NATURE AS OUR TEACHER: OUR COAST SALISH WORLD

Stories of nature, creation and transformation by Mi kw’achi7m (Marissa Nahanee) and Skokaylem (Zac George).

North Wall Windows

East Wall Windows

LOOK UP

Look up to the windows on the east and north side of the Museum of North Vancouver to find a series of colourful, translucent decals created by local Indigenous artists Mi kw’achi7m (Marissa Nahanee) of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nation and Skokaylem (Zac George) of Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nation.

INSPIRATION

Working with the theme, Nature as Teacher: Our Coast Salish World, the artists created images inspired by North Vancouver’s natural environment and local Indigenous creation stories. View the images and read the story below or here, Nature as our Teacher (pdf)

North Wall Windows

The Twelve Original Occupations Of The Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nation Demonstrate Important Lessons Of Caring.

Artist: Mi kw’achi7m (Marissa Nahanee), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nation

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STORY:

Na7tkwi kw ekwin’ (in the long ago), a young Squamish woman was abandoned by her family and her village. When the village people left, the woman lived alone in a cedar longhouse and soon gave birth to 12 puppies. The young woman was surprised by the birth of the puppies but raised them alone with love and care as best she could.

Note:

Marissa Nahanee says she was inspired to feature a transformation story about a young Squamish woman, the puppies she gave birth to — and the lessons learned then, that still stand true to her people today.

The “one-sloped-roof” of the longhouse is traditional Sḵwx̱wú7mesh style.


STORY CONTINUED:

With no family to help, the young woman had to work hard to feed her puppies by foraging full time for plants in the forest and digging clams by the water. Morning and night she would go to the beach, kneel on a woven mat using her torch, and dig with a stick.

One day while out digging for clams, the woman heard drumming in the distance and thought that maybe her people had returned, but when she got back to the longhouse it was empty except for the puppies.

As she fed her puppies, she once again heard the drumming sound, so the woman used her cunning and came up with a plan to prop the mat up with a stick to make it look like she was on the beach. She then crept back to camp to try and find the source of the mysterious sound, but there was always one young puppy that acted as lookout.

Note:

The twisting orange trunks of the Arbutus trees are featured. Marissa has included these distinctive trees as a reminder that before the settlers came, these trees (also known as Madrona) used to be found along these North Vancouver shores. Today they are found further to the east, in West Vancouver and along the Salish Sea coastline.

STORY CONTINUED:

But one day the mother sneaked around to the back of the longhouse and was shocked by what she saw — the menmen (children) disrobed by shedding their puppy skins and had turned into their human form.

The woman realized the puppies were actually “transformers” who had the ability to take off their animal skins and become human. The mother felt betrayed they hadn’t told her, so she grabbed all the animal skins and threw them into the fire.

The heartbroken mother asked her children how they could keep this from her? The children apologized and told her they were too young and didn’t realize their power. They each revealed and self-proclaimed to be specialized in these professions, creating ta swa7s ts’its’ap – a league of professionals:

Nexwsch’a7twilh: canoe maker
Nexwstl’elhnáyem: mountain goat hunter
Nexwsch’áatl’am: small game hunter
Nexwsíw̓ as: fisherman
Nexwsti lam̓: house builder
Nexwsáyentsut: shape shifter
Yúnay: song keeper
Esyéw̓: foresee-er/prophet
Nexwslhent: blanket weaver
T’ahím ta sitn: basket weaver
Nexwsilhenám̓: berry picker
Kw’tsi7ts: ritualist/healer

They promised that from that day forward, they each would provide, protect and honour their mother. And this is how the Squamish people came to their traditional professions, including healers, berry pickers, basket and blanket weavers, prophets and song keepers, shape shifters, house builders, fishermen, canoe makers, mountain goat hunters, small game hunters and canoe makers.

Note:

The three animal skins that have been shed – close to the fire.

STORY CONTINUED:

From that day on, the children did as promised and took good care of their mother by sitting her on a pedestal covered in abalone, copper, gold, and mountain goat wool, showing she was smenalh (high ranking).

As time passed, the children began to wonder about the mother’s family, so they paddled along the coastal waters to search for them.

After many moons and many months, they came upon a village where the people were very hungry and had little food. The children asked the elders if they knew about a young girl who was pregnant and was left behind in the village.

“Yes,” exclaimed an older man. “That was my granddaughter and you must be my grandchildren!”

The children were overjoyed and asked the grandmother to come live with them, and a great feast was planned. When the villagers also asked to go back to the camp for the feast, the children realized they would also need help, so invited them to all live together.

The mother was touched, and during the next month, the children prepared for the welcome feast; hunting, preparing food, weaving blankets and making gifts. The children also dressed their mother in the nest regalia and sat her on a carved bench placed on a platform overlooking the water.

