Charles Elliott: carver, teacher, language saver

Charles Elliott’s dad used to drive his kids around Saanich Peninsula to show them the ways their people laboured—in farm fields, mostly, some in coal or ship yards in Victoria. “What do you want to be?” Dave Elliott, Sr., would ask. “I don’t want to be any of that,” young Charles would answer. “But the first time I ever saw a real carver—I think it was probably Cicero August, and then I saw Simon Charlie—the moment I saw what Cicero could do, I knew I wanted to be a carver.”

Charles had been “pecking away” at carving and drawing since he was eight, but it was “never considered as something that you could be.”

After high school, he worked for nine years in the logging industry—a sad time, the silver-haired carver says, when he saw “huge, beautiful logs” hauled away to be sliced into ribbons.

“I had my visions of what I could have done with those logs,” he says.

Charles Elliott has been carving his Coast Salish visions into red and yellow cedar for forty years. His work can be found in public spaces and private collections around the world. It includes a 28-foot totem pole at the University of Victoria, three house posts at the Mary Winspear Community Cultural Centre in Sidney and a totem pole at the entrance to the Victoria police station. In 2005, the self-taught artist received the Order of British Columbia in recognition of his contribution to bringing “the visual language of the Coast Salish Nation to life when it was in danger of being lost.”

Revitalizing language—visual and spoken—has been the mission of two generations of the Elliott family. The late Dave Elliott, Sr., was a janitor at the Tsartlip Indian Day School in the 1970s when he observed a decline in the children’s use of their Sencoten language. Realizing the language would soon be lost unless it could be recorded, he studied with linguists and then devised an ingenious writing system. In 1978, the Dave Elliott Sencoten Alphabet was adopted by the WSÁNEĆ School Board. It serves today as a model for preserving indigenous languages.

Charles Elliott draws a parallel between language and art.

“If you study the really old pieces, it’s like language in a pure form. A fluent speaker speaks a really nice language, but a person who doesn’t know, it’s kind of a baby talk. It’s the same with art work.”

When he started carving in the 1960s, Coast Salish art had virtually disappeared from view. Colonial and provincial governments routinely seized First Nations art. The bold, bright colours of Haida and Kwagiulth pieces came into favour for museum exhibits. The subtler Salish pieces languished in the archives.

Fuelled by determination to learn the Salish design system well enough to teach it, Charles scoured the archives and visited private collectors. “I was on a mission,” he says. “I wanted our art work to come back strong. I wanted it to come back as bad as [I wanted] the language [to come back].”

Although driven to document and reproduce traditional design, the artist strives to put his own personality into his work.

“I don’t want to be like anyone else, ” he says.

He is pleased to see young artists adding new dimensions to Salish design.

“If we just let them put us in the museum, gathering dust on the shelf, we’d have a dead art form,” he says. “But by learning from what happened to us and adding new things in, we’re moving on in time with everything else.”

To commemorate the new millennium, the artist, teacher and activist for First Nations rights created a print that expresses gratitude to the Creator for this moment in time. Reflecting on that moment Charles Elliott says, “I’m happy that our culture is still strong. I’m proud that I’ve been able to make my contribution.”

First published in Senior Living 2006. Text and photos © Leslie Prpich.

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