The cedar chips accumulate beside the yellow cedar pole that is being carved. They look like a mountain of matchsticks, rich in scent.
Squamish First Nations carver Rick Harry, or Xwalacktun, holds a miniature model in his open palm of the what will soon be carved in the wood of this great totem.
Xwalacktun is one of four artists chosen to be part of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre’s The Spirits Within Carving project. From January through March the carvers, which also includes Ray Natraoro, Aaron Nelson-Moody and Jonathan Joe, along with their apprentices, will be working on four yellow cedar carvings.
"I just love doing the work and the work acknowledges me at the end,” Xwalacktun said. “I believe it comes through to me from my ancestors, the creator. The creator is the creator of all living things, outside and beyond us, the creator of all.”
He said there are two events in his life that led to him becoming a carver. He once shot a bear and afterwards felt deep remorse, so he prayed for forgiveness with his heart and all his strength then in 1984 he became sober.
“These two strong events in my life let me become a carver and the bear I shot entered into my spirit,” he said.
Xwalacktun’s work can be distinguished by the Bear’s Paw symbol he uses a signature for his work. He said his father, who was a chief, began to call him Da-Shen, which means Bear’s Paw, after he had the experiences that led to his work as a carver.
As one of four artists in the carving project, he was chosen to carve a totem pole to represent the Squamish First Nation people. The totem is a 240-foot yellow cedar pole that has been separated in two. The two equal halves are to represent figures of the Squamish peoples: the salmon, the thunderbird and the human, and a rope to bind them together. The halves will be reunited by a strong glue and bolts as the symbol of unity and oneness.
"We never had a word in our language for art,” he said. “Everything was done for a reason, to pass on messages or our history. Traditionally with totems, even before the tree came down, our people would have a ceremony and bless the tree as we would be taking away its life, and when it was finished and put up again we would have our women clean it, purify and bless it to remove any negative energy, and as women are the life givers, they would be bringing the totem into its new life."
He said as a symbol the salmon traditionally teaches endurance, as their life is one of struggle. While the human figure on the totem must create stability to hold the pole straight.
“Our people and the land have always come together as one,” Xwalacktun said. “Our elders have always told us that whatever we have now, in seven generations, our people should have the same; we must maintain, and keep it for them.
“Our ancestors gave us these teaching so we can pass them on.”
The thunderbird is also a powerful symbol at the top of the totem, explained Xwalacktun.
“Thunderbird is a creator, bigger than us, a supernatural,” he said. “Taking a form of an eagle, but has a crown to symbolize its greatness, and watches over us.
“A rope of one strength. And it twirls around the pictographs of our past. You always have to carry that past, your history, your people.”
Xwalacktun was recently recognized for his work with a Queen’ Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, presented to him last Wednesday (Jan. 23). Prior to that in September he was inducted into the Order of British Columbia.
The SLCC Spirits Within project selected Xwalacktun as a master carver to create a sculpture to demonstrate the significant of the Coastal and Interior Salish cultures as part of the educational and cultural revitalization activities taking place at the centre.
SLCC guest services coordinator Josh Anderson said the carvers are like family to those at the centre already.
“The artists will be here on a daily basis, they are like family and friends to us,” he said. “It is their presence, what they bring to the people and to us — we look up to them as mentors. I feel overjoyed.”
The project itself is the result of grant funds of $161,000 received last summer from the Department of Canadian Heritage.
"We are very happy,” said director of development for the SLCC Sarah Goodwin “The generous funds have been given to us to share the traditional knowledge and important value of the coastal cultures; with it, we will be able to enhance our visitors’ experience."
The following slideshow of photographs of Xwalacktun was taken and compiled by photographer David Buzzard