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This Thunderbird carved from 400-year-old red cedar now watches over a North Vancouver school

The striking relief sculpture mounted at the main entrance of the North Vancouver school was carved from part of a 400-year-old red cedar from the Squamish Valley. The detailed work was created by Latash, Maurice Nahanee, a Squamish Nation Elder, traditional artist, and mentor, with the support of his assistant, Chris Fyfe.

Nahanee, whose visual art career began in 1993, said he always liked “to start an art project based on a theme” and in this case, the school aligned with the supernatural Ininyaxa7n or Thunderbird.

“The mission statement of the school and values represented by the Ininyaxa7n - Thunderbird, are very compatible,” Nahanee explained. “Among the many attributes of the Ininyaxa7n are protection and sharing of knowledge.”

The main stories the 64-year-old shared, of course, were about the great Thunderbird.

“One of our stories about the Ininyaxa7n goes back to a time when people started to inhabit the earth,” he explained.

“The humans struggled to survive. The Creator saw the difficulty the people were having and called upon the Thunderbird to call all the animals together and ask them to find ways to help the people. When all the animals had gathered for the meeting, Ininyaxa7n asked them to come up with ways to help the people. The deer offered himself as food for the people. The salmon did the same. The black bear said he could show the people what plants were safe to eat. And so, each of the animals had a valuable lesson for the humans.”

Lisa Upton, the school’s principal, said the story of the Thunderbird offered a message that really resonated with students, teachers, and parents, especially during pandemic life.

“The teachers and the students really enjoy the experience, and they’re getting to interact in a positive way with another culture,” he said, adding that the work also tied into Reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

“It gives a chance to show Aboriginal culture in a good light to all people. I think we’re all learning from each other about our cultures, and it promotes peace and harmony.”

As the school is on the traditional and unceded territories of the Squamish Nation and the Coast Salish peoples, and in line with Reconciliation, Upton said it was incumbent as educators to welcome in the Indigenous worldview and to create a space for Elders to share their knowledge and stories.

“I don’t think it’s enough to learn about people, you have to learn with people, and the best people to learn from if you want to learn about Squamish culture is from the Squamish people themselves.

“As citizens on the North Shore, we have an obligation to listen to the land and to care for the land and the really beautiful way of doing that is through learning from our Squamish hosts.”

She added that it was always such a thrill to work with Nahanee, describing him as a wonderful, generous man and gracious teacher.

“It’s so important to create relationships with our Elders, and not just those one-off experiences. Latash has very graciously adopted us, and we’re so privileged to be part of his extended family now.
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