Out of a piece of birch or the bark of a cottonwood tree emerges a face, a face that will keep a watchful eye over visitors to a Salmon Arm park.
Métis elder John Sayer worked in the North Okanagan-Shuswap School District for more than two decades. Since his ‘retirement’ a few years ago, he has returned once a week to the Storefront School in Salmon Arm to create carvings and connect with students.
The most recent project for Sayer and the school involves carvings sometimes called ‘wood spirits.’ Sayer has been creating the long, narrow faces carved into the wood of fallen trees for several years. Although he sells them, they accumulate. In Europe, he said, wood spirits taken into your home are supposed to be good luck as you’re taking nature into your house.
In collaboration with school staff, it was decided that students could attach a variety of the small carvings to the trees in Little Mountain Park (using ceramic screws so as not to harm the trees).
Sayer explained that when his grandson was at Shuswap Middle School, his class would go once a week for a walk through the park. Sayer and his wife also enjoyed walks there. So when he was selling his carvings at the local farmers market, people would tell him there’s a place in Terrace called Fairy Island that has carvings of faces along a walkway.
“So I thought maybe we should do that here… The students could have a tie to Little Mountain,” he said.
In a letter to city council, Storefront staff spoke of how invaluable the carving program with Sayer has been to the school, and requested permission to put up the carvings. Council supported the request.
“Installing these carvings would be a great way to bring some indigenous culture to the local trail system and would help our students build connections and ownership of their community…,” said the letter.
Coun. Louise Wallace Richmond said she thought it was an important project with a well-known and respected artist.
Mayor Alan Harrison agreed.
“They will peek out from the trees. It will be something further to look at as you go through the park to see if you can see them.”
In keeping with his Métis heritage, some of the faces Sayer creates are Indigenous while others, European.
He explains some of the European faces are equipped with pipes, as the pipe is part of Canada’s history that’s been forgotten.
It goes back to the fur trade, he said, where a pipe was a measure of distance.
The voyageurs would hang their pipes around their necks as they paddled. Everybody smoked back then, he said. Every two hours they’d stop and fill up their pipe.
“If you asked them how far is Kamloops, it would be two days and three pipes. They knew how long it was going to take.”
On the day of the interview, Storefront teacher Robin Wiens explained that the large round table sitting in the centre of the classroom was made by Sayer and students.
“John has the position of elder with the school district, but his position here is very much sitting around the table sharing stories while students are carving and asking questions.”
It’s very informal and welcoming, Wiens said.
On this day, just two students are participating in the carving program as some went on a school field-trip.
Jayden Currie appreciates carving and the other things he has learned from Sayer.
“I think it’s really cool. I think it gives people an opportunity to do something with their hands that’s not school work, you get to learn how to do it.”
He said he has also enjoyed learning about Métis culture.
Student William Dicer said he’s new at working with wood but he finds it exciting.
“It’s good to be able to take a break and just work on something – turning nothing into something. It’s really, really cool.”
As a child, John Sayer, who grew up in the Lower Mainland, saw the worst of the school system.
“So I could draw and they would put my drawing up on the wall, but they still called me retarded and slow and backwards and delayed, because when I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money, and I counted 11 elementary schools before Grade 3. I failed Grade 1, I failed Grade 3, and I was failing Grade 5 I think it was, and that was the end of school. By the time you’ve failed three times, they figure you’re lost.”
Those terrible school experiences are what prompted Sayer to return to the education system.
“Some teachers in those days would say, ‘well you have the same opportunity I did,‘ but what they don’t understand is you don’t have the same opportunities. And we don’t have the same experiences.
“So getting to go back and educate the educators on what it’s like to be that kid was pretty rewarding. They get to see it from the other side.”
As do many of the students he has interacted with over the years.
“Coming back, knowing what I went through and what other kids went through, when you tell them the story, they know they’re not alone.
“It’s not something you’ve read in a book…, you don’t train for that, it’s reality.”