A ‘welcome pole’ being carved for new Native American housing complex

Coast Salish Indians are carving out a special place on their native land and getting a big financial boost from the hometown band, Pearl Jam.

A towering welcome home pole will soon rise in the city named for a legendary Duwamish Tribal Chief.

The welcome home pole will stand outside the Chief Seattle Club in Pioneer Square.

It will be designed to greet the residents of the city’s first affordable housing project solely for American Indian/Alaska native people who are homeless.

With these hands, a razor sharp carving knife and a giant piece of wood, Andrea Wilbur-Sigo will fashion a Coast Salish welcome pole. It will be the first of its kind to stand anywhere in the Emerald City.

“We’re able to tell our story,” said Wilbur-Sigo. “I can represent our tribal people right here where I was born. I was born in Seattle at the University of Washington.

Wilbur-Sigo lives and carves in Shelton, an enrolled member of the Squaxin Island Tribe.

She fought to find her place in the traditionally male world of Native carvers.

“I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said. “I mean come from a long line of really stubborn women. I didn’t care. I was doing exactly what I was created to do.”

Still it has taken years, she says, to be recognized in this way.

“We weren’t given the opportunities to be able to do big public, public pieces,” she said.

But she was commissioned to create a welcome pole that stands outside a retirement home in Lacey.

Now she has been selected to use her incredible talent to carve a very public piece some 81 miles from home to welcome home those without one.

“15% of our homeless is Native American people,” says Colleen Echohawk. She is executive director of the Chief Seattle Club in Pioneer Square, where soon will rise an 80-unit housing complex for American Indian and Alaska Native people.

“They have been experiencing homelessness on Coast Salish territory, Coast Salish land, for much too long,” said Echohawk.

The complex will be called “al-al,” the Lushootseed word for “home.”

They decided they wanted, they needed a way to welcome its residents home with something monumental and indigenous to this land.

“We specifically asked for Coast Salish artists,” says Echohawk. “We said we want to work with the Coast Salish community.”

They settled on Wilbur-Sigo from among five carvers.  Echohawk was asked how she rose to the top.

“You know we asked questions when we did the interviews,” replied Echohawk. “We said ‘what is your idea of home?  What does home mean to you?’ And she’s a mother and a grandmother. And she spoke so eloquently about what home means to her. She also spoke so clearly about her connection to this area.”

Pearl Jam agreed to donate seed money through its Vitalogy Foundation.

“Like thank you Stone and Mike who really like pushed us forward,” said Echohawk. “We’re just so grateful for the whole band.”

It can be difficult to imagine just how long a 25-foot log is. But the one Wilbur-Sigo says she will be carving is so long they are planning to attach what she calls a ‘pole building’ to her home garage just to accommodate it.

For her, the project represents a straight line from her ancestors to those yet to come.

“I take the roots that were left for me and I’m adding to them for them to add to one day,” she said.

And she will help send a message to a traumatized people, still living with the heartache of being forced from their own land.

“We are saying to our community, we see you as a native person,” said Echohawk. “And we want to invite you to be a part of this new community, this new home where your culture, your life, your art is celebrated and lifted up so we lift up this whole city. Because what’s good for the Native community is good for everyone.”

A good that will soon loom large for all to see.

The new housing complex is expected to be completed by October of next year.

That’s when the welcome pole is to be installed, too.