photos: Photo courtesy of the Sacred Circle Society.

It takes a village to raise a totem pole

Heartbeats: Murdered and Missing Women, survivors, and the Downtown Eastside honoured in Survivors Totem Pole

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Haida carver Skundaal has lately felt a sense of loss when coming to the Sacred Circle studio on West Cordova. The feeling crept in after the Survivors Totem Pole was moved out of the studio last November and raised during a ceremony in Pigeon Park. Skundaal recalls the outpouring of community members to the event and how the apprentice carvers spontaneously danced around the totem pole before it was raised.

Now plastic bags full of cedar chips sit on the studio floor where the totem pole was once laid. It was “quirky”, says Skundaal, whose English name is Bernie Williams, but before carving she would lie with her arms wrapped around the 982-year-old cedar log and ask, “What is our journey today?”

The totem pole has had a long journey involving many people. Skundaal, who led the design and carving, is quick to credit Mark Townsend, former co-executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, with the vision. Concerned about displacement and a lack of adequate housing, he hoped the totem pole would empower the Downtown Eastside community.

Traditionally, the peoples of the Northwest Coast erected totem poles to communicate family histories and status.

In modern times, totem poles take on new meanings. The Survivors Totem Pole is unique as it represents all groups in the Downtown Eastside that face oppression and racial injustice. Audrey Siegl, who is Musqueam First Nation and a Sacred Circle board member, says it “is a symbol not just of hope, but of strength and unity—and that we do matter. We matter to each other.”

Elders from the Japanese, Chinese, South Asian, and Latin American communities were involved in the design and planning of the totem pole. The Sacred Circle Society also consulted with the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil Wau-Tuth First Nations, adhering to their protocols. And as the Haida are a matriarchal society, Skundaal consulted with the Haida matriarchs.

But it was a long journey for Skundaal to be able to do what she loves most: carve.

As a 13-year-old, she watched Robert Davidson carve the first totem pole in 90 years in Haida Gwaii. She knew then that she wanted to be a carver, except in Haida culture women are not permitted to carve. Being told she was not allowed merely deepened her determination to prove that she could. “I just always wanted to,” says Skundaal. “I guess I was a rebel.”

That rebellious spirit led her to become the only female carver to apprentice with the late Haida artist Bill Reid. She greatly admired his work and decided to ask for an apprenticeship. By then she was a mother with three sons and remembers pushing her youngest in a stroller as she walked to Reid’s studio on Granville Island. Reid turned her away. She kept going back. Finally, he hired her.

For her first assignment, Reid gave Skundaal argillite and wood and asked her to carve something. She presented two carvings that he threw in the garbage.

His seemingly flippant response angered Skundaal, yet she recalls what he said next: “I’m giving you your first lesson. Never get complacent with your work.”

She carries that lesson with her, and the Survivors Totem Pole is her largest undertaking yet. She has carved 12 totem poles—two stand in Vancouver at Van Tech Secondary and First United Church. These totem poles, like her most recent work, were carved with high-risk youth and marginalized women.

Watching these first-time carvers—nine women and three men—transform strengthened her belief that “culture saves lives.” Siegl agrees with the adage.

She believes the cultural void—a legacy of colonialism perpetuated by a capitalist society—is one of the root causes of the current fentanyl crisis. The Sacred Circle Society tries to fill that void by providing space and equipment for indigenous cultural practices and art making.

In the studio, Skundaal points to drafting tables, an airbrush gun, and array of art materials. She lights up when she shows samples of the copper and silver jewelry she has been making. Other women come to Sacred Circle to make cedar hats, button blankets, and regalia out of elk hide, or simply to hang out in a safe space for a few hours. But the building is being redeveloped and the group must move. “We do a lot of good work in here,” says Skundaal. “Where do we go?”

The question ties into broader themes of displacement and gentrification that threaten the Downtown Eastside.

Because the community’s story is still unfolding, Skundaal purposely left the Bear Mother depicted at the base of the Survivors Totem Pole unfinished. In Haida legend, the Bear Mother protects and cares for her twin cubs. “The Bear Mother is a sign of strength,” says Skundaal. “She holds everybody up.” Skundaal embodies the Bear Mother.

She walks the streets checking in with community members and has dedicated decades to advocating on behalf of the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Their photos cover a studio wall. Looking up at the wall through black-rimmed glasses, Skundaal sighs. The photos will be brought down before the move. A burning ceremony has been planned to honour these sisters, mothers, and daughters.

In the meantime, sage and cedar will be delivered to the studio. Siegl will use these traditional medicines in smudging ceremonies with community members and frontline workers at the centre of the fentanyl crisis.

The sense of loss in the face of this uphill battle for justice and equality is felt deeply by these strong, determined women. “I’m an artist. I’m a frontline worker. That’s what I do,” says Skundaal. “I care about the people. I do everything that I can to try to make this a better, safer place for them.”

Skundaal is also known by her English name, Bernie Williams, and her Haida name, Gul Kitt Jaad. She invites anyone who can assist the Sacred Circle to find a new space to contact: info@sacredcirclesociety.ca

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