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Emotional totem unveiling uplifts grieving Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation

Hjalmer Wenstob carves totem to recognize those lost to COVID-19
With his brother Timmy, father Trent and mother Jessie singing along behind him, Hjalmer Wenstob gifts trading beads to a large audience outside the Tiic-Mis-Aq’kin Health Centre in Ty-Histanis on August 13 after unveiling a totem pole he carved to honour those lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Andrew Bailey photo)

Sorrow and celebration reached a rare accord as Hjalmer Wenstob unveiled a new totem pole in his home community of Ty-Histanis on Aug. 13.

The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation carver had set out to tell the story of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the creation took on a much larger meaning of loss.

“They are years a lot of us want to forget, but we can’t forget them. When the COVID pandemic hit, we all remember here when our communities locked down…We were so locked down we had to sign in and out from a gate. We had food brought into us and it felt like wartimes. It felt like a different reality than I ever thought I’d live through, that I ever hoped my kids would have to live through,” Wenstob told the unveiling event’s large audience.

“We decided we’d carve a totem pole to record that history, like our people used to do. There’s old poles that were created to tell the history of smallpox, or contact on the Coast. The history of a new story that’s happening now, that needs to be recorded.”

He said the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation lost 28 people during the two-year lockdown and could not come together to grieve properly.

“With those 28 losses, we weren’t able to gather and have funerals. We weren’t able to go over to each other’s houses and cook for each other. We weren’t able to go and just sit quietly like we usually do. For all those 28 losses, we had to gather on Zoom. For all those 28 losses, we had to mourn really silently in our own homes without each other,” he said.

“As we all know, that’s not our way. No matter what culture we come from, we need each other in times like that. If I’m to be honest, I think we’re still trying to heal from that time. We’re still trying to get our grieving to happen and we’re also trying to move forward at the same time.”

He said he had initially set out to carve the totem in 2020, but a loss in the family paused his work.

Shortly after, his niece Chantel Moore was shot and killed by police during a wellness check in New Brunswick.

“Really early on, we lost our little girl. She was a big part of this. My little niece Chantel. My little girl. She was a big part of this for me. Having my sister Martha here means a lot,” he said.

Chantel Moore’s mother Martha Martin has become a strong advocate and spoke during the event about losing her daughter on June 4, 2020, and then her son Michael Martin, who died in police custody just five months later on Nov. 13.

“I’ve travelled back and forth the country attending a lot of different meetings, advocating on police brutality and people dying in custody,” Martin said.

“I recently just came back from PEI. I was able to sit with all the ministers and talk, not only on behalf of my children, but every mother who’s lost a child. I do a lot of advocating on behalf of my children. It’s to ensure that these little ones we see walking around, I want to know that when they leave their homes, they’re going to come home safe.”

The field in front of the TiicMis-Aq’kin Health Centre in TyHistanis was full of residents from across the West Coast, as well as Elders from several First Nations.

“We’re honoured to host you all from different Nations, from different families, it really means a lot to have you all here with us. I’m so thankful you’re here…The whole point of this pole is to lift each other up. It’s to lift each other up to celebrate again, to sing again, to make sure that we reach out and look after each other because we all need it. We all need it right now,” Wenstob said.

“As much as this pole is heavy, the whole point of it is to lift each other up again. This is a gift from our family to our people to lift each other up again. Because we never had a chance to mourn and we never had a chance to grieve in the way that we usually do, it’s been a hard few years. Coming out of the lockdown it’s still been hard. It’s been harder for everyone to smile. It’s been harder for everyone to laugh. It’s been harder for everyone to say, ‘Good job, well done.’ It’s been harder to celebrate.”

Wenstob explained the top of the roughly six-metre totem pole is styled after a mortuary pole, with a box at the top where chiefs would be placed after they had passed away. He said community members were invited to bring something to put in the box to honour their loved ones.

“It was an opportunity for us as a Nation to come together and bring something to put in that box, to bring something to remember our loved ones with,” he said.

Below the box is a ʔuuštaqyuu, a medicine person, who is wearing a whalebone necklace. “It’s called a soul catcher. It helps him bring people and put them to rest when they pass away,” Wenstob explained.

The ʔuuštaqyuu is holding a rattle that was used by Wenstob’s younger brother Timmy Masso during a song to bless the pole before Masso used a ladder to place it in the ʔuuštaqyuu’s hand.

“He’s holding that rattle to give us a chant to lift us up,” Wenstob explained. The bottom three metres of the pole are what Wenstob told the Westerly News were the “most important.”

“Under the ʔuuštaqyuu and what makes up the majority of the pole and what I really want the pole to be focused on, is 28 rings. Those 28 rings are there for those that we lost when we couldn’t have funerals,” he said. “When I was designing and I told my grandfather about it he said, ‘Well it never really stopped.’ So behind the ʔuuštaqyuu you see all the rings continuing because it hasn’t really stopped, but we’re looking to have this pole to help heal us and move us in the right direction.”

Tla-o-qui-aht Chief Elmer Frank thanked Wenstob and his family for the totem pole and said Wenstob had “hit the nail on the head” when he talked about mourning losses during the pandemic.

“We couldn’t be with each other, we couldn’t support each other in the manner that we were taught and it was really difficult for us to find those ways and those tools and the mechanisms to do so, to try to become available for grieving families,” Frank said.

“This is a great sentiment to show that we are on the path of healing from all of those losses. It’s a great gift that’s provided to not only Tla-o-qui-aht but many other Nations…I think it’s important for us to come here and look at this as a form of healing of those losses. It’s a beautiful pole.”

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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