An iconic totem has been reinstalled at the Malahat Summit after it was set ablaze last summer, in an incident officials call a senseless act of racism.
On Thursday, the Modeste family hosted a private cultural ceremony at the lookout to mark the Salish Bear Totem’s reinstallation — an “important milestone” held on the eve of Orange Shirt Day, according to the City of Duncan.
City officials, along with representatives of the Cowichan Tribes, local First Nations, the Municipality of North Cowichan and the Cowichan Valley Regional District, were invited to attend the ceremony.
It was on July 2, 2021 when vandals set the totem on fire and left the message “One Totem — One Statue” graffitied at the scene. It was an apparent reference to an earlier incident where a statue of Capt. James Cook was removed and thrown into Victoria Harbour, according to the city.
Fortunately, passing motorists stopped to try to extinguish the flames, calling local firefighters and police to the scene. Shawnigan Lake RCMP launched an investigation that led investigators to believe the fire was arson.
The totem was then removed during a cleansing ceremony later that month and refurbished by Doug August, a Cowichan carver previously commissioned to restore several prominent totems in recent years.
“Historic injustices and ongoing racist attacks weigh heavily on our community,” Lydia Hwitsum, Chief of Cowichan Tribes, said in a news release.
“Quw’utsun people are taught by our Elders to help one another and work together for the good of all. It has been greatly appreciated to see and experience the support of the larger community for the repair and reinstallation of (the) Salish Bear Totem.”
The totem, created in 1966, was carved by Cowichan carver Stan Modeste for the Route of Totems. It commemorated the 100th anniversary of the joining of the Colony of Vancouver Island with the Colony of British Columbia.
According to the Modeste family, “(the) ceremony was healing for our family members after last year’s hateful act directed at the iconic totem carved by our father, the late Stan Modeste.”
The city says Modeste attended the Coqualeetza Industrial School in Chilliwack, served as Chief of Cowichan Tribes for two terms and, in the 1970s, was commissioned to carve a totem for a Canadian bank’s branch in Malaysia. He passed away in 1981.
“He used his talents to share with the world Quw’utsun culture and teachings around the sacredness of nature. We are pleased to see the Salish Bear restored to its intended beauty,” the Modeste family said.
The Ministry of Transportation covered the costs of the totem’s refurbishment, according to the city. The ministry had previously paid for the totem to be restored in 2015 due to aging caused by natural elements.
“When this pole was burned in a senseless act of racism, an elder shared with me the protocol process the carver, Stan Modeste, went through before he created the living, breathing representation of the culture that he was generous enough to share,” added Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples.
“This process of restoration has shown once again the generosity of the Quw’utsun people, and I am thankful for our work together to bring this pole back.”