John Marston’s nutsamuut syaays welcome figure was unveiled at Ladysmith Secondary School to a foyer packed with students, community members, and dignitaries. The unveiling lasted for only a few hours, but it celebrated several years of work.
Eleven years ago, LSS embarked on the journey of including Coast Salish teachings in a classroom context. LSS began work with Pearl and Roxanne Harris from Stzu’minus. Following those discussions came the Land and Language program, taught by elder Mandy Jones, and William Taylor.
Taylor, alongside Moira Dolan wrote a grant application to secure funding for the program. Jones, who’s traditional name is yutustanaat, which means “comes with a smile”, was the recipient of the Premiers Award for Excellence in Indigenous Education for her work with LSS. The Land and Language program teaches LSS students foundations of the hul’q’umi’num’ language, as well as teachings from the Coast Salish seasonal cycle. (Written hul’q’umi’num’ words are all lowercase, including names).
“yutusanaat gave me beautiful teachings around working together,” Taylor said. “Working together is an earned thing. It’s not like you have to prove yourself, but you have to work long enough in the right way. If you’re working in the right way with an open heart and mind, then the work goes well…Before we even met with John, we needed to learn what working together meant from a Coast Salish perspective.”
Former Ladysmith Mayor Rob Hutchins connected LSS with Marston. Hutchins knew about Marston’s work in Chemainus because Hutchins was a school board trustee for SD79. When Taylor and Jones proposed the project to Marston, he was immediately interested.
“Working with school districts as a First Nations artist is a bit of a new thing,” Marston said. “As we went through this project we learned together how to do that in a respectful way, and not just in a scenic way.”
At the time, Marston was seeking ways to include positive Indigenous influences in schools. In past projects, he felt that the element of inclusion wasn’t as strong as this project. Each step of the nutsamuut project was inclusive.
The nutsamuut syaays figure came from a 40-foot old growth cedar tree. Cedar is an important medicine in Coast Salish teachings. It is said that cedar will always grant you what you need when you ask for it. Marston requested an old growth cedar for the project, and within a week, they found the cedar. The mill worker who prepared the log said that they would be unlikely to see a tree of that age and that quality cut again in their lifetime.
“Our cedar is alive, no matter where he is. He’s alive here,” Jones said. “It’s not that we’re losing him, we didn’t lose a log, he’s still with us… he was a gift given to us. Whenever we need something it comes. We needed a way of teaching, and what a better way to teach than to show. The cedar is still teaching us, still giving us medicine.”
“I think about all the experiences I’ve went through in the past four-and-a-half, five years, and that’s part of the medicine I’ve recieved — the friendships that have been created because of the project,” Marston said.
Initially, Marston had planned only a 16-foot figure, but Martston and LSS didn’t want to waste the cedar, so they cut the log in half. One half was used to make house beams for the foyer, which are representative of Coast Salish big houses. The beams feature depictions of eagles, and show LSS is a house of learning. The other half was carved into the nutsamuut figure, which is also an eagle. Both the beams and the initial carving work of nutsamuut syaays were done in the LSS foyer. Students were encouraged to become involved in the project.
Work was also done to create a cedar weave with the help of LSS students, led by Marston. The weave is expected to be completed in the fall and will accompany nutsamuut syaays and the house beams. The Land and Language program created a Coast Salish loom for weaving wool blankets.
It took Marston four and a half years to complete the figure. The figure was transported from LSS to Marston’s carving space at the Ladysmith Waterfront Galley, and then transported back to LSS once it was finished. Fortis BC provided transportation for nutsamuut syaays on both occasions. Once nutsamuut syaays returned to LSS, Marston, Taylor, and several others worked to erect the figure, and attach its wings for the unveiling ceremony.
The figure was unveiled in ceremony on Thursday, June 20, the last day of class for LSS. The foyer and upper balcony area were packed with students and community members waiting to witness the culmination of the project. Stz’uminus Chief John Elliot, Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, Ladysmith MLA Doug Routley, and SD68 Superintendent Scott Saywell were in attendance, as were several Stz’uminus elders.
Routley presented Marston a document on behalf of B.C. Premier John Horgan thanking Marston for his work on the nutsamuut syaays figure.
Each of the speakers touched on the importance of the nutsamuut syaays figure in educating future generations of students about the Indigenous history of the area. LSS principal Dave Travers took the opportunity to challenge LSS students to live up to the ideals nutsamuut represents.
“As we do our unveiling today, I want to challenge you,” he said. “It’s not good enough that we are a caring community, we need to be caring. It’s not good enough to say, ‘I’m not a racist’, you have to be against racism. It’s not good enough to say, ‘oh we’re a welcoming school’, as demonstrated today, we need to be welcoming… My challenge to each student, each staff member, and community member is that when you walk into this building, you say ‘I’m going to take action. I’m going to be.”
At the end of the ceremony, witnesses were called to speak. In Coast Salish prorotcol, witnesses are named at the beginning of ceremony. It is the witnesses job to report back on the events to their community and share what they’ve seen. Stz’uminus elder Dianna Sampson was called as a witness, and she shared what nutsamuut syaays meant to her, after years living in the community.
“I was born and raised here on the Stz’uminus tumuxw [land] in 1946. I’ve been here all my life in silence. In silence of my own hul’q’umi’num’ language because the residential school came in and took all my siblings away from me. But I stand here today to thank you all from the Town of Ladysmith. I thank all of you for all your words. I thank all the teachers who have the strength to come in to teach our indigenous people, our children. We need these children of ours to be strong because of the genocide of Canada… We don’t need any racism any more,” Sampson said.
“I spoke my hul’q’umi’num’ language when I was young. My father was a fisherman, he was a carver, he lived off the land, and he’d make medicine. This is medicine right here, this cedar… It’s a recognition of our people to have that respect, peace, and love.”