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Meaning behind the Reconciliation Pole and Welcome Figures

The meaning behind the Reconciliation Pole is to unite everyone - nə́c̓aʔmat ct - 'we are one’ as we walk forth continuing to learn and understand what reconciliation means in education. A Reconciliation Pole, similar to a totem pole, tells a story about a person and what they did for their tribe, as you read it from top to bottom.

In Musqueam culture, Welcome Figures welcome visitors to our territory. The original poles were house posts and placed at the entrances of our house - right at the doorway inviting you in, welcoming you. The Welcome Figures create a visible and welcoming presence to Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff, parents and students who visit the Education Centre.

The three poles pay homage to all Indigenous nations in Canada including Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, as well as néhiyaw, Metis and Anishinaabe.

From L to R: Female Welcome Figure, Reconciliation Pole, Male Welcome Figure

Below are the artists’ description of their artwork and the meaning behind each symbol.  

Reconciliation Poles

Female Welcome Figure

Male Welcome Figure

Reconciliation Pole | By Rick and James Harry

This Truth and Reconciliation pole which we may now call a totem pole, is a 44-foot tall red cedar from upper Squamish, estimated to be 350-years-old, or more. The pole was carved together with my son, James Harry. I carved the top half and my son carved the bottom, we met together in the middle, which we worked on together.

 The symbols on the Reconciliation Pole from top to bottom are displayed as follows:

  • Thunderbird & Mother Earth: represents the Creator (the Great Spirit) protecting Mother Earth
  • Coast Salish eye: represents the Creator watching over us
  • Frog: represents the communicator passing down traditions to future generations
  • Cedar woven blanket: represents interweaving all cultures together
  • Buffalo head: represents all First Nations people
  • Eagle: represents vision, wisdom and power.
  • Bear & Ancestor: represents strength and remembering our history

Thunderbird

The first idea that came to mind was that the Creator (the Great Spirit), represented through the Thunderbird, is on the top coming down fast. It is leaning and diving quickly with its wings folded behind it. The wings transform into hands, and they hold onto Mother Earth, which is being guarded from harm.

During the process, the earth carving actually got a crack in the cedar. I believe it is the Creator showing us what is happening to the world. The Creator is coming down fast to send us a message that we need to do something immediately to make changes. The Creator is telling is that we all need to come together to make positive change in the world so we can move forward as human beings.

Coast Salish eye

Below the Thunderbird, is the Coast Salish eye, which is represented by a circle with crescent shapes on either side. This eye is to remind us that we are always being watched by the Creator, the ancestors, the community, our family, our friends and ourselves. Being watched by oneself is important because it is your conscience and that leads us in understanding that we all have a part in this responsibility - what is to be true, what is real.

Frog

Below the eye is a frog, this is the communicator and the transformer, the translator. It is coming down to remind us of our ancient ways and to transfer the knowledge to future generations. In our culture we always had to look back seven generations from ourselves. We are reminded that as we move forward in our lives, others behind us will have something, too.  What we have they should have, too.

Cedar Woven Blanket

As we move down the pole, I collaborated with my son James to design a cedar woven blanket, like a sash, covering the heart area. In my culture, a person who wears the blanket over the heart means they are conducting a sacred ceremony for the family. In this case, we are working for the Vancouver School Board, but we are also working for the generations that aren’t here yet; There is lots of work to be done around Truth and Reconciliation.

The interweaving of the blanket represents all the cultures that are woven together. A weaving pattern is something universal between all cultures of the world - weaving culture; weaving spirit. It represents the interconnectedness of all things. That we, nature and mother earth are not separate -- but part of a larger whole. We all have to become one strength, one spirit, one mind, one body.  Intermingling with one another will assist in creating dialogue to come together and think as one and move forward as one. This also came through in our engagement with the public during the carving process. We were open and willing to share our knowledge and culture to bridge the gap, to educate, and to show how we can all connect.

Buffalo head

Below the blanket is a buffalo head. Traditionally, Coast Salish people do not carve buffalos on totem poles. However, we carved a buffalo this time to represent other First Nations peoples, who consider the buffalo as their sacred animal that is closely connected to the Creator. The buffalo is scared to those who live across the Rocky Mountains and along the plains and further east and down in the American side. While the buffalo has a place on our pole for those nations, we actually wish to honour all First Nations peoples, since they all lived on the lands before any other person voyaged here.

Eagle

Below the buffalo is an eagle, which symbolizes vision, wisdom, and power. Vision because the eagle can soar highest in the sky. Our ancestors said that the eagle could communicate with the Creator. 

Mother bear

On the bottom of the pole is an ancestor being held by a mother bear. This represents all the ancestors before us in a symbolic way that refers to the past. The bear symbolizes strength and she is at the bottom because she is holding up the rest of the pole up. Our strength lies in our history, and that is also why she is at the bottom. The bear protects her young as an instinct to bring them into the future; a strong and healthy life. Many of our Indigenous youth need this strength to move into the future. Understanding where you come from and how that impacts your life is important to understanding place, identity, and, how you can affect the future. 

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Female Welcoming Figure | By Chrystal & Chris Sparrows 

The female Coast Salish Welcoming Figure is a 300-year-old red cedar tree that comes from the Squamish Territory and was brought forward with a respectful ceremony of gratitude for this project. She stands as a testament to bring education and reconciliation together, as a way to move forward, for all multi-cultural communities to learn the importance of relationship building.

She represents our grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters and daughters here on the West Coast of Vancouver, BC and on the unceded Coast Salish territory. She also encompasses this representation for other First Nations and non-First Nations women. 

At the top of the Welcome Figure is a Coast Salish killer whale. The whale represents the Salish Sea, where there is salmon, a traditional food source and sustenance for the people on the West Coast. The design of the whale has a warrior face in place of the blow hole to signify the strong relationship between the warrior and killer whale from past transformation legends. The red and black paint used on the whale are traditional Indigenous colours and the copper represents healing.

At the bottom of the Welcome Figure is a women wearing a traditional cedar hat and a long cedar blanket with Coast Salish form lines. The additional designs on the cedar blanket include colours and art forms from the Cree and Ojibwa cultures to respect other First Nations’ presence. The female Coast Salish welcoming figure is a strong woman who carries openness to all cultures and respectful teachings.

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Male Welcoming Figure | By William & Eric Dan

The goal of the male Welcome Figure is to welcome all people to Vancouver, as we have a lot of people from many backgrounds coming here. I carved the male holding a salmon as it is also feeding everyone he welcomes. Visitors would have been on the water for a long time and the fresh salmon would be a nice welcoming gesture. 

At the bottom of the male figure is a beaver, who is the builder of homes and looks after his family. Beavers build homes big enough to store food for the winter and feed their young, until they come out in the spring. I heard this story about the beaver many years ago in Chehalis, where there used to be a lot of beavers. An old man told me that story when I was just a young man. What you learn as a young man comes back to you when you get older.

The colours used on the male figure come from the Southwest Indians. I carved down there when I was younger and began to use the colours more and more in my work.

Reconciliation in education is hard for me to think about as I experienced boarding school and was taken from my family when I was young. I have a hard time with it as I lost my language, and the experience was painful. Reconciliation to me is about acknowledging what happened to me and healing myself. Working on this project, which will be my last, has made me happy. The figure turned out better than I expected!

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