Tsartlip elders Daniel and Lila Sam bless each story pole at the project’s unveiling on National Aboriginal Day. (Alisa Howlett/News staff)

Stelly’s art project highlights First Nations culture on the Peninsula

In celebration of Aboriginal Day Stelly’s Secondary School unveiled its Story Pole Project.

What were once four, ordinary – if not ugly – purple pillars are now culturally rich works of art.

Four local First Nations artists, one from each band on the Peninsula, collaborated with Stelly’s Secondary students in the First Nations art classes to unveil the Story Pole Project on National Aboriginal Day. Each artist created an image to represent an important story from their band. These images, along with an adze wood finish, were installed on the four structural pillars in the school’s Learning Commons.

On Wednesday, June 21 Tsartlip elders Daniel and Lila Sam blessed each pole among a gathering of students, faculty, local dignitaries and other members of the First Nations.

“When I look at each pole, it brings back memories – memories of my grandparents, my way of life,” Daniel said to the group. “With the teachers, the white students – we want to be as one, one spirit.”

Each pole tells a story: artist Chris Paul’s (Tsartlip) work depicts a raven, salmon and human faces, representing the beautiful west coast and the privilege of raising children here; artist Doug LaFortune’s (Tsawout) work depicts a heron, representing the coast and what he sees everyday from his home on the water; artist James Jimmy’s (Tseycum) work depicts a bear, otherwise known as the protector, and represents strength and family; and artist Mark Henry’s (Pauquachin) work depicts a pod of whales, representing the importance of togetherness.

Kathy Horn LaFortune, another local artist, says the posts signify the four corners of a house and the cross-beams signify the support of a house, adding the adze wood finish is a realistic touch based on what First Nations homes used to look like. Each post is positioned in the direction of the First Nations it represents.

Two Tsawout students involved in the project, Damon Underwood and Cameron Mawson, both say working with the local artists was like nothing they’d previously experienced.

“We learned so much about where the art has been,” says Underwood. “They taught us to make our own style, not to copy others, but to keep our heritage … the artists have the heritage and they wanted to share it with us – where we were from, our people.”

Over the course of the four weeks the artists worked with the students, they not only taught art techniques, but shared stories of their people and culture.

“It wasn’t just taught, it was felt,” Underwood says.

Both students are graduating next year and hope to see more projects like this for future students.

“When I started in grade nine there wasn’t really anything like this, but now there’s a lot more cultural activities. My little brother will be going here soon so I want to leave a mark for him,” says Underwood. “It means everything to me; family and culture comes first. We’ve been through so much as a people, we’re not just going to let our culture die.”

Mawson, who followed in his older sister’s footsteps by leading the school’s powwow this year, agreed, saying culture is his life and he wants to leave a legacy for others.

The art will also serve as a teaching tool for future students to learn about First Nations culture, said Principal Sally Hansen.

The project was made possible through grant funding from the Vancouver Foundation and the Sheldon Gilmour Foundation. A second phase of the project has already been drafted and librarian Alice Kedves says it’s only a matter of time until it’s seen through.


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Tsartlip elders Daniel and Lila Sam bless the pole in Stelly’s Learning Commons created by Tsawout artist Doug LaFortune. (Alisa Howlett/News staff)

Cameron Mawson (left) and Damon Underwood worked with four local First Nations artists on the Story Pole Project at Stelly’s Secondary School. Both students agree that their Tsawout culture is the most important to them and they hope similar projects will be considered for future students. Here they stand in front of a pole created by Pauquachin artist Mark Henry. (Alisa Howlett/News staff)

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