Two fishermen move along the river in a shovel-nosed canoe trying to hook a salmon, but a serpent is headed straight at them, bent on catching the same fish.
The men, one with a push pole, the other with a gaff hook, sit poised to face the yellow, red and green serpent — a stand-in for all that has made it harder to put salmon on the table.
“I see the serpent as poorly regulated fisheries in Washington state that were overfished,” said local carver Felix Solomon, the artist who crafted the tale in the form of a 12-foot story pole soon to be installed at Bellingham International Airport.
The pole is the culmination of a project started several years ago when the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and Whatcom Museum started working with the city of Bellingham to find a piece of artwork for Maritime Heritage Park.
“It’s Mine: Coast Salish Story Pole” will be dedicated 1 p.m. Friday, March 11, at Bellingham International Airport, 4255 Mitchell Way. The public event is free. Bring parking stubs to the event for validation.
Solomon, of Lummi and Haida heritage, has worked to renew traditional Coast Salish style and agreed to do the project.
The groups raised money through various fundraisers, but after struggling to meet their goal, the project sat mostly dormant until 2015. That’s when Lummi Nation Chairman Tim Ballew connected Solomon with Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix, who had started to look for art for the newly renovated airport.
Fix approved $23,000 to get the project the final funding it needed to be realized, and the Port Commission approved the additional about $5,000 the port needed to pay in sales tax.
With the final funding in place and some preliminary work already done, Solomon set in to carve the old growth red cedar log in January, and worked on it seven days a week through February. It was completed a few weeks before the March 11 installation at the airport.
The original story represented in the piece came from Solomon’s own experience and personal point of view as an artist, a tribal member and a former commercial fisherman.
Solomon called the piece “It’s Mine,” because “everybody thought the salmon was theirs,” he said.
“Salmon was fished to an extreme of almost extinction once they had a dollar amount on it,” Solomon said.
Four legs hold up the pole, each with a salmon above a diamond-pattern fishing net that represents the commercialization of fish, Solomon said.
“I want all who fish to be responsible, native or non-native,” he said. “I was responsible for the deterioration of fish as much as everyone else — I was a commercial fisherman.”
The challenges facing salmon are three-pronged, he said.
It’s going to relay a message I think is really important — salmon in general is harder to get.
Felix Solomon, Lummi-Haida artist who created “It’s Mine” story pole
First, overfishing and poor regulations impacted the salmon numbers.
In the early days of commercial fishing, “they caught so many fish they didn’t have enough freezers, enough coolers for them, so the extra were left to rot,” Solomon said. “They were just discarded without regards to how many they were taking.”
Then, logging removed trees that create shade, which is needed to create habitat for salmon to spawn.
Third, over-fertilization runs off into rivers and streams, and can promote algae growth and damage the ecosystem.
The pole is horizontal, which is not typical for story poles, Solomon said.
It is painted with acrylic colors meant to match traditional paint colors. Traditional yellow on the serpent would have come from alder bark, the blue water from blue clay, black from ash, red from red cedar or red clay.
The serpent, salmon and canoe, as well as the four salmon legs that hold up the pole, are all carved from the same log. The fishers and their poles were carved separately.
This story pole will be a tremendous asset for our community as it celebrates the Coast Salish heritage of our region and highlights the importance of the Pacific Northwest’s iconic salmon.
Rob Fix, Port of Bellingham executive director
Just more than a week before the dedication, Solomon, seated in his workshop, said it felt good to be done with the project.
“There’s a lot of emotion tied into it,” Solomon said. “It has gotten a good response by people who have come and looked, people whose opinions really matter to me. It’s going to relay a message I think is really important — salmon in general is harder to get.”
The pole will be dedicated during a 1 p.m. ceremony Friday, March 11, at the airport, 4255 Mitchell Way.
“The Port has been interested in displaying permanent public art at the airport terminal since completing the $38.6 million expansion of BLI in 2014,” Fix said in a news release about the event. “This story pole will be a tremendous asset for our community as it celebrates the Coast Salish heritage of our region and highlights the importance of the Pacific Northwest’s iconic salmon.”
It will be installed in the area between baggage claim and check-in, where visitors do not need to cross through security. People will be able to walk around it and see it from all sides.
In the end, more than 150 groups and individuals donated to or helped with the project. They are recognized on a brochure that will be placed near the piece in the airport so visitors can learn more about the pole and Solomon.
People who attend the dedication ceremony can park in the main terminal lot and bring their parking stub to the event to be validated.