Totem pole unveiling celebrates culture, tradition and learning

October 19, 2015
Megan Catalano
Photo (left to right): Allan Cahoon, Royal Roads president and vice-chancellor; Tom LaFortune, carver; Wayne Strandlund, Royal Roads chancellor and board of governors chair; and Howard LaFortune Jr., apprenticeship carver in front of the totem pole.

Harvested on site, carved on site and raised on site, Royal Roads University’s first totem pole was unveiled on Oct. 13.

Named “S’ael”, a  Sencoten word for harmony, the 25-foot totem pole was commissioned and donated by the university’s Chancellor and Board of Governors Chair Wayne Strandlund and carved by local Tsawout artist Tom La Fortune assisted by Howard La Fortune Jr. The totem pole commemorates Royal Roads’ 75 years of changing lives celebrations - 55 years as a military college and 20 years as a public applied research university.

“Our 75 years of changing lives is a good time to memorialize with a symbol to remind us of our history as well as the qualities of respect, leadership and community,” says Strandlund. “S’ael welcomes you to Royal Roads - a place of education, guidance, challenge, adventure, sharing, peace and harmony.”

Royal Roads University rests on the traditional lands of the Lkwungen (Songhees) and Xwsepsum (Esquimalt) ancestors and families who shared this beautiful place with the neighbouring Nations of Scia’new (Beecher Bay) and T’Sou-ke (Sooke). The totem pole celebrates and honours Coast Salish culture and traditions woven into the fabric of the university’s site and the culture of life-changing learning at Royal Roads.

“It is important for Royal Roads to also acknowledge as part of its heritage, its connection with the local costal first nations communities and the traditional territory on which it is located. We are very appreciative of the generous gift that Chancellor Strandland had given to celebrate this heritage and our 75 years as a post-secondary institution,” says Royal Roads President and Vice-chancellor Allan Cahoon. “The totem pole is a beautiful and welcoming addition to our campus.” 

La Fortune combined elements of Royal Roads’ culture and environment into the pole’s design. The pole features three rings, each representing 25 years of history, reminiscent of the potlach rings traditional poles would have to show the number of potlaches held by the owner.

La Fortune explains all parts of the pole have special meaning, from the eagle who watches from the top, to the owl who reflects knowledge, and the frog who guides the spirit. The frog figure on the bottom of the pole is known in the Coast Salish culture as a spirit guardian and represents self-conscience.

“The old timers always say, ‘You can’t live a good life without a good conscience. You can’t have a good foundation without a good conscience,’” says La Fortune. “That works well with this pole and the university and learning.”

Above the frog, is a man with outstretched arms and palms facing up greeting all who pass by with a traditional welcome. Above the welcome figure sits an owl carved by La Fortune’s apprenticeship carver and nephew, Howard La Fortune Jr. The owl represents dignity, vision and knowledge in many cultures.

Atop the pole, sits an eagle with outstretched wings. The eagle is a favourite of La Fortune’s to carve and he links the eagle to the Royal Roads campus.

“I’ve always seen the eagle up there,” says La Fortune. “They’re here protecting and overseeing everything.”

Representing strength and leadership, the eagle completes the totem pole placed at the top of campus welcoming visitors to Royal Roads.