In a makeshift tent in his backyard on Molitor St., Terrace, Mike Dangeli is carving his latest political statement on cedar.
He is working on his second totem pole (that he refers to as the Brothers’ pole) to be erected in northwest B.C. as part of a series of installations to reclaim Canada’s infamous Highway 16 – also known as the Highway of Tears due to a number of cases of Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMWIG) along this stretch.
The idea of installing totem poles along the highway was first put forward by his mother Arlene Roberts from the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and activist Gladys Radek, who have been fundraising for the projects since then.
Dangeli’s first totem pole in this series, the Highway of Tears memorial pole (also known as the Grandmothers’ pole), was erected west of Terrace, at the highway pullout near Kitsumkalum in 2020.
The artist was living in Terrace at the time when he was approached to carve the Grandmothers’ pole. A lot of carvers who were approached back then were not able to take on the project – while some were busy others said it was too political.
But being an Indigenous person in the 21st century is a political statement in itself, according to Dangeli who is of Nisga’a, Tsimshian, Tlingit and Tsetsaut heritage.
“Our people have been using what’s now being called as art as a political statement since the beginning of time. So I told them I have no problem doing this and the subject matter is really near and dear.”
According to the artist, their totem poles are so important because they tell histories, especially oral histories.
“They are important in the way that they talk about whose land they’re on, whose territory, they talk about the good and the bad of history, and what are we doing to fix any current situations?”
The Brothers’ pole is Dangeli’s 27th totem and the next one (the third installation in the memorial series) will be going to Prince George when its ready. He says the goal is to have five totem poles along the northwestern highway that stretches from Prince Rupert to Prince George.
These totem poles are to be sacred space as well as a grave marker for the people whose “earthly vessels”, their bodies, were never found.
The idea was also to create a safe space on this part of the highway.
“We are watching, we’re taking back this part of the land… it’s to take back the highways,” says Dangeli.
Work on the Brothers’ pole began in January 2021 and Dangeli is set to finish it in the first week of October before he moves to Abbotsford with his wife, Dr. Mique’l Dangeli, a professor at the University of Fraser Valley.
Dangeli said that the women driving the mission, Roberts and Radek,wanted the second pole to reflect the MMIWG cause to include boys, men, two-spirit and LGBTQ people.
So work began on a 10-foot, old growth western red cedar log donated by Kitsumkalum First Nation chief councillor Don Roberts.
The upper portion of the totem pole Dangeli has carved out is an ode to the patriarchs of his culture. On the middle portion he made human figures with children’s bodies and larger heads.
“So what I’m doing with this is, I’m talking about where people started working on their healing… Some people were adults, some were children, or young adults, some people were elders,” he says.
At the bottom is a bentwood box that is symbolic for all the knowledge that people have stored in them.
“We have this belief that each of us holds a box of knowledge, our box of treasures, and you can hear this and every ethnicity every culture has somewhere where that knowledge has been embodied, through practice and through presentation.”
Dangeli also brought in a nuance of the north coast First Nations, by cladding the figures with Tsimshian and Nisga’a robes.
He’s also going to put mirrors on the poles to say that somebody is always watching.
Dangeli says that creating totem poles, especially ones like these, is an emotional journey.
“There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into it, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my grandparents, my mom, my aunties and uncles and what they went through… And that has given me perspective.”
Binny Paul, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Terrace Standard