Renowned Coast Salish carver Luke Marston points to a sacred Bent Wood Medicine Box as one of the pieces he’s been most proud of. Made from old-growth western red cedar, Marston says “We believe that when we cut down one of those old growth trees, or any tree, we give it a new life into something else. It’s still a living thing, it still has its own spirit.”
The Bent Wood Box was commissioned in 2009 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. After years travelling around the country as the centrepiece of healing circles, collecting items from Residential School Survivors related to their personal journeys, and a time on display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the box now resides at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Asked about the Box’s role in Canada 150, Marston said “They say they collected 7000 statements and they’re all in that Box, so if people want to come here, talk, and still use the Box, I think that’s really necessary.”
“I don’t believe that the journey of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is over,” Marston explained. “I don’t think healing can be done that quickly – undo all this in five years – especially with the diversity of the people that were affected through the schools. I don’t really know what I see for the 150th for the Box, but I’m happy to see that it’s carrying on and still working and helping people to heal.”
“I used to wonder why my grandmother didn’t teach us our language,” Luke says. “I used to get mad about it, but it’s not their fault at all.”
Taken from her family as a young child, Marston’s grandmother was prohibited from speaking her language, Hul’q’umi’num,’ while at residential school.
“At one point, I remembered how her hand was crippled,” Luke says. “I always thought it was arthritis, but when I started talking to my mom about this project, she told me it was because [my grandmother] was thrown down the stairs. Her hand broke, and they left it. They didn’t take her to a doctor, and it healed crooked.”
The experience led her to discourage Jane, Luke’s mother, from speaking Hul’q’umi’num’ as a child. As a result, Luke and John grew up speaking English exclusively, but they’ve since begun to study the language of their elders.
A list of Hul’q’umi’num’ words and phrases, along with their English translations, is taped to a wall behind one of Luke’s work benches. Luke’s daughters are learning to speak the language as well, something Luke considers key to helping them establish a rich and healthy sense of cultural identity.