VANCOUVER, British Columbia (WOMENSENEWS)--Nathan Brass peels back several layers of wool blankets and tarpaulin, uncovering a partially carved 32-foot totem pole lying on its side.
The coverings protect the raw red cedar from the sun and Vancouver's frequent rain. When Brass removes them, the wood emits a waft of sweet perfume.
"It's like a baby," Brass says.
Carved at its base is a mother bear cradling two cubs, one facing slightly off to the side.
The tableau shows that the mother loves and protects her children even though one may be a "little wayward," Brass says, like many of the down-and-out women to whom this totem is dedicated.
Through Spirits Rising Memorial Society, a grassroots nonprofit in Vancouver, Brass, 25, and a group of other at-risk youth and women learned wood carving. They created the mother-bear totem as a memorial for scores of women from Vancouver's impoverished and drug-infested Downtown Eastside who are either murdered or missing.
By some estimates, 65 women from the Downtown Eastside have vanished or been killed since the late 1980s. Many were of First Nations, or aboriginal, ancestry, and many also worked in the sex trade or struggled with addictions. Nearly 9 in 10 residents of the neighborhood are drug users, according to an advocacy group, and aid workers say women in the sex trade are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection, violence and poverty.
Many Cases Still Unsolved
The man considered Canada's worst serial killer--local pig farmer Robert "Willie" Pickton--was convicted last year of murdering six women and faces a second trial for the murders of 20 more. But many cases still have no answers and no leads.
Michelle Morning Star Doherty, president of Spirits Rising Memorial Society, said long-time First Nations advocate Bernie Williams, the late activist elder Harriet Nahanee and several other women of First Nations ancestry formed their organization in 2006, with the singular purpose of honoring the lost women.
Many in the society were either friends or relatives of the victims or had been exposed to violence in the Downtown Eastside themselves. Doherty's cousin disappeared from the neighborhood about 20 years ago; her case was never solved.
"There's a great area of grievance in the community of not being heard," Doherty says. "As a society, we wanted to challenge that. . . and ask ourselves, how can we move forward?"
As time has gone by they have intertwined the commemorative mission with the chance to teach First Nations women and young people--12 apprentices in all--about their traditional arts and culture and provide them with skills.
For 20 weeks last year, the apprentices met five days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to attend workshops on racism, nonviolent communication, nutrition and First Nations arts.
In a downtown garage turned into a makeshift work shed they learned how to make their own traditional carving tools, and later, under the guidance of master carver Jordon Seward, how to shape the totem pole. Totem poles, indigenous to West Coast First Nations cultures, tell the story of a clan or family, or keep record of a significant event.
Reconnecting to First Nations
Doherty spent most of her youth outside Canada because her parents wanted to shield her from discrimination, but returned to Vancouver three years ago and was appalled by the conditions she found First Nations people facing.
"I've never seen poverty like that except in India or Indonesia and third-world countries," she says. She now calls herself a "social entrepreneur and First Nations advocate."
Apprentices in the program included women between their 20s and 50s as well as young men. Beyond the totem project, the apprentices can tap into growing demand for First Nations arts and crafts anticipating the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, according to Dave Jack, a seasoned First Nations knife-maker who taught them to make carving tools.
Unemployment among First Nations people is two and a half times greater than the non-native population, according to the Canadian government. Teaching job skills is central to the program, however, the instructors also aim to instill a connection with traditional culture, a sense of community and self-confidence. For some participants who grew up in cities, it was their first opportunity to learn about First Nations traditions.
Opening up the program to a cross-section of the First Nations community in the Downtown Eastside was key to the project, Doherty says, as it taught participants how to work and communicate across generations and genders.
Through collaborating with the older women, she says, younger women learned to appreciate the struggles of their mothers' generation, such as the cultural displacement of being forced to attend government-funded residential schools for First Nations children.
Finding Respect for Women
Brass says he learned to respect members of the opposite sex during the totem project. "The way I looked at women, I didn't hold them in the proper respect they deserved," he says, adding that he learned women have traditionally been granted high status in First Nations society and families and communities are often led by matriarchs.
Nadine Darvault, 32, says the program has given her a sense of purpose and belonging.
Darvault spent her teen years living on the streets, with little exposure to her native Gitxsan culture.
To protect herself from violence, she surrounded herself with young men, adopting their negative attitudes toward women.
"I had to make a choice to be one of the boys or one of the girls that they picked on," she says, adding that in her lowest moments, she manipulated her female friends into prostituting themselves to earn her money.
Although she never felt she was in danger of becoming one of the missing and murdered women herself, she says she knew several of them.
The totem pole project gave her the chance to reflect and turn her life around. Carving, she says, is a metaphor for her search for spirituality: "Like a piece of wood, everything you need is within you. You just carve away what you don't need."
Darvault intends to pursue the craft of making traditional First Nations carving knives instead of working odd jobs, like house painting, as she used to.
Brass says he, too, has made a drastic change in occupation. Before the Rising Spirits program, he worked at a downtown bar. Now, he is preparing to open his own shop to sell First Nations artwork.
Although the apprenticeship program has ended, Brass occasionally returns to Jordan Seward's home, where the totem pole now lies, to help the master carver finish the group's creation.
They aim to complete it later this year, and the Rising Spirits Memorial Society intends to erect it next spring at Crab Park, overlooking the city port.
The society now plans to offer other similar programs to more First Nations young people. As Brass smoothes his hands over the wood, he points out, above the mother bear, the shape of a full moon with eyes, nose and a mouth. It's Grandmother Moon, he says, who will watch over everyone when the totem is finally installed.
"There's nothing more I'd like to see than it going up there," he says.
Wency Leung is a freelance writer in Vancouver.
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