Making Tangible the Intangible: Tsleil-Waututh and Lummi Nations Raise a Totem Pole in Solidarity

Gift in Solidary Totem Pole unveiling ceremony on September 19, 2013 on the Tsle

By Mique'l Icesis Dangeli 

“Warrior up!” This was the call to action declared by Ta’ah (Amy George), a highly respected Grandmother of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, when she learned of Kinder-Morgan’s proposal to build pipelines carrying oil from the Tar Sands in Alberta through her people’s traditional and unceded territory. 


<--break- />The Tsleil-Waututh have protected and maintained their lands and waters surrounding Burrard Inlet in British Columbia since time immemorial. Ta’ah has visited the Tar Sands and witnessed first hand the devastation caused by the oil refinery and pipeline on the environment and wildlife. She learned from local First Nations that run-off from the refinery has caused alarmingly high rates of cancer and other diseases in their communities. By telling her Nation to “Warrior Up,” Ta’ah is not calling for violence, but rather, demanding that the men and women of the Tsleil-Waututh stand in solidarity with one another and with people of all nations, ages, races, and creeds in a good way — honoring their ancient teachings — to defend their people, way of life, territory, and our environment.

At top, Gift in Solidary Totem Pole unveiling ceremony on September 19, 2013 on the Tsleil-Waututh Reserve in North Vancouver, British Columbia; above, Sun Dance Chief Rueben George (left) and Gabriel George (right). All photos courtesy of Mique'l Dangeli. 

Answering this call to action, the Tsleil-Waututh hosted a totem pole unveiling and feast with the Lummi Nation on September 29, 2013, to declare that their Nations are unified in their stance against the oil pipeline as well as the coal-processing terminal proposed for an area in their territories connecting their communities. The Lummi Nations territory includes Point Roberts, Lummi Peninsula, and Portage Island, as well as some of the San Juan Islands in Washington State. Sponsored by the Native American Land Conservancy, Carver Jewell James carved the totem pole and travelled with it from the Lummi Reserve to the coalmines of Montana, back to the site of the proposed coal terminal in his people’s territory, and finally to the Tsleil-Waututh in North Vancouver tracing the route the coal would be trafficked. Elders, medicine people, and community members of many different Nations made prayers and blessed the totem pole throughout its nearly 2,000 kilometer journey. Jewell gifted the totem pole to the Tseil-Waututh where it now stands as a physical embodiment of their Nation’s resolve to stand strong as a unified force against the development of the pipeline and coal terminal in their territories.

The totem pole was raised in a private ceremony for the Tsleil-Waututh and Lummi to come together to prepare and bless it in the way of their ancestors. Over a hundred people huddled in the rain at the foot of the totem pole to witness its unveiling in front of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s Recreation Center (photo at top). Reuben and Gabriel George, grandsons of renowned political activist and actor Chief Dan George, were the spokesmen for the Tsleil-Waututh during the event.

At the unveiling, Jewell explained each figure on the pole (left). Water and four salmon are depicted on the bottom to honor the Tsleil-Waututh efforts to protect the Fraser River. Jewell asserted, “We appreciate them setting the example and wanted to express our love for their people and nation for doing that!” The next set of figures include a boy flanked by two men who are in the process of standing up, which symbolizes the need for the older generation to demonstrate to the next generation what it means to honor the call of the women to “Warrior Up.” Describing the design on the drum positioned above the young boy, Jewell explained that it represents the belief system that bonds their Nations. He stated, “We all know that we depend on the way of the Thunderbird; we pray all the time, so I put the drum on there.” The main figure is a wolf standing as a symbol of the origin story of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. Above the wolf is a harvest moon representing the ceremonies around the first harvest of every season. In closing Jewell expressed, “we are honored to give this totem pole.”

Jewell James, Lummi Nation, carver of Gift in Solidary Totem Pole describes the meaning of each figure. 

In response to Jewell, Ta’ah’s son, Sun Dance Chief Reuben George (photo above right), recounted that “Our ancestors have always had a spiritual connection with one another. Since time immemorial, we’ve protected these lands together; we were stewards of these lands together. We learned to love and teach our children to have these relationships with our lands and waters.” He expressed his gratitude to Jewell for solidifying these relationships through gifting the totem pole to his people. He stated, “Words cannot say how grateful we are.” Gabriel George proclaimed this event is “a step forward for all our people today, it’s going to strengthen us in our resolve, and we know what we do will have good effects!”  In her closing remarks at the totem pole unveiling, Ta’ah (below right) asserted that future generations seeing this pole would know that “we stood up and said no! It stops here — the destruction of the land, the destruction of human life, fish life, bird life, and the four-legged. It has to stop and we are the ones to Warrior Up and say no!”

Ta’ah - Amy George, Tsleil-Waututh (standing with purple umbrella) gives her closing remarks. All photos courtesy of Mique'l Dangeli. 

I was honored to witness the totem pole unveiling and to dance at the feast that followed. As a Tsimshian woman from Metlakatla, Alaska, and an IPinCH Fellow, I know that this totem pole stands for much more than “cross-border unity” as claimed by local newspapers (Darryl Dyck, “Totem pole symbolizes cross-border unity for First Nations,” Vancouver Sun, September 2013). Totem poles make tangible the intangible. These monumental makers of history stand as a declaration of ancestry, intellectual property, and ownership of territory — both land and sea. By raising a totem pole to show that their Nations stand together in solidary against the pipelines, the Tsleil-Waututh and Lummi are asserting their sovereign rights to self-determination and self-representation in a way that simultaneously expresses their cultural heritage and their effort to protect it. Their actions are also a testament to the fact First Nations peoples do not recognize the National borders imposed on our territories. Our ancient and ancestral connections to our lands and relatives transcend these colonial constructs. Through this totem pole, the Tsleil-Waututh and Lummi Nations have also set forth a precedent calling upon the next seven generations to Warrior up and to protect their territories. Through their prayers and ceremony on this day and everyday, they are confident that their descendants will continue to answer Ta’ah's call to action.

Hear Tsleil-Waututh Sun Dance Chief Rueben George speak on why Burrard Inlet should be protected from Kinder Morgan’s tankers and pipelines: