The Ring

Indigenous celebration leaves legacy for First Peoples House

Tue, 2013-06-04 14:54

Elder Marie Cooper and Al Sam unveil a podium carved for First Peoples House
Elder Marie Cooper and Al Sam unveil a special podium carved by Charles Elliott for First Peoples House. (UVic Photo Services)

The sound of drums reverberated in the centre of the UVic campus as four groups of Indigenous drummers and dancers approached Celebration Square (the quad) from the four corners of the campus. Representing the three distinct nations on Vancouver Island—Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw—as well as visitors to the territory, the ceremonial entrance provided a powerful opening to the Indigenous Circle Celebration and dedication of a special podium for First Peoples House on June 3, as part of Congress 2013.

Following a traditional paddle welcome song, which included dancers of all ages in button blankets, jingle dresses and other traditional regalia, Chief Andy Thomas (Esquimalt Nation) welcomed the crowd to the territory of the Esquimalt and Lekwungen (Songhees) nations. Lekwungen Elder Elmer George offered a prayer in the Lekwungen language. Members of UVic’s Elders’ Voices program also attended: Marie Cooper (Tsartlip); May Sam (Tsartlip); Skip Sam (Tsartlip); Samantha Sansregret (Métis); Ron George (Cowichan); George Cook (Namgis); Ruth Cook (Kwakiutl); Vic Underwood (Tsawout); and Joyce Underwood (Tsawout).

President David Turpin welcomed everyone to UVic and to Congress, and explained the link between the podium and the totem pole that local WSÁNEC artist Charles Elliott (OBC, OC) was commissioned to carve in 1990, the last time Congress (then called the Learneds) was held at UVic. “Today you will see that we will continue this fine tradition,” Turpin said. “I am very proud of the strong relationships UVic has built with Indigenous communities. A very special thanks to my friend Charles Elliott and to the team at First Peoples House.”

As the formal portion of the ceremony began, speaker Al Sam called on people from the audience and on stage to witness the ceremony and carry it in their memories.

Before the unveiling of the podium by Elder Marie Cooper, Nick Claxton (Tsawout) read the story that is symbolically represented by the artwork on the pole and the podium. Two black raven figures, signifying messengers, frame the podium's centre design. The birds are Great Blue Herons, whose wings act as capes for the two human figures, representing the Creator—whose open eyes see all—and SWIWLES’S, a young man whose eyes are closed in a vision. The two frogs symbolize the end and beginning of a cycle, and the sacred rock, Quintalus, is also depicted. See for the full story.

“I love the diversity that you bring here,” said Marie Cooper to the audience of hundreds of Congress delegates and community members. “And I thank Charles for sharing his gifts with all of us. It is a great honour to unveil this podium.” Fred Charlie blessed the podium while John Elliott acknowledged it with an honouring song.

Reeta Tremblay, vice-president academic and provost, offered the podium on behalf of the entire academic community to First Peoples House, saying that it would be “ a lasting reminder not only of UVic’s commitment to Indigenous education and our strong partnerships with Indigenous communities, but of Congress 2013 at the University of Victoria.”

“In a way carving this podium is a rededication of the 26-foot pole that I carved in 1990,” said Charles Elliott. “I have been able to bear witness to the fact that the university cherishes its relationship with First Nations people. I hope people feel good when they stand at the podium to say a few words – that’s the intention.”

The celebration ended with guests, delegates and community members joining in a circle dance on the lawn in front of the stage. Other festivities included a pit cook and Indigenous meal, an artisan fair, carving demonstrations and special musical performances by Art Napoleon and Sandy Scofield.

“I really appreciate how our First Peoples strive to recognize visitors and welcome everyone with generosity and openness - how they acknowledge everyone here at Congress as their guests,” said Devi Mucina, a Congress delegate from Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax. “Being here is my way to acknowledge and accept their welcome, to be here with them on their land, in Victoria and at UVic.”

The celebration was the second of three signature community events at Congress 2013, hosted by UVic as part of its 50th anniversary.