As David Seven Deers hacked away at a mound of grey-black stone, he unearthed stars.
Atop a steel table, reinforced to hold tonnes of weight, Shining Raven Woman Yamalot Heelah Shlahlee has revealed herself in Grand Forks.
When Seven Deers began whacking away at a chunk of Labradorite more than a year and a half ago, he says there was no full plan for what it would become. Though, he took hints whenever a chipped fleck from the stone would come flying to sting his face. Such a sign, he says, suggested he alter his approach. The aim from the beginning was simply “to work in beauty.” Now, the Salish-Halkomelem artist and a group of other Boundary locals are arranging to place the metre-tall sculpture of a blanketed woman, kneeling with a bowl of water bearing the crest of a shining raven at the confluence of the the Kettle and Granby rivers in Grand Forks.
“The exhilarating waves of her resonant voice which lay silent in the stone since the beginning of time now speak loudly to every heart that will listen and every hand that will feel,” the group writes in their description of the project, which describes the story behind the sculpture, as well as the vision for its future.
Five years ago, Seven Deers gifted the Boundary community another sculpture. The Gateway Learning Circle at the Entwined Trees Park in Midway was created to link students across the district, from Big White to Christina Lake. In some ways, Shining Raven Woman offers a similar opportunity.
At her core, Seven Deers says, Shining Raven Woman bears hope, unity and beauty. Such a being, then, fits well at the confluence of two rivers which have repeatedly wrought their influence over the inhabitants of the Boundary, offering the region its reason for bounty and its occasions of blight over the years.
“The choice of location where the two rivers meet is deeply symbolic as well,” the group writes in its description of their hope for Shining Raven Woman. “When two rivers join they create an even more powerful life-giving force, and so it is with humankind: we can strengthen and nurture each other in our shared humanity.”
Staring up at her from below Seven Deers’ work table, a viewer first sees the sugar cube-sized black and iridescent crystals of the raw Labradorite, which have been shaped by the sculptor’s labour into a blanket that flows like waves from the woman’s calm-set shoulders. Crystals, which look like they could pop out of the rock with the slightest tap of a wrong-angled chisel, sit flush and gleaming in Shining Raven Woman’s headpiece, blanket, and even within the beak of of the white raven etched onto the bowl of water in her lap.
Seven Deers says that some aspects of Shining Raven Woman – the raw crystals that appear to connect her blanket to the earth and the thousands of fine lines only visible at very close range – are the way they are to remind people who see her that the stone was worked by human hands. It’s an appreciation he’s had for a long time.
In the 1990s, Seven Deers says he was called back from Europe, where he had lived for a couple decades, after developers in Chilliwack had torn up an old village site of his Nation. He came back to stand with kin and the RCMP at the local dump, beside piles and piles of oily dirt that had been excavated from the site to find traces of the village, unearthed.
The dirt was oily, Seven Deers says, because it had been enriched by the years and years of salmon harvests that were caught and cleaned at that spot on the Fraser River. He recalls sinking his hand deep into one of the piles, dumped just next to household garbage. His fingers bumped into something solid in the mix. He dug further, wrapped his hand around the lump and hauled it from the dirt. Using a bit of spit and a shirt sleeve, he cleared off the gunk. The shiny, deep green stone gleamed. The jade was smooth, tapered to a point. Seven Deers had unearthed an old axe head. Hand-carved grooves revealed themselves, waiting for another handle.
The stone, sharpened to a point and without a chink in its surface, had the same fine lines that Seven Deers’ 10,000-grit sandpaper left on Shining Raven Woman. Signs of craft, signs of care. Reminders, lasting centuries, of the care someone took to shape a stone.
Shining Raven Woman, however, is not destined for the fate of that jade axe head. She’s being designed an earth lodge, to be lined with the same stars that emanate from her now. She’s not in a rush to get to the river bank either. First, Seven Deers has plans to tour Europe with her and his son, revisiting the people and places that have been affected by his previous works, sharing the story of the sculpture.
It may be a bit yet until people can meet Shining Raven Woman at the the rivers’ junction, given the city’s plan to install dikes along the downtown edges of the Granby and Kettle. In the meantime, Seven Deers and the group will be raising support for the sculpture and sharing the vision. Shining Raven Woman’s home will need to be cared for in perpetuity by the community, as she in turn offers a touch of hope and provides a point of beauty and unity.