A First Nations boy intently pounds one copper nail after another into the red cedar in front of him, completing a healing circle for a painful history that began 140 years ago. His efforts have been repeated by hundreds of others working the pinkish nails into the 67-foot long Reconciliation Pole at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, British Columbia since October 2016. For indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, copper is valued, used in ceremony and as an indicator of wealth and position. Copper’s preservative properties will supplement those of the red cedar to insure this Reconciliation Pole lasts countless years so it can tell its difficult story over and over again.
Two years ago, James Hart, renowned Haida artist, and a team of Haida carvers began searching for the cedar which would become the Reconciliation Pole. Revered by native tribes as the Tree of Life, red cedars can live for up to 2000 years. Once they found this 800-year old red cedar, they began reverently carving it into a powerful symbol of healing and restoration. The Reconciliation Pole symbolizes both the deep wounds caused by Canada’s Residential School system and the healing from those injuries.
Between 1876 and 1996, 150,000 indigenous children across Canada were ripped away from their families, their language and their culture and put into Residential Schools. Abducted by priests and government officials, native children were physically and sexually abused and denied visitation from their families. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Final Report, May 31, 2015 “found that physical genocide, biological genocide, and cultural genocide all occurred: physical, through abuse; biological, through the disruption of reproductive capacity; and cultural, through forced assimilation.”
Most of the nails will be placed in the carved Residential School girdling the middle of the Reconciliation Pole. Within the cedar pole’s “school,” strength and resilience sit side by side with painful memories as thousands of nails are pounded in.
57,200 copper nails will be pounded into the Reconciliation Pole before it is erected in 2017, representing children who died while at Residential Schools, many of them buried in unmarked graves on the schools’ grounds. Every indigenous family has their own story: of years of anguish, of parents hiding their little ones from officials, of children coming home to families not being able to speak their own language.
Today’s children pounding nails into the pole are completing the circle that was cruelly broken when family members were torn away from their mothers’ arms and sent hundreds of miles away from everything they knew.
Every copper nail driven home by native children’s hands is a rebuke to a system intent on erasing indigenous people and their culture.