As the villagers arrived by canoe they were met at the shore and, as the legend goes, the ritualist Kw’tsi7t pushed the water in and out four times to show how powerful the transformers were.

Then the Song Keeper Yúnay sang a bear song and the the Shape Shifter Nexwsáyentsut showed them how to shift from animal to human

And then Yúnay sang a deer song and the Nexwsáyentsut danced like a deer. And after all the children had performed, there was a big bountiful feast with lots of food and celebrations.

MORAL OF THE STORY:

“The moral of this story,” says Nahanee, “is that we can help transform our challenges and cares into stability – if we always take care of all of our community members and share the bounty of nature with our people.”

Note:

These honoured occupations have ensured the survival of the Squamish Nation to this day. Each role is built on Squamish philosophy of hard work, providing what is needed, and the importance of never leaving anyone behind.   Leaving the mother behind is part of the story, but it is meant more of a warning and message about the strength of spirit to survive – and that her survival brought forward these sacred occupations.

As you think about this transformation story, look in the window panels for other animals and birds drawn in the Coast Salish style, and for Ch’esḵen, the powerful Coast Salish thunderbird in the sky. These mythical creatures made their homes among the rocky crags of the Coast Mountains. Around smoky longhouse fires, they spoke of this massive eagle endowed with the ability to create storms. Lightning shot from its eyes when it blinked, and thunder boomed when it flapped its wings.

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East Wall Windows

The First Grandmother of Səl̓ílwətaɬ Was Born From The Sea

Artist: Skokaylem (Zac George), Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nation

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STORY:

The artist Zac George says back in the mists of time, when the Great Spirit made the saltwater inlet, which now includes the City of Vancouver on its shores, the spirit placed his family on this land.

“We are Tsleil Waututh – People of the inlet,” says George. “He transformed my grandfather from a wolf into a young boy. My grandfather lived and learned in this new environment, he learned from everything around him how to survive.”

As a young boy, George’s grandfather was taught by the salmon about the circle of life — the salmon will leave its birth stream and travel the highways of the rivers and ocean, eventually returning back to the place they were born, to give life and die.

Note:

For these windows, Zac George chose to create images from a Tsleil-Waututh legend of creation and one of the stories the Great Spirit told his Grandfather.

The designs are featured all along the top windows, and on the wide vertical panel, intended to be representative of a Coast Salish house post. While totem poles are traditionally between three to 18-metres tall and serve a variety of architectural and ceremonial purposes, a house post, carved with human or animal forms, is created to support the main beams at the entrance to a longhouse or home.

STORY CONTINUED:

He listened to and learned from the little birds that told him when the berries were ripe on top of the mountains, and how to protect and shelter himself by using the cedar tree — valuable cedar is used to make canoes and spears for fishing and long houses to live in.

Whenever the boy learned something new, he would return to stand on a promontory that overlooked the salt water, pray and give thanks to the Great Spirit. With these lessons, he grew in harmony with the natural world.

As the young man entered adulthood, he noticed he was the only one with no fur, feathers or fins and was the only creation that walked on two legs. This pained his heart, so he returned to the promontory to ask the Great Spirit for help.

Note:

Look for the small orange shirt that Zac has included at the bottom of the panel. This symbol recognizes and shows solidarity and support for Indigenous creators. Orange Shirt Day is held every year on September 30 to honour the healing journey of residential school survivors and bring awareness to the need for reconciliation. Look inside MONOVA’s main gallery for the exhibit honouring local community members who attended North Vancouver St. Paul’s Residential School.

STORY CONTINUED:

The Great Spirit then gave him a vision, which he followed by diving off the cliff into deep water until he reached the bottom where he grabbed two handfuls of earth, rock and sediment. With his hands full, the young man swam back to the shore where he cleared a large circle.

In the middle of the circle he then placed cedar boughs, topped with the earth, rock and sediment, and the soon fell asleep. The next morning, he was awakened by the first light of the sun and when he opened his eyes saw a beautiful woman lying beside him.

“This was our first Grandmother, born from the womb of the sea,” says George. “The Great Spirit spoke to them both and told them to treat each other with love and respect. The Great Spirit told my Grandfather that she carries the knowledge of mother earth and the ability to give life. The Great Spirit told him to love and honor and respect her. This will ensure your children flourish.”

Additional Panel Artwork:

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COMMUNITY PARTNERS

NORTH VANCOUVER RECREATION AND CULTURE COMMISSION

This artwork was commissioned through a North Vancouver public art competition.

INDIGENOUS VOICES ADVISORY COMMITTEE

The project illustrates the ongoing collaboration between MONOVA and the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), which began in 2015 with the creation of the MONOVA’s Indigenous Voices Advisory Committee.