When Ernest Puglas was 12 years old, while his family was working canning salmon, he went alone to his grandfather’s carving shed.
His grandfather is Kwakwaka’wakw master carver Sam Henderson Sr., a ‘Nakwaxda’xw chief from the village of Ba’as (Blunden Harbour).
“I was in the shed when they were canning and I touched my Uncle Billy’s knife,” he recalls. “And I carved my first plate with his knife.”
Now, nearly three decades later, Puglas is using a family knife again, this time to carve a welcome post in the Klahoose homelands, a historic event as the first carved in the town of Toq (Squirrel Cove) since contact with the Europeans.
“This is 100 years old,” he says, picking up his knife with a curved tip and a wooden handle smooth with use. “It belonged to my grandfather, this knife here. And I carved most of this totem pole with this one knife.
Klahoose First Nation is a small community with fewer than 100 members living on the reservation. The reservation imposed on “Isla Cortés” is found in one of the many places that they have occupied in their extensive territory.
During an early fall afternoon, Puglas is working in “Squirrel Cove” and the last golden light of day reflects off the ocean waves beside him.
The same light captures the wavy texture of the traditional knife finish on the welcome post, which sits mid-carving on the grass.
Puglas took 26 days to finish the carving, which he calls Princess Toq. Toq is the ʔayʔaǰuθəm name for “Squirrel Cove”, and the carving on her tells the story of a woman who lived in “Toba Inlet”.
He asks if the figure has a female energy, and it does. Wearing a cedar hat with three red bands painted on it, he has different eyebrow shapes and wears a blanket with an apron.
“I was the caretaker for 11 dogs,” shares Puglas. “She was a clam hunter and she was the daughter of a chief.”
Ten of the pups are male, seen in 10 white paw prints painted on the edge of the blanket. The eleventh cub is female, seen on the front of her blanket apron, along with a clam digging fork.
The woman depicted in the carving is the central figure in the toq qaymɩxʷ (Klahoose) origin story, explains Michelle Robinson, First Nation social development manager. The story goes that the woman is tricked by a rejected suitor into eating pitch which turns into a pregnancy.
Raven decides she’s a disgrace and asks her to run an errand. While she is out of it, the whole town leaves her alone, without tools or fire. But her grandmother hides an ember in a clam shell.
Grandma whispers the secret of where he is buried to a small dog, so that she will tell her granddaughter when she returns. Between having fire and being able to dig up clams, she survives.
The granddaughter gives birth to a litter of what appear to be puppies, but are her children, disguised in fur. She eventually discovers them in human form by following the sound of drums at night. She sees them without furs, dancing by the fire.
He knows that he can keep them in human form by throwing the skins into the fire. Through digging for clams, she is able to feed her children until they are old enough to help her.
Each one assumes a role: fisherman, hunter, cedar collector, and the only daughter is the one who works with each element, making food, tools, weaving. After Crow decides to control her, Raven returns to everyone.
A provincial grant financed the carving. The nation chose the theme Puglas would work with and asked him to incorporate his healing stone into the design. The stone itself also carries the story of Klahoose’s belonging to this place.
“When the churches came to burn all our relics and take our ceremonial things, we were not allowed to practice the culture, including wearing anything with animals or symbols on it,” explains Robinson. “They took him”.
Robinson says the stone, about 12 by 14 inches in diameter and 5 inches thick, has been carved to represent Raven. The stone is special to the nation and was hidden at Toq in the mid-to-late 1880s, during the time of Chief Joseph Hill, so church or government officials could not take it away.
“They sent this stone for protection, they hid it here. And so we know that it was of great importance,” says Robinson.
The stone was hidden for a long time, she says, but was eventually taken by an electrician who asked for it as payment for his services on the reservation, Robinson says. When she passed away, she left him in the care of her family and instructed them to return him to Klahoose.
“So that came back to us, and now the base of the welcome post, our creation story, will be worked on,” says Robinson.
“This welcome post will speak to people: where they are from and who they are, a sense of identity.”
Part of the polo process was inviting the community to share the pride. As Puglas cleared the bark off the trunk, before beginning marking and carving, the community gathered around (elders, children, community members, and staff) and each brushed the trunk with cedar in turn.
“You already felt the spirit of the log, but you could feel everything coming to life,” says Robinson.
Klahoose Chief Steven Brown says the pole is already having a positive effect on the community. In early September, he was distraught after dealing with racist comments from protesters against Klahoose’s logging activities. He was driving home and saw that the post was almost finished.
“Then I see Ernie and Steph and this beautiful pole,” she remembers, “It put everything into perspective and took away all those negative feelings.”
He hopes his community will have the same post experience, bringing positivity, optimism and a feeling of home.
“We talk all the time about nation-building and cultural revitalization,” he says. “And this is a perfect example of what that looks like in a tangible form. And that’s really powerful for our community.”
For the past three years, Puglas has been living in Klahoose, the home of his partner Stephanie Hanson. He grew up seeing many esteemed carvers around him, while growing up in his own Kwakwaka’wakw territories.
“I am the youngest grandson of 100 grandchildren. So being able to carve is a blessing for me,” she says.
“I sculpted under the wings of many of my cousins. As for the totem, I learned everything I know from Tommy Hunt Jr.
Puglas really looked at him and was given the chance to be a part of a couple of big Hunt projects. “I really couldn’t do any of this, if I didn’t pay attention to his blocking form.”
Junior Henderson was also one of his teachers, as was Greg Henderson.
“I paid attention to the art form they created. So I would be able to do it myself.” He gently removes a cedar curl from the carving and says, “And this is what has turned out.”
When he arrived at “Squirrel Cove” to be with Hanson, he describes it as a moment when he was lost. About four months ago, he was able to come out of this dark moment in his life and return to his craft that has accompanied him since childhood.
Making the welcome post, he says, has helped him in his healing and recovery.
“I was hooked on drugs and alcohol, and I was away from my artwork for five years,” he says.
“Being able to carve this for your community and cleanse my life at the same time is phenomenal… So this is the first post of many I hope.”
Grab a paintbrush and a small pot of red paint and start touching up spots on the carving. She pauses to laugh, “This color red? It’s called ‘No More Drama.’”
Hanson helped him with the post design, calculating the chalk lines to turn a rough log into a piece ready for carving.
It was a skill waiting to be used, and his hands have also worked on this piece. She smiles as she strokes the left side of the blanket representation.
“I did the whole left side of the blanket and then he went over it,” she smiles.
The carving was raised in a ceremony Wednesday, at the entrance to the multi-purpose building in Klahoose. Amid prayers, blessings and dances, an eagle’s down glided over the celebration.
“This is your medicine to the world,” Robinson thanked Puglas and Hanson. “This is our mother, she welcomes you, she is healing. I have felt the ancestors here along the carving.”