Nuxalk Nation, a Living Culture

Silyas: Nuxalk Carver

Right: Silyas (Arthur Saunders) standing by the Saunders Family Pole outside his home in Bella Coola in 2008. Silyas was born in 1936 in Kimsquit (Suts'lmc), the ancestral home of the Saunders Family. He lived in Kimsquit until he was 12 years old, in 1948, when the Canadian government removed its inhabitants and forcibly transfered them to the Bella Coola Indian Reserve. As was typical of the time, Silyas was only educated to grade 8. Most of his life he worked as a logger and fisherman. Silyas began carving in 1997 and is self taught. As a result of his remarkable talent, in 2006 he was invited to travel to Philadelphia, New York and Washington. Here he was able to visit some of the major American museums and study their collections of Nuxalk carvings.

Left: Nuxalk Sun Mask. Silyas says that he carves to educate the Nuxalkmc about the traditions represented by his figures. The Sun Mask, for example, performs an important function: "We Nuxalkmc get our dances from the Sun, so we dance from the East to the West to represent the way the Sun rises."

Above: Silyas in his carving studio with his dog "Stupik." Right: Studio and home of Silyas.

Above: Father of Silyas, XimXimlayc (Joseph Shaw Saunders Sr. ), known as "Sunaats" (1927 – 2003). Left: Kimsquit, 1913.

The Saunders Memorial Potlatch for Sunaats was held in 2005, the first such occasion in many years. In honour of the event, Silyas carved the Saunders Family Pole (above). The Eagle represents the crest of Sunaats; the Killer Whale represents his wife Addie Saunders (nee Siwallace). The Saunders Chieftainship was held by the older brother of Silyas. In 2005, along with the name XimXimlayc ("Bringer of the Morning Light"), the Chieftainship was passed down to the eldest son of Silyas, "Skip" (Robert Saunders).

Above: Silyas travelling to the Snuxyaltwa Totem Pole Raising at Talyu on South Bentinck in August 2009. Right: Silyas as a young man with a gigantic spruce tree he has fallen.

Right: Silyas beginning to work on a large cedar log in his studio, April 2012. He says that big cedar trees like the one this log came from are difficult to find in Nuxalk Territory, after a half century of industrial clearcut logging. Silyas and other Nuxalk Chiefs say that the remaining monumental cedar trees must be preserved for Nuxalk cultural and traditional uses.

Sinu7ximus (Sylvia Saunders Bradt), daughter of Silyas, on Nuxalk culture and carving: "Like many Northwest Coast peoples, the Nuxalk of Bella Coola believed that their first ancestors descended from the upper world of the Creator. These first Ones had the special ability to change from human to animal form and back again. Eventually Salmon, Raven, Bear, Wolf, Mink and the other first ancestors lost their ability to transform and remained in their human shape. As time went on, Nuxalk culture became centered upon the ability of each family member to trace back their lineage to one or more of the first Ones to come down from Nusmata, the land above. Stories, dances, names, crests and carvings became sacred and cherished possessions of individual families. Special prerogatives were validated and passed down through the generations in order to keep the memory of each family's lineage alive. Winter ceremonials and potlatches retold the old stories in sophisticated dramatic reenactments where, through the use of dances, songs and masks, beings from the land above literally came alive for those not initiated into the secret societies performing the rituals. The audience believed that the masked dancers really were the figures they represented and in order to protect the deception masks were often burned after use. This meant that many new masks had to be made every year. This led to the creation of a very unique style of Nuxalk mask. Even today there are many artists from outside our culture who copy the Bella Coola style but there are very few Nuxalk carvers creating authentic Bella Coola masks. Even more rare are the Nuxalk carvers who still carve in the traditional style common before European contact."

Right: Nuxalk mask in the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. Below: Silyas visiting the Museum in April 2012 to study its Nuxalk collection of masks and other artifacts.

Above: Raising of the Ximkila Totem Pole carved by Silyas on 10 September 2011.

The Ximkila Totem Pole tells the story of how Raven gave light to the world. It is dedicated to the memory of "Qwatsinas Wii Ha Ximkila" (Scott Lee John Joseph Moody). Ximkila's name means the "Dawn of a New Day." The totem pole represents the transforming of life and bringing of light into the world. It stands in front of the new building of "Healthy Beginnings," a centre for pregnant women in Bella Coola.

The figures at the top of the Ximkila Totem Pole represent the Four Carpenters, who made all life, gathered around the Sun.The figure below the Four Carpenters is Raven, standing on the shoulders of Skimina. The figure on the Raven's belly represents Alhkw'tam, Creator. Skimina is holding Raven as he tranforms into a baby. His hands are reaching for the globe of light. The Lhalya between Skimina's legs represents Lhalyamc, Copper Man (John E. E. Moody).

In the beginning of time, when the world was covered in darkness, the very dim light was the colour of copper. The people were in constant sadness and prayed to the Creator, Alhkw'ntam, to give them light. Alhkw'ntam held the sun in a box in his longhouse in the land above, Nusmata, and let no one see the light. Raven rolled the globe of light back and forth and finally broke it against the longhouse wall. The light leaked out into the world through the smoke vent and became the sun, stars and moon. The people were no longer sad, because the darkness was gone.

Nuxalk Faces of the Sky – 2012

The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia opened an exhibition on 5 April 2012 called "Together Again: Nuxalk Faces of the Sky." In January 2013 the exhibition will move to the Seattle Art Museum. Two of the featured masks are reunited in the exhibition since both were removed from Bella Coola. The face mask and corona seen above were gifted to the Seattle Art Museum in 1976. The Ximkila Totem Pole by Silyas is documented in one display (left).


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