11 Apr Raising the Reconciliation Pole | April 1, 2017
Historically, the Pacific Northwest is home to the most linguistically diverse, wealthy, and sophisticated Aboriginal societies anywhere in the world. And because of the vast natural resources that sustained First Peoples here for thousands of years before recent European or Asian contact, Indigenous people were afforded the opportunity to become prolific artists and story-tellers who shared their wealth and abundance through elaborate cultural ceremonies.
One such ceremony was the the potlatch, during which hosts would share riches among their invited guests in honour of a marriage, birth, death, or even as a way to repair relationships damaged through insult. Potlatches were also a traditional and conventional way to pass on hereditary rights, histories, and cultural knowledge; or to witness such significant events as a totem pole raising.
But in an attempt to assimilate First Nations peoples into the Euro-centric cultures that were spread through colonization, the earliest of Canadian governments prohibited the potlatch through the Indian Act (1876) which made it a criminal offence for Indigenous Peoples to exercise their cultural practices in Canada. But there was something far more nefarious concerning the brutal relationship between newly arrived Europeans and the people who had lived in North America for hundreds of generations.
In the vein of assimilation, Aboriginal children of all ages were taken from their families and forced into residential schools where they were stripped of their Aboriginal identities, prevented from seeing their parents or relatives, forced to speak a foreign language, and force fed Christianity. With frightening frequency, young Aboriginal children were sexually, physically, and psychologically abused. Thousands died in residential schools. It was a decades long process of ethnic cleansing ending only as recently as 1996. Many of the characteristics of residential schools resembled the atrocities of the concentration camps created by the Nazis during the Second World War.
The damage was so severe and so widespread — not just to inviduals, but to Indigenous Peoples as a whole — that sustained national efforts are being made to try to heal the damage.
In this spirit, a special totem pole, the Reconciliation Pole, was commissioned by the University of British Columbia and a private donor to acknowledge and honour the victims, and survivors, of Canada’s residential schools. The pole’s creator, 7idansuu (Edenshaw) James Hart, hereditary Haida chief and master carver from Haida Gwaii, has created a work which tells the story of the time before, during, and after the residential school age. Carved from an ancient 800-year-old red cedar selected from the rainforest near 7idansuu’s home on Haida Gwaii, it stands 55’ tall, weighs more than 22,000 lbs., and took more than two years to create. Hundreds of people took part in its raising.
The Reconciliation Pole is an incredibly emotional work to behold, and witnessing its raising at UBC (unceded Musqueam Territory) was a once in a life-time opportunity. It was a distinct honour to take part in a cultural event of such deep historical significance for the peoples it represents and for those who feel that bearing witness to such an event is a small, significant step toward healing insufferable wounds.
Here are some photographs taken on April 1, 2017, I hope will help convey the significance of the event.