Cooper Pole at the Mechanical Engineering Building
January 3, 2020
3 mins read

Unique pole stands in tribute

Indigenous Art Series

A 6-foot tall cedar and copper tribute pole stands at the entrance of the Mechanical Engineering department. A symbol of collaboration and inclusiveness, it is also a tribute to a respected staff member.

A result of collaborative efforts, the pole creatively incorporates elements of traditional Squamish, Kwagiutl, and Kwakwaka’wakw art forms and materials; the artistic visions of artists here and gone; the values of the Mechanical Engineering department; and the production methods of engineers, machinists, and traditional First Nations artists.

Created by Squamish artist James Harry, the pole was commissioned in memory of the department’s long-serving IT manager, Alan Steeves, who was also a talented artist of mixed Kwagiutl and European ancestry.

Prior to his untimely passing, Steeves had drawn preliminary designs for the department’s copper pole, and it was from these original sketches that Harry was commissioned to expand on. Harry’s final design succeeded in respectfully bringing together elements of both his and Steeves’ Indigenous traditions through combining modern fabrication techniques with traditional materials.

“First Nations artists are adapting to new ways of doing art,” Harry said in an interview.

“Copper is a significant material to local First Nations communities. Traditionally, it was one of the most valued objects and only chiefs had it. The use of cedar also pays respect to our traditions. I wanted to use the materials in a new way to create a modern concept of a welcome figure.”

For Harry, bringing together different traditions and materials is not uncommon for contemporary First Nations art, saying, “Current First Nations artists are amalgamating different designs to create their own new style.”

The Copper Pole

To construct the pole, Harry hand-carved a yellow cedar log into a cylinder shape, then had his design digitized and water-jet cut into a copper sheet that was machine-rolled to fit around it. The design depicts animals that would be comfortable in sea, land, and air—a representation of all the elements that mechanical engineering impacts. It incorporates 4 figures:

Beaver: Who is at home both on land and in water, and who is known for her respect for nature and her protection of people.

Salmon: Symbolic of life and abundance.

Wolf: Known for intelligence and a strong sense of family.

Hummingbird: At home both on land and in the air, and further, the universal totem, symbolizing that Mechanical Engineering welcomes all people.

Harry added: “Hummingbird is a symbol of a messenger between worlds. Local First Nations communities talk about supernatural beings being able to communicate with the past, present, and future. The wings symbolize this going between worlds.”

A replica bentwood box, upon which the pole stands, shows a frog, salmon, and egg, which represents rebirth broadly, and Alan’s death specifically.

On the back of the box is the Coast Salish eye, a symbol, according to Harry, “that we’re always being watched over by a greater force in the world, a greater being.”

The department hopes that this story will be remembered, and that the pole will remind visitors of their commitment to create a community of collaboration and inclusiveness.

“If the presence of the pole makes even one Aboriginal student feel more welcome, or makes one non-Aboriginal student think about our history, it will have served its purpose,” said Department Head, Sheldon Green, at the unveiling ceremony, held on Feb. 22, 2016.

In keeping with this theme of bridging past and future, the department placed a time capsule inside the box, to be opened 50 years in the future. It also created the Alan Steeves Memorial Award, which will be used to help Indigenous students studying in Mechanical Engineering.

Sources: UBC Mechanical Engineering Department Raises Tribute Pole in Honor of Alan SteevesUnveiling of Artwork in Honour of Alan Steeves

Indigenous Art Series: Find out where you can view Indigenous art on campus and the story behind each piece by checking out this interactive map.