A Totem Pole for Mio
Sammy Takahashi, president of the Japan-Canada Chamber of Commerce, was shopping at the Save-On-Foods on Marine Drive near his home in North Vancouver when he noticed a totem pole standing in the store. The chance encounter with the unique pole got him thinking.
Having recently hosted a delegation from Mio, in Wakayama, the sister city of Richmond, Takahashi had learned that Mio is facing hard economic times. Seeing the pole gave him the idea that a pole from Canada would not only symbolize the friendship between the countries and acknowledge the importance of Mio to Japanese Canadian history, but could help revitalize tourism in the town sometimes called Amerika-mura.
Takahashi learned from the woman at the customer service desk that the pole had been carved by a local carver, Darren Yelton, of the Squamish Nation. Not only that, she had his number. Within hours, the two men were sitting talking at Yelton’s home in Xwemlch’stn, in the shadow of the Lions Gate Bridge.
Takahashi told Yelton the story of how master carpenter Gihei Kuno had left Mio in 1888 and travelled to Canada in search of some way to save his impoverished hometown. Kuno soon sent word back to Mio that fish were literally jumping into his boat in this land of opportunity. Initially skeptical, the village began sending young men to Steveston to join Kuno, and before long most of Mio’s workforce was fishing the mouth of the Fraser River, sending their earnings home to those left behind in Japan.
Kuno became known as the father of Japanese immigration to Canada and Mio’s links to Steveston remain strong to this day.
Intrigued by the story of Gihei Kuno and his quest to save his village over 130 years ago, Yelton agreed to carve the pole.
Not long afterwards, Takahashi found himself in Japan on a goodwill mission. There, he met up with Toshio Takai, a great-grandson of Gihei Kuno and a successful businessman in Hyogo. On hearing Takahashi’s idea to have a pole carved for Mio, Takai agreed to pay to have the pole carved and shipped to Japan.
Darren Yelton has sent the past several months carving the pole and is now preparing to the ship it to Mio. Both Yelton and Takahashi will accompany the pole to Mio, courtesy of Mr. Takai.
Bulletin Interview: Darren Yelton + Sammy Takahashi
Sammy I heard that there was a movement about getting a totem pole erected in Mio about twenty years ago, but it never happened. There was a member of town council who really wanted to see a totem pole in Mio, but he passed away without seeing one a couple of years ago. I really wanted to make it happen.
Darren, tell me something about yourself and your history as a carver.
Darren My name is Darren Yelton. I am a master carver here in the Squamish Nation. My given name is K’na’kweltn. It means he who works for the future of his people. I do that through my totem poles and artwork, keeping the accent of traditional art alive in my village. The history of my family is very strong in our community. My great grandparents lived in what now is called Stanley Park. My family was forced to move off that territory in the early 1900s, when the government turned it into a federal park. My family moved off in 1931 across Burrard Inlet where we live today.
My mother’s parents lived up Squamish Valley in a village called Cheakamus, so the history in both sides is very strong in our nation. My grandpa and grandma left a big legacy and had two hundred and thirty-one grandchildren. This was audited by my wife in 2007. So, our family has expanded more since they are no longer here. My grandpa lived to be 84 years old. Our grandma 95 years old. So as a carver in our community, I know my grandparents on both sides are looking down from the heavens and are proud of my accomplishment here in our village.
Where did you learn to carve and how long have you been carving?
Darren I, Darren as a young boy was growing up watching my father carve. It not only inspired me to carve just by sitting in our small house down Capilano Reserve until I was ten years old, and even watching my mom do the painting for our dad’s totem poles, but also our neighbours were also carvers too. There were about eleven homes and I’m pretty sure that most of them carved. I watched Stan Joseph, Edmond Billy, Johnny, Billy, Wally, Nahanee Will Lewis, my uncle Tubby Cole Percy, Paul Howard Williams and by learning the art of carving. Watching all these men, I said to myself, “That’s what I want to do” So I asked my father when I was nine-years-old, “Can I learn how to carve?” He then gave me a pocketknife and said, “If you can sharpen that knife, I will teach you.” For almost two years I spent on learning the art of carving from my dad. Then he and my mom separated. My mom and my sister moved in with our grandpa and grandma. But I had a lot of new friends up the road from grandpa’s house. It was the condo where my friends all got together when we as kids at the age of ten till I was about seventeen. We got together at Paul Joseph’s mom’s condo. We all started carving in a big group about fifteen of us. Today there’s only about six of us left. We taught each other how to carve. It was fun. I sold my first eagle plaque to our uncle for twenty dollars which I spent on my cousins. When I went back to grandma’s house, there were seven of us all eating candy pop and chips. My uncle said to me, “What did you do with your money?” I said, “I spent it on my cousins.” He laughed and opened his wallet and pulled out another twenty dollars and said, “you spend this on yourself,” and since that day I never put my carving tools down. I just love being a carver because I’m my own boss. I can never get fired for the love of being a carver.
