Carving has resumed on a language revitalization pole that will honour the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, but a funding shortfall could put the entire project in jeopardy.
The project began in earnest in March, after the First Nations Education Foundation announced the proposal. The Huu-ay-aht First Nations on Vancouver Island’s west coast donated a 60-foot-long, 800-year-old cedar log, which had been sitting on the ground for more than 50 years, and it was transported from Bamfield via flatbed truck to Port Alberni’s waterfront.
Carvers led by Tim Paul and Gordon Dick began preparing the log for carving. Paul, whose work is found around the world, designed a pole named Our 10 Relatives honouring 10 important relatives among the Nuu-chah-nulth people: among them Sky Chief, sun, wind, Thunderbird, Mountain Chief, lakes, land and Sea Chief.
The entire project is estimated to cost $420,000, and they are currently $285,000 short.
Les Doiron of Yuulu?il?ath (Ucluelet) First Nation, the volunteer CEO for FNEF says it’s ironic that the language revitalization pole, as with Indigenous languages themselves, is now in a race against time. He says the project, and what it symbolizes, is of utmost importance to all First Nations and Indigenous Peoples across Canada.
“We have pending applications with two major Canadian firms for major funding that will hopefully carry the project through to completion, along with a funding application submitted to the Western Economic Diversification ‘Canadian Experiences’ Fund,” he said. Another application has been submitted to the Canadian Council for the Arts.
Doiron said potential funds from these sources aren’t guaranteed, and they would not be in place until after summer if they are granted.
“That’s why we’re hoping Canadians, and Canadian corporations, will answer the call to ‘Raise the Pole’ and help us raise the $50,000 we need to get us through the summer to the point in the fall where further funding will hopefully be announced.”
Christopher Devlin of DGW Law in Victoria issued a pledge to donate $10,000 on top of what he has already donated if the FNEF can raise $10,000 in matching funds.
Scott Jeary, volunteer executive director for FNEF, admitted funding was not all in place when the project was first announced. “It took a long time” to get all those involved on the same page, he explained.
“We had to have all those pieces in place so we could have something to fund. We had a lot of support when we were going about it.”
One of the goals of the language revitalization pole project, he said, is to raise awareness among Canadians to attract greater resources, but also to have people stepping up “to be disruptors, to help ‘frustrate and reverse the countdown to extinction’ facing so many Indigenous languages.
“Maybe it was meant to be that, on this journey, the pole had to be in need, just like the languages themselves, to help amplify the message.”
The decision was made to start carving the pole despite a shortfall so there would be something to see, which would in turn draw interest to the project.
Lead carver Tim Paul was in place and willing to begin preparing the tree for carving. That process took longer than anticipated, but now the 10 relatives are beginning to take shape.
Paul halted carving for three weeks after his wife Monica broke her hip and was hospitalized following complications. She was relocated to Tsawayuus Rainbow Gardens where Paul says she is healing.
Paul meanwhile returned to the makeshift carving shed at the Maritime Discovery Centre on Harbour Road in mid-July, and says he tries to carve early in the morning after making sure his wife has a good breakfast.
There were also two potlatches in Alert Bay that took other carvers away from the project, Paul said. Stan Lucas was back with his carving tools on July 27, and Paul is trying to get there every day.
No matter what happens, the world-renowned carver is dedicated to finishing the language pole.
“My commitment is to follow through and get it done,” Paul said. “My commitment is to do the pole because of the languages, and for our young people.”
Jeary said while the race is on to find funding and complete the project in 2019, the project will not die if funding cannot be found in time. The language revitalization pole will be erected no matter what.
The symbolism of 2019 being the International Year of Indigenous Languages is driving the team, he admitted. “I don’t even know how to describe how disappointing it would be…not to meet that date.”
Anyone wishing to contribute can do so through a donation link on the FNEF website, at https://fnef.ca/donate/. Tax receipts are available.