After years of planning, a commemoration and healing totem pole honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women will be raised at a highway pullout on Kitsumkalum territory west of Terrace in September.
The totem pole is not just for missing and murdered Indigenous women — in a way, it’s also for missing and murdered people of all ages, colours and genders, as well as for two-spirit and LGBTQ people. That’s because totem poles represent fluid, metaphorical ideas and should not be interpreted in direct, concrete terms, said Mike Dangeli, the lead artist carving the totem pole.
“The reading isn’t necessarily ‘this means this’ or ‘this equals this’ like in the English language,” he said.
Arlene Roberts, who is a key organizer of the memorial totem pole and Dangeli’s mom, said the physical monument is less important than the message it sends.
“It’s time to have the courage and step forward in saying ‘No more. No more stolen sisters.’ It’s time to make a cultural statement, a traditional statement,” she said. “What we’re talking about is honouring the families, and it’s treasuring the souls and spirits of the stolen sisters and boys and men, it’s honouring the two-spirited LGBTQ … and they’re not just First Nations. There are non-First-Nations who are going missing as well.”
The idea to create a memorial came from Gladys Radek, a local advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women. After her niece Tamara Chipman disappeared near Prince Rupert in 2005, Radek started organizing awareness walks — including a walk from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, and a walk across Canada. Eventually, Radek became involved with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls as an advisor and as an advocate for families coming forward to share stories.
During all that hard work that began years ago with awareness walks, she said, she always envisioned creating a memorial for families in the Northwest.
“This is kind of closing the circle for me from the walks,” she said. “I wanted a space where our families could go, to find a little bit of healing, a little bit of peace, and a little bit of honouring their loved ones.”
Dangeli, an artist with Nisga’a, Tsimshian, Tlingit and Tsetsaut heritage, has been working on the totem pole under a tent in his back yard on Terrace’s Southside since September, alongside his adult sons Michael Dangeli and Nick Dangeli. He’s carved more than 20 totem poles but never one so close to home in the Northwest, he said.
The 24-foot totem pole is is not fully carved yet, but some of the figures are starting to take shape. Dangeli pointed out the main and largest figure on the totem pole, a young woman who will have a red dress and face paint. She will represent missing and murdered indigenous women. Above her is a matriarch figure. The bottom figure, which is a crucial figure because it bears the weight of the totem pole, is a killer whale, to acknowledge that the totem pole will be on Kitsumkalum killer whale clan territory. Many other figures will adorn the totem pole when it is ready.
Originally the totem pole was meant to be completed in time for a June 5 raising ceremony, but the ceremony was postponed until September because of the pandemic. That was fortunate, Dangeli said, because it allowed the artistic team to slow down their timeline and work with extra care.
“Because of the energy and the subject matter, it’s really important that we get it done right,” he said. “My sons, before we even touched it in the raw log form, I took them out on the Skeena River, and we did ritual bathing.”
“When it was just still a log but shaped out to be a pole … We had the kids come down and sweep it with cedar boughs, and again, water from the Skeena, just to bless it and we had elders and chiefs and matriarchs come down to just get it in a good way.”
The raising ceremony will take place Sept. 4 and Sept. 5 in what Dangeli called a “virtual potlatch” to accommodate pandemic precaution measures.
The totem pole will be raised on Sept. 4, and the following day dancers, chiefs and matriarchs will breath life into the totem pole.
Only a small group of people will be physically present at any given time, but the event will be live-streamed by CFNR so anyone can participate from home.
The memorial totem pole project has received plenty of funding and other support, Roberts said.
She is grateful to co-organizers Marc Snelling and Wanda Good, as well as Highway of Tears families, friends and walkers, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (where she also works), Kitsumkalum chiefs and matriarchs, Women and Gender Equality Canada, and B.C.’s ministry of transportation.
“We’ve just had some incredible people coming along the line and saying, ‘What can we do? How can we help you paddle, make this journey in this canoe?’” Roberts said.