Tiičswina, We Survived!
Tin-Wis Hotel, Tofino, Tla-o-qui-aht Ha’huulthii
I was standing with Joe Martin, a Tla-o-qui-aht Master Canoe Carver, on the soft straw-colored sand of the Mackenzie Beach in front of the Tla-o-qui-aht owned and operated Tin-Wis Resort on the outskirts of Tofino. Until it was shut down and reclaimed by Tla-o-qui-aht Band Council, this was a site of one of several Indian Residential Schools operating in the area. For decades these government-funded and church-run institutions pursued the agenda of forced integration of various Nuu-chah-nulth groups from around Vancouver Island.
Throughout Canada, under the banner of assimilation of First Nations into the mainstream Canadian society, the Government made every effort to “kill the Indian in the child,” by forcefully separating children as young as two years old from their families for up to 15 years, forbidding the use of their native tongues, and punishing them for any signs of using traditional practices. The mental, and often sexual, abuses throughout the Canadian Residential School System amounted to the cultural genocide, the fact that the Canadian Government acknowledged only in 2008.
For years, there’s been little to remind anybody of the tragic chapter in the history of the Nation and Tla-o-qui-aht people. The only two buildings remaining from the original sprawling residential school complex have been remodeled into a hotel conference center and a maintenance shop. But this past spring, to celebrate the survivors of residential schools, Tla-o-qui-aht people raised a striking totem pole right in front of the Tin-Wis hotel. They called it Tiičswina, We Survived! The pole is a pyramid of crest animals from all Tla-o-qui-aht groups affected by the residential schools tragedy, from the tiniest mouse to the imposing bear. Joe Martin was the lead carver of the project. Joe David, one of Tla-o-qui-aht renowned carvers, created the totem pole’s top crest of the Sun, with the rest of the crests carved by Joe, his brother Carl, and several other artists.
“To us, the Tla–o-qui-aht people, our totem poles are our constitution,” explained Joe putting his hand on the muzzle of the lower crest, a bear-being embracing a salmon with its front paws. “It represents our rights and responsibilities based on the Natural Law, reflected in our understanding of the world where everything is connected – Hishuk Ish Tsawalk. The top crest of the totem pole in our tradition always features the Sun or the Moon. This is the first natural law and it is about respect — self-respect and respect for other people and beings. This teaching first comes down to us when we are still inside the womb of our mothers and our elders and parents speak to us then, and continue doing it throughout our lives.
“The second law is a fundamental part of each totem pole in our tradition. That is the Wolf, which is responsible for upholding the Natural Law, and is seen as one of the most important crests. Then, the two serpents have several meanings. It is the lightning in the sky as well as a mythical sea serpent. It also represents our teaching about being aware of everything around us. It reminds us of all the creatures that fly and walk in the world, and the laws of nature we all live and die under. This includes the concept Quu-us, which means, “Real live human beings”. As Quu-us, we are a link between past and future ancestors, and have inherited all of the medicines that sustain life both physically and spiritually. So, we are responsible for passing our inherited medicines onto future ancestors, and we are accountable to them and all living beings through the laws of nature and our communities’ living in accordance with the Natural Law. These teachings about our gratitude amd responsibility to our past and future ancestors.”
Stepping back from the totem pole to peer upwards at the Sun crest rising above the residential school site, now a popular hotel, Joe concluded, “All of this was taught to our people throughout our traditional education, called Ha-ho-pa from the moment we were conceived. This was the thread that connected us to our past and future ancestors.The residential schools did us real damage and it will take generations to recover what’s been lost.”
© Gleb Raygorodetsky 2013 for Land is Life