Parkdale graduates rally to save school totem pole
First, some history. In 1967, during a snowstorm, a Hamilton bus slid into a new hydro pole on Barton Street fracturing it at the base.
Fifty years later, that pole still holds up lines of power, so to speak, transmitting a kind of electricity from one generation to another and, now perhaps, from one set of sensitivities to another.
The pole, with some repair patches grafted on from other sources, stands proudly and colourfully at the front door of Parkdale Elementary School. It’s a symbol not only of Parkdale, but the community that draws energy from the school.
At the time, word got around that opportunity teacher Walter Moir wanted his students to work on a totem pole project, but the old telephone pole acquired for the purpose was too soft to carve.
So, the broken pole was allocated to the school, the Hamilton Street Railway pitched in the paint, and upon delivery, the pole was put on saw horses and divided into three-foot sections. The whole school worked on it, painting stories up and down its height.
“A photograph on the front of The Spectator,” former Parkdale parent Abbie Boyko tells me, “showed how they got it erected on the school’s front lawn.” Kids and teachers, using skipping ropes to pull it out and guy it up.
They love their totem pole at Parkdale, its image even figuring on their flashing sign.
It will be considered, along with potentially all school logos, mascots and nicknames under the Hamilton public board’s jurisdiction, in a provincially mandated review process to ensure cultural sensitivity, prompted by a 2016 bid to bar the Cleveland Indians’ name and mascot at Toronto Blue Jays games.
Nothing has happened yet, but Abbie’s not waiting to be reactive.
“We’re not letting go,” she says, pre-emptively. She fought to keep the school open when it was being considered for closure.
“I care,” she says. “The totem pole is not just outside.” An image of it is painted on the wall inside and around it the signature of every student who graduates.
There are new guidelines, says Jackie Penman, corporate communications manager of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, but the pole isn’t being singled out. Any symbol might come under scrutiny.
“The next step,” Penman says, “is the board’s Indigenous Education Circle will be asked if there are any concerns. If the answer is no, we’re not going to pursue it.”
Says Sharon Stephanian, superintendent of leadership and learning: “There will be a conversation about the pole, but connected to it will be a conversation about what it means to the school as a logo, an entity with history in the school” and possibly a teaching tool.
The process is designed, she says, to ensure there’s respect for all parties.
Former Parkdale parent ShariLyn Terry, who was born in British Columbia and has Haida offshoot ancestry, was given the totem pole to restore at her home in 2010 after it began to decay.
“I sat in the backyard for months, with a leg brace at the time, fixing it, replacing sections. Every time I walk by I’m proud.”
She used her knowledge of totem pole symbols to bring the design in line with native tradition, building a story around it and depicting the owl to stand for learning, teaching, wisdom; and the bear for strength; the orca for family; and so on.
The restored totem pole was dedicated in 2010 with a smudging ceremony and shawl dance, both performed by Shari-Lyn.
She’s part-native but, Shari-Lyn
says, “In my heart I’m full. I walk the culture.”
There are native children in the school. It’s near a native centre with a day care, Niwasa Head Start, where some Parkdale families go. And “the school is built on native land,” says Shari-Lyn.
“The totem pole belongs here,” she says.
Adds John Terry, her son, a graduate, “It makes the school stand out.”
Shari-Lyn Terry, left, and former Parkdale students and parents have rallied to protect a totem pole that stands at the entrance to the east-end school.