Holding his daughter, master carver Carey Newman watched as 100 volunteers heaved on lines, slowly lifting his 26-foot Thunderbird-capped totem to the sky.
When crews secured the totem to the ground and it took its place outside the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, the 37-year-old artist could finally see his work as it was meant to be – tall and upright in the world. He could also finally sleep.
“It was barely enough time. I worked through the night last night, and worked through the night before,” Newman said. “Then just before the rise, I noticed part of a figure’s nose had no paint.”
After six weeks of frenetic work to finish the piece to today’s deadline, and minutes before the totem raising ceremony, Newman dabbed on the final spots of colour and dried it with a hairdryer.
Following a ceremony with Kwakwaaka’wakw Nation elders, scores of young people braved the cold rain and pulled ropes weaved through pulleys in a choreographed lift that went off without a hitch.
The totem represents the Kwakwaaka’wakw Nation and sits near a pole installed last year representing the Coast Salish, also carved by Newman. A third totem planned for next year will represent the third First Nation family of Vancouver Island, the Nuu-chah-nulth.
“We are honouring the three nations of Vancouver Island and this (ceremony) is about hornouring those nations,” said Bruce Parisian, executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre. “This is one of the most important cultural events we have here. (Totems) are symbols of what happens in our community.”
Both totems are cut from the same tree, an 800-year-old cedar from the Nimpkish Valley and donated by the Kwakwaaka’wakw people. The cedar was six feet thick at its butt.
Carving the totem was an integral part of the Eagle project, a job and education readiness program at VNFC for youth and young adults. About 70 youth participated in hands-on carving of the pole over the past year, from the point of a raw log to where Newman’s practiced hand needed to take over.
“I’m pleased it got finished. I’m proud of the work the kids did,” Newman said. “Seeing it go up is a whole new experience. I’m used to seeing it on its back. Now I’m seeing it for the first time the way it was intended to be.”
The totem depicts a frog and a double-headed serpent on the bottom, wolves up the side, a mother and child, a whale, a bear and a Thunderbird (eagle) at the peak. Newman calls it “Na’ mima,” meaning “people of one kind.” He says the project was an intensely personal totem that traces the story of his family.
Newman, from a lineage of carvers, took inspiration too from his great-great grandfather Charlie James, a famed carver who helped teach Mungo Martin, himself famous for his collection of totems at Thunderbird Park outside the the Royal B.C. Museum.
“I took a few cues, some inspiration from the way (Charlie James) does the bear and the eagle, and the way the whale wraps around the totem,” he said. “It’s pieced together from a personal perspective. It’s built around my family.”
For more on the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, see vnfc.ca.