This is part 4 of a series on Christian art of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Read part 1 here.
“The Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.”—Malachi 4:2a
Don Froese (traditional name: PeqYexwela) belongs to the Seabird Island Band of Stó:lō Nation, a Coast Salish people group living along the Fraser River in Agassiz, British Columbia. Raised by Christian parents and trained by master carvers, Froese has been at his art for twenty-five years.
The carving above was commissioned by Wiconi International for the seventh World Christian Gathering of Indigenous Peoples, held in Jerusalem in September 2008. The purpose of the gathering, according to Wiconi.com, was to “celebrate that we can be authentically Christian (followers of Jesus) and authentically Indigenous (who God made us).”
Using the visual language of his people, Froese depicts the crucifixion of Christ. It’s a picture of a love that suffers long, spills out, and uplifts, that carries us through life and into eternity. The carving shows, paradoxically, how a moment of supreme darkness in the history of the world was also a moment of supreme light.
Jesus is depicted as a sun—a wordplay on his role as “Son.” The sun-face is a traditional motif in Northwest Coast art, and here it evokes Jesus’s self-declaration from John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” And maybe less familiarly the Messianic prophecy of Malachi quoted above.
The four rays protruding from the sun-face, said Froese, represent the four races (red, yellow, black, and white), the four directions, and the four seasons. (Stanley Peters used a similar symbol in his Totem Cross.) The top two rays contain the nail-pierced hands of the Savior, while the bottom two contain his nail-pierced feet. These wounds extend to all peoples all over the globe, for all time. There is nowhere the Sun’s light does not reach.
Notice how the top two wounds appear as little orbs being held in the mouths of two extraneous figures. The placement of one creature in unexpected parts of another is a common device in Northwest Coast art known as “visual punning.” You might see, for example, a human face painted inside a whale’s fin, or a bear’s ear. It’s a way of filling visual voids and is often humorous in intention but also references the Native belief in the interconnectedness of life. Here I read it as Christians tasting the wounds of Christ—feeding daily on his grace, and identifying with him in his death by daily dying to self and being poured out for others. This is the meaning of the Eucharist: we ingest with thanks the mystery that is the cross, and from it receive power and nourishment to be Christ to the world.
Moving into the center, we see that Christ’s eyelids are weighed down by salmon, which symbolize sustenance, as salmon is the main food source along the Northwest Coast. The fish is a common symbol in early Western Christian art as well, meant to bring to mind such stories as the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’s call to his disciples to be fishers of men. When Christianity was a persecuted religion, Christians used the fish as a secret sign to identify one another and to confess their creed: the Greek word for fish, ichthys, they appropriated as an acronym for Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr (“Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”). Froese’s choice to include the salmon draws on both traditions. It’s a reminder of how Christ has sustained the church through the centuries and is sustaining her still.
The red-and-black split-U forms that frame Christ’s face are traditionally styled ears. Froese says they are the ears of God, who listens to the cries of his people. But, he says,
He is not a passive listener. His deep listening to human suffering brings tears, not just drops of tears but great blue rivers of tears which flow down to and connect with the great canoe. The rivers of tears also appear as paddles for the great canoe. The empathetic co-suffering of the Creator and Savior with His creation propels the great canoe, giving both power for and ultimate meaning to our human journey, including transport back to the Creator.
What a beautiful depiction of such a beautiful truth! God’s answer to our suffering was to enter into it himself through the person of Jesus Christ. Christ’s death on the cross becomes for us both a propulsion and steering mechanism that drives us forward into eternity, back into the arms of our Creator. See how his tears sweep under the canoe?
The Great Canoe is a popular Coast Salish legend, similar to the Old Testament story of the Flood. It tells of how the Native Americans built a fleet of canoes and tied them all together with cedar-bark rope to withstand a devastating storm. Here Froese uses the canoe to symbolize the human journey through life.
The eagle head on the bow of the canoe depicts strength and power. The Judeo-Christian tradition ascribes similar symbolic associations to the eagle, as seen in Isaiah 40:31: “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
This prophetic promise holds just as true today as it did for the ancient Israelites: those who travel through life powered by the love and grace of God, as shown in Christ, trusting in his strength—a strength which turns death into life—will arrive safely at their final destination.
Read part 5.