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Walnut Park pole raising heralds academic excellence and reconciliation

Walnut Park Elementary School now has its totem pole.

Walnut Park Elementary School now has its totem pole.

The pole was designed and carved primarily by Gitxsan artist Dan Yunkws of the Wolf clan from K’san. The project was overseen by master carver Ron Austin.

School District 54 commissioned the pole with additional funding from the Town of Smithers, the First Peoples Arts Council, the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako and the Wetzin’kwa Community Forest.

“The concept for the totem pole is about children reaching for academic excellence going up the pole to their eventual success at the top of the pole,” said Birdy Markert, Indigenous principal for SD54.

SD54 superintendent of schools Mike McDiarmid underscored the significance of the location of the school in the area of town that was essentially a Witsuwit’en village on the outskirts of Smithers in the early European settler days. He said the purpose of the project was “to acknowledge and provide information on the Indigenous peoples of this area, for instance, the history around ‘Indian Town’.”

The pole-raising event on Sept. 29 was scheduled to roughly coincide with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30. It featured an assembly of Witsuwit’en hereditary chiefs and hundreds of people from Smithers and the communities. Many were dressed in orange to mark Orange Shirt Day, the precursor of the national holiday.

The large group assembled at the Bulkley Valley Museum and walked to Walnut Park as the 45-foot tall pole was transported down the highway for the much-anticipated unveiling.

Dance and music opened the event and the hereditary chiefs offered blessings prior to the raising.

Following the raising, all participants were treated to a feast inside the school where Elders shared their personal experiences growing up and the generational impacts of the residential school system.

They raised the issue of forced assimilation and the concept of reconciliation, bringing the purpose of the pole into sharp focus.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the funders of the project and contained language that was inappropriate, insensitive and disrespectful to the Witsuwit’en people. The Interior News apologizes.