Students at Alberni District Secondary School (ADSS) in Port Alberni are paddling forward together with a new piece of Nuu-chah-nulth artwork that will be displayed at the school.
Moira Barney’s Grade 8 Nuu-chah-nulth class has started work on a two-dimensional canoe that will eventually hang up above the school’s breakfast room. The canoe was drawn and designed by Geena Haiyupis, a Nuu-chah-nulth education worker and an experienced artist.
“Every year we’re looking ways to bring culture into the classroom wherever we can,” said Barney. “We’re looking at projects we can physically do, so they’re hands-on.”
“We want to build in a sense of pride for our Indigenous students,” added Haiyupis.
Previously, ADSS students painted a series of panels that were designed by Haiyupis. The mural, which can be found in the ADSS Theatre wing, was unveiled with a ceremony back in April 2019. Students have also painted various canvases and drums that can be found around the school. The school’s “A” logo has even been “Indigenized,” as Haiyupis described it.
“We’re trying to build things into the environment to keep promoting Indigenous awareness,” explained Deborah Potter, another Nuu-chah-nulth education worker. “We want to build that awareness when they’re young.”
To help with this, Haiyupis has gifted four of her own designs to the school. Three of these designs can be found on the canoe—the eagle, the Thunderbird woman and the wolf.
The eagle sits on the end of the canoe. In Nuu-chah-nulth culture, explained Haiyupis, the eagle has “huge significance” as a symbol that people look towards for leadership and focus.
The Thunderbird woman is painted in the centre of canoe. This design is based on an oral story, in which the Thunderbird woman was sent to the mountains to keep watch over the community.
“Her job is to watch over the children,” said Haiyupis.
On the front of the canoe is the wolf, which also features in a lot of Nuu-chah-nulth oral history as a protector of the land and territory.
The design is something that has been in the works for almost a year. Haiyupis and Potter planned to start work on the canoe back in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed this.
“COVID has had such a negative effect on students,” said Haiyupis. “We want to start building in light. Building this sense of community into the school is giving the students a sense of identity,” she added. “When I was in school, I was ashamed to be Indigenous. Where now I wear that on my sleeve all the time.”
ADSS has a high population of First Nations students, said Barney. Out of just over 1,000 students enrolled at the school, 275 of those are Indigenous.
Meanwhile, the Indigenous high school completion rate within School District 70 (Pacific Rim) is at “unprecedented rates,” explained Potter. According to the 2020 Vital Signs report, the Indigenous high school completion rate has increased from 56 percent in 2016-17 to 70 percent in 2018-19. This compares to 69 percent provincially.
“The symbolism of the canoe is trying to reinforce that we’re all moving forward together,” explained Potter. “This is our success as a team.”
“We’re paddling forward in our education,” added Haiyupis. “We can’t move in a canoe together unless we’re paddling together. I think that works well in education, too.”
Barney’s class started painting the canoe at the start of the new year. Although this year’s class is smaller than previous classes, due to the pandemic, Barney still expects the project to be finished by the end of the semester.
Haiyupis and Potter are hoping to hold a ceremony to unveil the artwork once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.