“We are all one. No matter whether the color of our skin is brown, black, white, red, yellow; no matter whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist; no matter where we come from. We are all one,” said artist and former timber businessman David Syre welcoming guests to the dedication of the 38-foot story pole he commissioned to stand on his Whatcom County farm.
I was fortunate to have been among the 100 who attended that recent rainy day having been invited by a friend who was the guest of the artist, Lummi carver Felix Solomon. I had met Solomon just the week prior at his home where he graciously took me out to his workshop where the totem lay awaiting transport to its new home. The 35-foot cedar log had been transformed by Solomon over the past several months from a rough piece of timber into a majestic and colorful totem. Solomon had been given little guidance by the commissioning Syre, leaving it up to the master carver to come up with the figures and design for the pole.
Solomon drew on his familiarity with the work of carver Joseph Hillaire, in carving this pole, to carve both sides of the pole instead of just one. Hillaire (1894-1967) is regarded as one of the greatest Coast Salish artists and carvers of the 21st century. His work was extensive but may be best remembered for his two friendship poles carved for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, one of which went to Kobe, Japan where it was placed. Hillaire and a generation of Lummi carvers ahead of him instituted what is known as ‘story poles,’ according to Seattle Art Museum curator Barbara Bretherton. The poles are tall like totem poles but they tell a story.
Solomon’s story pole represents “The Creation of Life Story.” At the top of the pole is the eagle, the being that flies closest to the spirit world but is still connected to the earth, according to Solomon. The moon in its talons represent feminine energy and the reproductive cycles.
Directly below are placed the faces of five animals found on Mount Baker, the Nooksack River and in the Salish Sea–the wolf, the mountain goat, the bear, the cougar and the sea wolf or Orca.
Next comes the design which Solomon received special permission to use in this pole, the Sun Dog, which was on the door of the Lummi Nation chief when they signed the Treaty of 1855 with the United States. In that treaty, the Lummi relinquished much of their native homeland but they retained the rights to the natural resources found there, specifically the salmon, and have seen themselves as protectors of these resources ever since. It is one reason the Lummi Nation has been a key activist in local, state and regional environmental issues.
Below the Sun Dog design is a concave oval that Solomon says represents the Lummi elders and ancestors. The crescents on the side are the voices that pass down the tribe’s stories from one generation to
On the back side of the pole are rain clouds that pour into the Nooksack River with the River Woman holding a basket of life in her hands. At the bottom can be seen spirit dancers, two-legged humans who were the last to be created.
Solomon has received considerable recognition for his carvings and creations. One of his ‘story poles’ is located in Bellingham’s International Airport; another can be found in the Silver Reef casino in Ferndale, Wa. The National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. honored him for his canoe carvings. But the Creation of Life Story pole is the largest piece he’s done to date.
In order to accommodate the 39-foot cedar log from which the totem was carved, Solomon had to expand his workshop by building on an addition. The massive totem took Solomon months to hand carve once he worked out the design. It had to be specially engineering with hidden reinforcements from the bottom so that it would stand securely once positioned into place. Just sliding the pole from Solomon’s workshop and hoisting it carefully onto a flat-bed truck for transport to the Syre farm was in itself an engineering feat. Solomon gratefully recognized those responsible for that part of the project during the dedication ceremony.
Originally, the ceremony had been planned to take place around the totem. But rain forced organizers to move it to under the tent that had been erected for the grilled salmon luncheon that followed. Before the ceremonies began, Beverly Cagey brushed the pole with branches of cedar, blessing it while her husband, Jack and their grandson, Hank, accompanied with singing a chant and drumming.
Guests gathered beneath the big tent, just steps away from the log cabin that stood close by the Nooksack River. Nooksack tribal drummers led the small procession that included both the artist and the patron down the short path from the cabin to the tent where Darrell Hillaire, Lummi Nation elder, stood at the microphone waiting to introduce the speakers and witnesses and welcome the day’s guests.
Syre spoke and told how he viewed this story pole as one of unification. Solomon thanked him for the opportunity, gave a brief description of his work on the pole and recognized those on his team who had assisted during the process. Then, as is tradition, Solomon presented the four ‘witnesses’ he had designated for that day with ceremonial blankets which each of them draped over one shoulder for their turn to speak about what they had ‘witnessed’ that day. Among them was a childhood friend of the host, a Nooksack tribal member, who remembered the times the two had together playing along the river and in the woods on the farms where they grew up. They had not seen each other in nearly 50 years and had, as
the friend put it, “a lot of catching up to do.”
Jack Cagey, a Lummi Nation elder, stood from his place at the table where I was sitting and spoke of the need for greater communication between generations, for the need to talk face-to-face and not just through electronic devices. Another of the witnesses, Candy Wilson, read a poem that I found particularly moving, the name of which I unfortunately missed in her introduction. Their words were eloquent, appropriate and heartfelt. Clearly they were speaking about more than just the pole; they were making a case of for humanity and the practice of it towards one another.
Ninety-minutes later, the ceremony drew to a close and everyone was invited, elders first, to share in the grilled salmon luncheon that had been prepared especially for the day. The meal is as much a part of these ceremonies as the ceremony itself because it gives time for those who gathered that day to share not only food with one another with stories across the table.
By the end, the rain that had steadily fallen had stopped so that people could walk across the field to where the story pole towered and admire Solomon’s finished work. Indeed, it is a commanding and colorful piece. It is one of Solomon’s finest accomplishments to date. The public isn’t likely to see this fine story pole unless they catch a glimpse of the eagle’s upward extended wings from the country road that passes close by the pole’s location., ut it’s sure to stand for a very long time on this private property as a powerful reminder that, in the words of Syre: “We are all one.”