New day dawns for Coast Salish, Sumas, Church
By Alistair Burns
The B.C. Catholic
A new day dawned for reconciliation between the Coast Salish people, the Sumas nation, and the Church, May 26 when members of those communities unveiled a new "totem pole arch" at Fraser River Heritage Park in Mission. More than 300 listened to speeches from civic, religious, and native leaders.
"The Catholic community of St. Joseph's Parish, and Westminster Abbey is honoured to have supported this wonderful project which marks another step in the healing of those among the First Nations who still suffer from deep wounds," said pastor Father Alessandro Lovato. His parish was one of the main sources of support for the project.
The totems, each an impressive ten metres tall, were laid out on massive slats. An overhanging arch bridged the gap between the carved logs. A group of five worked ten hour days for six days a week to complete the project.
Raphael Silver, Jr., chief carver, explained, "We started the proposal back in March 2011. Once we got the log and started carving though, it came quite easily. The design started with a drawing and went on from there."
Silver highlighted the three prominent parts. First, each pole has a native dancer standing upright, with a masked face. In the Salish tradition, dancers are the strongest symbol of healing and celebration, whether for weddings or funerals.
Then, two salmon, one symbolically dead and the other alive, are situated on top of one of the dancers. Silver clarified the salmon represents change, and a reminder of the cycle of life. "Really with this carving, we want to change the native perspective of the Church and vice versa."
Lastly, the other dancer had two intertwined salamanders above. The creatures represent protection, both generally for the body, and the spirit. He remarked that hopefully the salamanders would provide a spiritual form of protection for the site.
The three-month project had just been completed, since cedar shavings had not been cleaned out of the nooks and crannies. Silver did have a wee bit of work left, as only one of the poles had been painted with sealant.
"I went to a residential school, and I never thought I would see carvings and the native language ever again presented in this way," declared Ray Silver, Raphael's grandfather.
"Can you imagine a little girl taken away from her parents and put into a school?" asked Millie Silver, Ray's wife. "A lot of things were taken away; we weren't proud to be Indian. We were the scum of the earth. But, we're trying to pass our culture down to our great-grandchildren."
In 1957, she graduated from St. Mary's, the residential school that had been on the Heritage Park site.
Mission Mayor Ted Adlem also paid his respects. "The Mission Heritage Association agreed with Silver that his (proposal) was the right thing to do, and approved the project. In terms of truth and reconciliation, this helps make everyone feel comfortable with issues from days gone by. The totems will be a very powerful symbol."
Father Lovato proclaimed, "This project shows a real openness from the native peoples. I think the totems represent a healing aspect; healing is ongoing, and needs an active effort. We move forward more closely united." He, and many other speakers, mentioned the importance of reconciliation.
"God desires to make us whole, and to restore us to right relationships with one another," Father Lovato continued. "His healing hand is extended through each of us - and beautifully depicted in the monument unveiled today."
Unfortunately, the arch and totems were scheduled to be set in concrete and raised upright the following week.
"A lot of these monuments are put into a museum or on a reserve. But this is there in a park for anyone to see for the next hundred years, to create awareness and facilitate public interaction," said Silver. "One of the main reasons I wanted to carve this was to honor my grandmother, now passed away. I grew up going to Catechism and Mass with her."
While not a devout Catholic anymore, he learned from her example to live in a positive way. "I see the world with an overlying good perspective, which I think is important."
The Fraser River Heritage Park is at 7494 Mary St. in Mission.