On May 22, 2004, Interaction, a contemporary Coast Salish sculpture by Native artist Susan A. Point (b. 1952), is unveiled at the Port of Friday Harbor's Fairweather Park on San Juan Island. The monumental carved and painted cedar-house-post sculpture is "the first public acknowledgement of the island's tribal heritage" (Walker) and represents a healing chapter in local history. Located just above the harbor near the Washington State Ferry landing, the house posts stand as Portals of Welcome.
By the time of the May 22 unveiling, what had started as the desire of a small group of islanders -- the Portals of Welcome Committee -- to bring art by a world-renowned artist to the islands had blossomed into a bridge connecting the island's cultural and environmental past, present, and future. Local residents, businesses, tribal members, the Town of Friday Harbor, and the Port of Friday Harbor all donated cash or in-kind services to bring the project to fruition, and a crowd of more than 200 gathered for the unveiling.
Marge Workman, a San Juan Island resident of Swinomish and Mitchell Bay Tribe ancestry, who passed away before the two-and-a-half-year fundraising effort was completed, commented about the campaign, "The Indians used to be looked down upon. Finally people seem to care. I think that it is wonderful that we will be represented on the island" (Schonberger).
Wayne Suttles (1918-2005) of San Juan Island, a leading authority on the ethnology and linguistics of the Coast Salish, related at the time of the unveiling that emotions had dramatically changed during his 60 years of study of local coastal peoples, from a generation reluctant to talk of their Native ancestry to current youth who were proud and curious about their heritage.
Earlier, in an editorial in the Journal of the San Juan Islands, editor Richard Walker wrote:
"With the Portals of Welcome project, San Juan Island can right a wrong ... [The house posts] would be the first public acknowledgement of the island's tribal heritage. That's the wrong that should be corrected.
"For thousands of years, various tribes -- particularly the Lummi, Samish, and Swinomish -- summered or had villages on San Juan Island. This island was also the home of the Mitchell Bay Tribe, which in 1919 numbered 212 people" (Walker).
Although the Mitchell Bay Tribe never received federal recognition, several descendants of the tribe still live on San Juan Island. Getting formal permission from them to place Interaction in their territory -- something that Susan Point insisted upon as proper etiquette -- was a turning point in the fund raising effort. Ultimately, the presence of the sculpture helped reestablish a Salish footprint in the San Juan islands.
Coast Salish art had almost disappeared by the time Susan Point began her career in the early 1980s. Because of cultural restrictions on the public display of wealth or family mythology, Salish people did not create public art such as the totem poles or house paintings of the nations to the north. Considered sacred and deeply private, Salish art was rarely viewed by outsiders.
Susan Point helped change the perception and knowledge of Coast Salish art. From her home on the Musqueam First Nation Reservation in Vancouver, B.C., she produced monumental works in wood, glass, and metal. Her work, which can be found throughout the world in airports, stadiums, and museums, includes the central piece in the rotunda at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
The symbolism of the two house posts that make up Interaction is described in a book on Point's work:
"'Interaction' consists of two posts connected by a crossbeam to form one structure. On one post a woman stands on a base extending her arms and hands to the paws of a mountain lion; a copper dome reflects their shared environment ... Point states that the human/animal relationship is a metaphor for the respect we must have for the world and our environment if we are to survive.
"Joining the two house posts is a connecting beam. In a longhouse, this beam would carry the rafters for the roof planks ...
"The second house post is a complex representation from the ocean ... A killer whale looking down from the top of the post has its tail curled up at the base. The whale's tail, carved with a shark's-head motif, is designed as a seat. It is the artist's intention that the individual who sits here completes the sculpture by connection to the life cycle" (Susan Point).
According to Point, the figures of the mountain lion and the woman in Interaction were based in part on an old Musqueam house post from approximately 1890.
For those in related teaching fields, Interaction became a powerful resource. Even before the unveiling, Robin Jacobson, at the time Education Coordinator at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, wrote:
"We refer to the islands' Coast Salish peoples as our first educators; the first stewards of this magnificent, diverse, and fragile marine ecosystem. This reinforcement of environmental stewardship will make a long-lasting and unique impact upon our local community as well as our visiting community" (Jacobson letter).
Island Story, Island Treasure
From the time of their unveiling the house posts became a gathering place for islanders and visitors -- especially children, often awed by the sculpture's size, engaging motif, and deep, colorful carvings.
House posts were located inside longhouses and told the stories of the owners of the house; similarly Interaction tells the story of the San Juan Islands and how islanders care for their environment.
Shortly before his death in 2005, Wayne Suttles wrote this about the Coast Salish for a bronze history plaque placed near the house posts: "They cared for the land that sustained them. Their stewardship is our inheritance" (Suttles).
As the 10th anniversary of the Portals of Welcome approached, funds were being raised to restore Interaction, with a community celebration planned for after the house posts were restored.