He said he hoped we would spread this story. He came from Alaska to tell us. He said he would pass it on himself as well.
On National Aboriginal Day in Whitehorse, Yukon, Wayne Price told us the story of the giant wooden totem pole he was standing in front of. The one he carved.
He told us he was asked to make a healing totem pole. He is a master carver – something others call him, not a title he uses himself – so he had made several totem poles before. But he’d never made a healing one.
He told us he didn’t know how to do that.
How do reflect pain, resilience, and strength all in the same piece of wood?
And that only touches on the aesthetic portion of the task, the physical carving.
How do you give a log healing properties?
Someone told him that you leave the pieces that are chipped off the log on the ground as its being built. You imagine that each fallen piece is someone who has passed, someone who is now beyond this life.
This totem pole stands a few metres high, easily. Imagine all the pieces. Thousands of pieces chipped off the log as it was formed into its shape.
Once the carving was done and the pole was physically complete, survivors from residential schools came to it for a ceremony. He told us they each grabbed a handful of chips from the ground, chips fallen from the log, and they put them into a fire.
It was their small way to honour those who never left the residential schools.
I’ve walked by this totem pole almost every day in the last three weeks I’ve spent here in Whitehorse. I’ve looked at it every day and wondered what each symbol meant, what the raven has in its mouth, what the children are doing, what the woman’s expression means.
The totem pole is a meeting point in the city, and a conversation starter. I chatted with a couple visiting Whitehorse about what the carved figures mean. None of us knew, so I asked more people later when I saw them nearby.
When Price was speaking though, I began to look at it with a different eye, knowing how it was built and why.
I found myself picturing how many hundreds, thousands of chips fell away from that pole. I pictured survivors’ hands almost overflowing with chips as they went to burn them in the fire.
Now I see the healing side of it when I walk by. It’s nothing I can really put my finger on. Something in the way the woman on the bottom looks at me, like she’s lost loved ones. Something about the expression of the child in between the dad’s legs, like his eyes are still fresh and innocent.
Still digesting Price’s words, I walked into the tent holding carved canoes on display for the Indigenous celebrations in the city. Someone had carved the frame of a kayak, to be wrapped in animal skin later.
The chips from the carving were still on the floor. Thousands of chips, and I was suddenly very aware that I was stepping on them. I felt myself curl inward as I moved to a place where there were fewer chips, the symbolism producing a physiological reaction.
But then I looked at the frame of the kayak, in a similar light to how I saw the totem pole.
It’s not thick, but it is strong. The bars are spread out but it is still unified.
I wish I could have witnessed the ceremony at the totem pole. I wish I had seen that healing, as the survivors put the chips into the fire. But Indigenous day was a healing ceremony of its own. People from all walks of life, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, young, old, local, foreign all came together to celebrate and remember. To reconcile, or at least begin to.
“This is a new day,” Price told the crowd gathered around the totem pole. “I’m just happy that in my recovery I get to experience a day like today.”