To say a totem pole raising in the community of Sik-e-dakh is a rarity would be an understatement.
For the first time in post-colonial times, a pole was recently raised on the reserve previously known as Glen Vowell.
The pole is a community pole, intended to welcome visitors to the village of just over 200 situated 10 kilometres north of Hazelton on the edge of the Kispiox Valley, according to Lorraine Hnidan-Kendall.
Lorraine was the wife of the late Larry Hnidan, the carver who envisioned and began the project in the early 1990s.
It was one of two poles Larry intended to carve representing all of the Gitxsan clans. Sik-e-dakh, meaning “Bright Lights Behind Mountain” is one of seven Gitxsan communities including Anspa’yaxw (Kispiox), Gitanmaax (Hazelton), Gitanyow, Gitsegukla, Gitwangak (Kitwanga) and Meanskinisht (Cedarvale).
The clans are Frog, Eagle, Fireweed and Wolf.
Lorraine said access to quality timber was easier in the early 1990s.
“He was able to get a 40-foot cedar log from a mill in Terrace, to be dropped off in Glen Vowell and cut it in half and started putting together a carving shed so that he would have some shelter to work on it.”
She said, because of various responsibilities including work and the two of them starting to raise a family, Larry was only able to work on the pole off and on throughout the ’90s, then in 2000, the unthinkable happened.
He died suddenly from undiagnosed cancer.
“It was very traumatic because our youngest son (Louie) was not six months old,” Lorraine said. His older brother Lucas was just three years old.
The pole languished for years, but Lorraine was determined to honour her first husband’s legacy. Around 10 years ago, Gitxsan carver Dan Yunkws, who apprenticed with noted Gitxsan artist Phillip Jane and master carvers Walter Harris and Earl Muldon, agreed to take on the project.
He completed the pole, but it would still be years before it was actually raised.
“After Dan finished it, another decade passed, the pole lay horizontal in the village in the weather,” she said. “And so yes, it was covered with lichen. And it was, like, weathered cedar gray.”
Again, she set out to make sure Larry’s vision would come to fruition.
“It’s very sort of just feeling like it really needed to be raised, needed to be finished needed to be acknowledged,” she said.
This time Kispiox artist Art Wilson and emerging artist Ryan Lilly, a Grade 10 student from the Frog clan (the same as Hnidan) stepped up.
“It was very exciting because they did a supreme, amazing job,” Lorraine said, noting that the whole community got behind it.
“The relationship that exists in terms of, of promoting, you know, healthy, celebratory, like, you know, the excitement of the culture and acknowledging, you know, what ceremony take place to kind of have an event like this. And it’s so something that, you know, couldn’t have happened without all the people who were involved in it, like the people who actually finished the call now to bring to the date of what it looks like now. is stunning.
The pole was raised April 21, 30-odd years after Larry conceived it, with a solemn, but joyous ceremony followed by a feast. Both of Larry’s sons, Lucas (26) and Louie (23), were present.
While the pole has been raised, for Lorraine, the project is not complete. Larry intended to carve two poles representing all the clans. The current one has a frog at the base, an adult woman in the middle and an eagle at the top.
There are currently no concrete plans for a second pole, but she does want to see it happen.
She is hoping, “young folks like Ryan Lilly, who are very gifted and very community-driven, because already he’s doing workshops, making rattles, and drums and community…” will get together and take on the second pole.