Tla-o-qui-aht carver Hjalmer Wenstob has completed and raised a new totem pole at Ty-Histanis to commemorate lives lost during the COVID-19 lockdown and to remember living through a pandemic.
The 21-foot pole, that was unveiled at the reserve on Aug. 13, is designed with 28 rings going up the body to honour 28 Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation members who were lost during the long COVID lockdown.
Carved on top of the rings is a healer/medicine person and above that is a large wooden box that families and loved ones of the deceased were able to add personal items into.
Wenstob said that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he wanted to create a pole that told a story of what the world was living through.
“A lot of the poles that we’re putting up are retelling old stories and we wanted to tell the story of the history that we’re living through, similar to our ancestors living through smallpox…and really big historical events,” Wenstob said. “That was really the inspiration for the project and my wife, Annika, went and applied with me for a Canada Council for the Arts grant and we were successful in achieving that, so we were able to do the whole project funded through that.”
Wenstob said throughout the project the design for the pole changed from telling the story of COVID, to remembering and honouring lives lost during the lockdown.
“We had 28 members that passed away in those years. And for those 28 members we weren’t able to gather and have proper funerals because of the COVID restrictions,” Wenstob said. “It was really hard on the nation and families, so this pole and the design of the pole really transformed to be for those people we lost during the pandemic…but also to celebrate together as a nation.”
Wenstob led the project and was the only carver on the pole, but he had lots of support from family and friends during the months-long process.
“I was lucky enough to have my mom and dad and my brother join almost the entire process of carving the pole. They came over and supported and then of course my lovely wife, Annika and my two kids were with us the whole time,” Wenstob said. “We just carved it right in our front yard, which is right in the centre of Ty-Histanis. We were there pretty much all summer, two months.”