Community members and college staff gathered to raise a totem pole outside the new student housing building, Wii Gyemsiga Siwilaawksat, meaning where learners are content, at the Coast Mountain College Terrace campus, Aug. 31.
The gathered crowd applauded as the totem pole was slowly lifted upright to take its place in front of the building. The design honours the Tsimshian territory of the Kitsumkalum Laxghibuu Clan where it stands, and features a wolf and bear. A matriarch figure is placed between the wolf’s ears and at the base of the pole is a male figure holding a copper shield.
“What’s really important was that we found the next generation of carvers to continue,” said Dempsey Bob, a Tahltan and Tlingit master carver and senior advisor to the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, putting the event in context.
“It’s really important because culture is who we are. What my grandmother said was culture, it’s in our blankets, it’s in our drums, it’s in our bracelets, it’s in our masks, it’s in our totem poles.
“When we do show our art we’re showing our family’s face. Our clan’s face… Our ancestors left us a great, great art form and a great culture and that’s what’s important today is that we’re still here. We’re still doing it.”
The the new student housing art and totem pole are part of a legacy that started with the founding of the Freda Diesing School in 2006 by Bob, who was one of Haida carver Freda Diesing students, and his nephews, Ken McNeil and Stan Bevan.
Bevan, a Tsimshian, Tahltan and Tlingit master carver, designed the pole and worked with his team of alumni, Brian McKee (Tsimshian), James Lewis (Tsimshian and Tahltan), and Kobe Antoine (Nedut’en), to create it.
“It’s a good feeling for us as instructors and teachers of the art to see the progress of how many (students) have gone to the school and how many are being successful in the art today,” Bevan said. “Sharing our art is an education.”
In addition to the totem pole outside the building Bevan pointed to more than 70 pieces of artwork placed throughout the new building, noting that art was also created for the newly renovated library.
“I can’t say enough about the alumni that we have, there is so much talent and dedication. It’s incredible,” said McNeil, who is a Tahltan, Tlingit and Nisga’a master carver and instructor with the Freda Diesing School.
“The artwork that is put up here is second to none.”
In 2018, Coast Mountain College’s First Nations council asked that new student housing reflect the culture, language, ceremony and land-based practices of the region. This vision became reality when the building opened in 2021.
Bruce Denis, who worked as project lead for the building, said it was clear since their first meeting that First Nations wanted the building to feel like home for students.
“The path from that day, through planning, design and construction was paved with learning, with empathy, with open hearts and open minds,” Denis said, adding that the project was led by Indigenous people.
“The spaces inside this building support Indigenous students, the design is a modern expression of Indigenous themes, the signage has Indigenous language and the walls are adorned with the crests and stories of Indigenous artists.
“It is a house built with purpose.”
Nicole Halbauer, who is chair of the Coast Mountain College board of governors and also goes by her Tsimshian name, X’staam Hana’ax, talked about the importance of decolonising space at the university.
“Here we are today celebrating, claiming this space and celebrating what it is to be Tsimshian in our territory.”
Coast Mountain College President Laurie Waye said raising the totem pole symbolizes a strengthening of the college’s ties to Indigenous communities in northwest B.C. “It is the goal of the college to build and rebuild trust,” Waye said.
“I’ve actually been here long enough to remember the early design of this building and it was nothing like this… It shows what we can do with listening and with sharing ideas and just trying to do better all the time. We will do better.”
The pole raising was followed by dance and drumming performances and, later, a traditional feast including smoked salmon, fry bread, and seasonal fruit prepared by culinary students as part of their learning.
“We’re pulling the pride of our people back up and sitting it on this land, where there was totem poles before from our ancestors. The pole raising day is always a special day. It’s a great day,” Dempsey Bob said.
“What we did in this school is historic.”
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