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‘We chose this artwork as a welcome’: Grandmother Camus statue unveiled on Fourth Plain

10-foot-tall sculpture a symbol of welcome, wisdom and renewal in the Fourth Plain corridor

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 27, 2024, 6:13am
3 Photos
The Cowlitz Indian Tribe Drum Group, led by Jeremiah Wallace, center left, performs at the April 20 installation of a new Indigenous Grandmother Camus statue.
The Cowlitz Indian Tribe Drum Group, led by Jeremiah Wallace, center left, performs at the April 20 installation of a new Indigenous Grandmother Camus statue. (Elayna Yussen/for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Indigenous legend of Grandmother Camus is a story of love, sacrifice and transformation.

The tale goes that her grandchildren were crying during a time of great hunger. Grandmother Camus had nothing to give them, so she climbed a hill and began crying also. Her tears softened the ground and she sank down. Searching for her, her grandchildren sensed that she was underground and started digging. That’s when they first discovered the staple camas bulbs that saved their people from starvation.

“It’s a plant that guaranteed survival for our people, from our prairies,” said Tanna Engdahl, spiritual leader of the Cowlitz tribe. “It’s such a valiant plant.”

Love, sacrifice and transformation are also the story behind the new, 10-foot-tall, colorful Grandmother Camus sculpture that was installed April 20 near the west end of Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor. At the corner of St. Johns Boulevard, across from the Veterans Affairs campus, a formerly nondescript traffic island has been transformed from a triangle of leftover land into a symbol of welcome, wisdom and renewal.

In addition to the symbolic sculpture, the island has been planted with camas and other native plants and fitted with a new irrigation system.

Such improvements and beautification are sorely needed along Fourth Plain, a vibrantly multicultural but low-income stretch of Vancouver that has struggled, over the decades, with racism, poverty and health disparities, according to Sheila Davis, the community development manager at grassroots agency Fourth Plain Forward.

“Fourth Plain has the most diverse population in Vancouver,” Davis said. “We know we wouldn’t survive without each other. We chose this artwork as a welcome. Our traditional way is to do everything with intention.”

The idea for Indigenous artwork marking the Fourth Plain community was serendipitous, with several key players sharing underlying inspiration — to add beauty and spirit to Fourth Plain’s gateway — before they’d even discussed it. They included Davis; Fourth Plain Forward Executive Director Paul Burgess; his friend Redstone Rodolfo Serna, a Portland multimedia artist; and their friend Toma Villa, an Indigenous painter, muralist and carver with roots in Central Washington.

When Vancouver’s proposal came his way, Villa said, he’d already sketched out a plan for a towering testament to tribal community.

“I already had this design ready to go,” he said. “It was just looking for the right home.”

Villa is Yakama by birth and now based in the reservation town of Suquamish, across Puget Sound from Seattle. But he grew up in Portland, where he started out applying art to the sides of buildings.

“I was a graffiti artist who just blossomed into a whole other world,” he said.

He may be a city kid with a flair for urban art, but Villa said his core identity as a Columbia River fisherman and Yakama family man has always informed his creativity. While his Grandmother Camus design may evoke tribal legend, the artwork’s personalities are actually based on his own loved ones.

“It’s inspired by my mother-in-law and her love for my daughter,” Villa said. “They collect cedar together, they do lot of things together. They are passing the knowledge down.”

A gigantic cedar log that originated on Mount Hood was Villa’s base material for the sculpture. Villa said he made and traded a drum for it. Realizing his design took about two months of concentrated work (and an assistant’s help). He said his workshop in Suquamish is a traditional longhouse.

Cedar plays a central role in the spiritual and practical lives of many Pacific Northwest tribes. Strong, lightweight and easy to work with, it’s made into everything from buildings and canoes to hats and baskets. Villa’s sculpture shows grandmother and child, wearing traditional cedar hats and traditional dress, standing atop an intricately woven cedar basket pedestal.

Cedar is the natural choice for artwork honoring Indigenous peoples, Villa said. (There’s also a huge cedar “spirit pole” artwork by Toma Villa on display at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center, which was installed in 2016.)

“Cedar is great to carve,” he said. “Figuring out how to create the basket weave — that was a struggle at first.”

Villa added that he drew inspiration for Grandmother Camus’ large, mystical eyes from the all-seeing eyes of the Tsagaglalal petroglyph — aka “She Who Watches” — which is protected at Horsethief Lake in the Columbia River Gorge.

“It helps when you know where you are from,” Davis said. “The ancient knowledge is not always written down, but it is spoken and drawn.”

“What I wanted to do was bring awareness and light to my people, the plateau people (of Central Washington),” Villa said. “When a little girl looks at it, she can think, that looks like my grandma and that looks like me.”

13 Photos
The Cowlitz Indian Tribe Drum Group performs before the April 20 unveiling of the new Grandmother Camus statue at the intersection of St. Johns and East Fourth Plain boulevards.
Grandmother Camas Photo Gallery
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