The internationally acclaimed master carver Simon Charlie’s birthday is Nov. 14.
Charlie, who was a member of the Cowichan Tribes, died in 2005, but he would have been either 99 or 100, depending on what biography source you use, if he was still alive on Thursday.
Charlie, also known as Hwunumetse’ in his native Hul’q’umi’num’ language, was a renowned Coast Salish master carver and elder, and was named a recipient of the Order of Canada in 2003 for his contribution to education and preservation of his cultural heritage.
In addition, Charlie received the National Centennial Medal in 1967 and the Order of British Columbia in 2001 for his carvings and other contributions.
In more than 30 years of carving traditional Cowichan Coast Salish art, it’s been estimated that Charlie had carved the equivalent of 22 truckloads of cedar logs.
His totem poles stand in the Royal B.C. Museum, the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, and locations in the State of Washington, New York, Chicago, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia, and his artwork and masks can be found in collections around the world.
Kathryn Gagnon, curator of the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives, said Charlie was passionately committed to the preservation of the traditions, language, arts and culture of his people.
She said his dedication to passing on his knowledge to younger generations by mentoring both indigenous and non-indigenous carvers in traditional methods and designs was well known and greatly appreciated.
“Simon Charlie was part of the transitional generation of the local indigenous population after first contact [with Europeans] who understood the old ways and was excellent at teaching them,” Gagnon said.
“He had a real desire to share his heritage and that means a lot to me because that’s also my job here at the museum.”
The museum’s upgraded First Nation exhibit was opened in 2018, and a painting of Charlie by renowned artist Neil MacDonald is its centrepiece.
Gagnon said MacDonald had only painted two portraits in his career, with fellow artist Bill Reid being the subject of the other one.
“The Bill Reid Foundation bought that one and the one of Simon Charlie I came across in the office at Judy Hill Gallery [in Duncan],” she said.
“It really struck me because his character really came through in the portrait. The painting was $20,000 so we raised $10,000 and Judy Hill looked after the rest.”
Gagnon said the Thomson family, one of Canada’s richest families, donated a collection of Charlie’s carvings to the museum in 2003 and some of those carvings are on display in the upgraded First Nations exhibit.
“Simon Charlie was very passionate about his art and passing those skills on to the younger generations,” she said.
“We’re proud to have his portrait and some of his carvings as part of our exhibit.”