreation and Culture Commission grant. 

The red cedar log was donated by Sqomish Forestry, a company owned by the Squamish Nation.