TOFINO, B.C. - By chip of his chisel and swing of his adze, a Vancouver Island university student has carved for the world a tale about cultural acceptance that has roots as deep as the cedar from which it was formed.
Hjalmer Wenstob's one-and-a-half-metre tall totem will go on display at Vancouver International Airport on Friday, the result of a scholarship from the YVR Art Foundation.
The totem tells the story of an ancestor, a distant grandfather, who was forced in the 19th century to earn the respect of fellow band members during a life-threatening maritime challenge, partly because he was an albino.
For Wenstob, of mixed First Nations, English and Norwegian ancestry, the totem is more than a story, especially since he has the same skin-pigment-lightening condition, vitiligo, as his ancestor, and a similar struggle with being accepted.
"The more you carve it, the more you notice you are carving it for yourself," said Wenstob, 19, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation on Vancouver Island's west coast.
"I mean, it's for the family, it's for my cousins, and my aunts and uncles and everyone, but I slowly see the story that I have to say as well, you know. You have to fight your way in, in a way, in a non-violent way, but you have to push right into the village to be accepted."
The totem is not the first work for Wenstob, who carved a traditional canoe and totem while still in high school in Ucluelet, B.C.
He is currently carving about 20 traditional canoe paddles for a cultural project in Victoria and will carve a 50th anniversary totem for the University of Victoria next year.
During a recent private showing of the totem in the small community of Opitsaht, on Meares Island, Wenstob acknowledged he has experienced difficulties because of his mixed heritage but noted "it would never be said out loud."
But his aunt, Barb Masso, whose husband is French-Canadian, agreed First Nations children of mixed heritage, like her nephew, experience challenges.
"No matter what ... we like to think that we're a really integrated society," she said, "We're not there yet because he's somewhere in the middle and trying to gain respect and be recognized."
Masso said her nephew and even her own children sometimes find life difficult because they are neither fully First Nations nor members of another culture.
Wenstob's totem includes three main characters — a king fisher, a whale and the face of his ancestor — as well as a bulb of bull kelp.
According to the story, Wenstob's ancestor, a member of the Masso family, was tied up and left in a remote coastal sea cave for three days when he came of age.
Those who tied him up returned, expecting to find the young man dead, but instead found that he had freed himself from his bonds and used the bull kelp like a hose to breathe under the rising waters.
Wenstob said his ancestor survived the challenge, won the community's respect, earned a chiefainship and became a successful whaler and trader on the Pacific coast, travelling between Mexico and Alaska.
Work on the totem began at the beginning of the academic year, said Wenstob, noting wood chips and sawdust covered the floor of his landlord's Victoria, B.C. basement at one point.
He said he has spent the past few weeks touching up the totem, and he's been assisted along the way by his maternal grandfather.
Laura Dutton, a sessional instructor at the university, said she taught Wenstob a fine arts course in his first year, and called the 19-year-old "very committed and engaged."
"His projects were well developed and thoughtful and he always went above and beyond in terms of effort and ambition," she said in an email to The Canadian Press.
"He shows a lot of potential as a visual arts student and has a genuine enthusiasm for learning. Hjalmer also has a great capacity to be self-critical and was always pushing his work in a new and more challenging direction."
Bruce Byfield, a member of the YVR Art Foundation, said Wenstob's totem is one of several works of art by First Nations students who won scholarships last year.
Those works will be unveiled Friday at 5:30 p.m. at the airport's Graham Clarke Atrium.
Some of the strongest art being produced in the province right now is being produced by First Nations, said Byfield.
"Why it's important is because the art is still very alive in First Nations cultures locally," he added.
Wenstob plans to begin work on a full-sized version of the totem, about five and one-half-metres tall, and raise it in Opitsaht.
He said an individual's heritage, whether it's German or Chinese, doesn't matter to him.
"You can prove yourself, I guess if you have to, but we shouldn't have to really," he said.