I am now celebrating fifty years as a master carver in my village carving totems, masks, wall murals, cedar doors, coffee tables and etc. starting at the age of nine and to this day, I never stopped. It’s been in my family for as long as I can remember. I’m so happy to keep my culture alive as a totem pole carver because our ancestors are looking down at me and raising their arms and saying, “Don’t stop keeping on carving and pass down your knowledge to the young men in your village who want to learn the skills as a carver.” To this day, I have taught my skills to about fifteen carvers in our village.
What was it about the story of Gihei Kuno and the town of Mio that struck a chord with you?
Darren I met Sammy Takahashi. When he came to my home, he then said he knew a gentleman in Japan who was interested in purchasing a totem pole and then he asked, “Can you carve it for a man named Gihei Kuno in honour of his accomplishment here in Canada?” I said, “Of course I can.” Then Sammy explained how Gihei came to Vancouver to prosper as a fisherman all the way from Japan. I said, “Wow. For him to travel across the ocean to support his family and village.” The story inspired me even more when he said that he brought three thousand people here to begin a new life out Steveston as fishermen. Our people here in the Squamish Nation have fished here for thousands of years. We have many rivers and creeks where we fish to this day and for Gihei Kuno to leave his village in 1888 takes a lot of courage to cross over the Pacific Ocean to prosper here in British Columbia. I could vision all the story he had to share with all the men travelled from Mio to witness the millions of salmon in our territories, so I could not say no to making this a reality for such a humble human being.
Tell me about the pole itself. What elements are on it and how did you choose them?
Darren When Sammy came to our home, I took him around our territory to see all the totem poles I had created. Each totem pole tells a story and has a great meaning. There were about fifteen totems in all. So I said to Sammy, “I’m going to draw some designs to send to Mr. Takai who is a great grandson of Gihei Kuno. One drawing totally fit the image of Gihei. It was a bald eagle holding a Welcome Man and a Grizzly Bear holding a salmon.
The symbol of the eagle represents power and prestige. Gihei had the power to travel so far, prestige to prosper in for his goals in life, so the eagle is highly respected by our people like a village elder. So Gihei too had to be respected by his village in Mio.
Kyatchtn That’s the welcome figure the eagle is holding. Gihei shows that quality of the Welcome Man to bring thousands of his people to Canada to prosper. The way he did just shows he was not only thinking for himself, but for his people to invite and bring to a new world. It just shows he had the heart of a Kyatchtn to our people. Its symbol means I reach my arms out to you in welcome.
Grizzly Bear To the Squamish Nation people, the bear is a symbol of strength. For Gihei to prosper in a new world and travel so far that takes a lot of strength, so when a bear travels through our territory, he visits to pass down strength to our village. When I look at Gihei’s photo, I thought to myself that he’s a man who passed down strength to the village of Mio. That’s why I chose the Grizzly Bear because the bear brings strength to our people. When it walks through our village, we highly respect the bear like our grandfather for the strength he passes down to his family. And for Gihei to come to our territory to begin his life cycle. I said to myself, “Wow. This man deserves the respect.”
I know totem poles have a long history on the west coast and that they are imbued with meaning and symbolism. Is it unusual to carve a pole for a non-indigenous group?
Darren As a master carver of fifty years, it is not unusual to carve a totem for Gihei Kumo here in our territory. I created many totems for many schools and parks and cities here in Vancouver and worldwide sharing my culture. It is what I enjoy. Our totems are house poles, family poles, memorial poles and territorial poles. This pole for Gihei is a memorial pole and to share this totem pole in honour of him is a culture totem pole showing the respect that I carry in my heart for this gentleman. When I started the totem, I had it blessed. I do this with all of my projects, so all good feelings only go into the old growth cedar I carve, plus while I’m working on the totem I’m praying for Gihei and family so that the life they have now may prosper and live like the way he did.
What does this project and this pole mean to you?
Darren Carving this totem pole for Gihei Kuno means bringing two cultures together in peace and friendship to share our culture and the history of our ancestors, so this project has a lot of meaning to honour one man for the dreams he carried in his heart to help thousands of people to fulfil their dreams to adventure like Gihei did. So, I, Darren Yelton, ancestral name, K’nakw’eltn, am very humbled to carve this memorial totem pole for my ancestral brother, Gihei Kuno from across the Pacific Ocean where his home was in Mio, Wakayama, Japan. So, this totem pole will stand strong for all the men and women who followed the dreams of Gihei Kuno.
Osiam. It means thank you in my language.
Sammy, tell me about your discussions with the people in Japan.
Sammy I consider myself a visionary. People in Mio thought that my idea was great, but not realistic. What it boiled down was who would fund the project. Luckily I met Toshio Takai, a great grandson of Gihei Kuno thanks to Ted Furumoto who is the author of the Vancouver Asahi on which the movie was based on and created in 2014. Takai read Furumoto’s book and wanted to know about Gihei Kuno whose name was mentioned several times in the book.
Tell me what this project means for you, and what you hope the pole will do for Mio.
Sammy My role at the Japan Canada Chamber of Commerce is to strengthen the friendship between Japan and Canada through business, culture, education and tourism. I’d be happy if this totem pole would become an attraction to bring a lot of tourists from both Japan and Canada to Mio, America-mura. Hopefully, this would help rejuvenate the town.