At the end of Haisla Avenue in Kitamaat Village, a totem pole towers over a large log cabin with a bright red roof.
It’s an iconic building in the Haisla Nation; over the decades, Sammy Robinson’s carving shop has been a draw for tourists, art collectors, school groups, and more.
The lights have been off at the cabin for the past few months as Robinson takes a break, but the 89-year-old master carver flicks them back on for a rare sit-down interview — eager to get back to his old routines.
“Carving means a lot to me, to people my age,” he says, sitting in front of an illuminated display case of treasures, including handmade masks, spoons, and weapons, and an autographed Blue Jays baseball.
“I’m the last one that knows the meaning of it … I don’t carve it if it doesn’t have any meaning.”
Robinson’s journey as a carver began in what seems like a different era for Kitamaat Village.
There was no aluminum smelter across the Douglas Channel and no pulp mill polluting the Kitimat River. The First Nation’s waters were free of tankers and the settler District of Kitimat hadn’t been formed yet.
The community’s rich natural resources — including salmon and oolichan — were abundant. Robinson says his family had no money, but they were happy.
“I was good with my hands and everything from Day One,” he says, those hands now resting on a wooden cane.
“Eight, nine years old — I carved little things like paddles. I used to sell it for $2 or $1, which was a lot of money in my time.”
While a Sammy Robinson carving can now fetch tens of thousands of dollars, no price tag can be placed on what Robinson’s artwork represents. Each piece is laden with stories, from the one physically etched into it, to the survival of an ancient craft that colonial Canada tried to snuff out.
A story of survival
Unlike many Indigenous people his age, Robinson never went to residential school.
When he was a child, First Nations children from across the region were forced to attend the Elizabeth Long Memorial Home, an institution of assimilation operated by the United Church. It closed in 1941, and Haisla children were sent out across the province — from Alert Bay to Lytton — to have their Indigenous cultures, languages and practices erased.
The youngest of eight siblings, Robinson says his family hid him from residential school, “because they knew I was going to be chief one day.” He moved from “place to place,” following the family’s food sources, he adds.
It may have saved his life, in addition to the sacred teachings he now carries.
“The Indian culture was drummed in here since I was nine years old,” Robinson says, gesturing to his head. “I know the laws about Indians at that time, preparing food for the winter — all those things were drummed into my head.”
Many years passed before Robinson was free to practice that knowledge or develop his carving skills. Canada’s ban on the potlatch — a northwest coast ceremony of song, dance, feasting and more — was in effect until 1951, threatening anyone caught participating in it with arrest or prison.
“You were fined by the government if you kept it up, did you know that?” he asks. “We didn’t do it for about 30 years. It was my mom that started it up again.”
Robinson is now Hereditary Chief Jasee, a title inherited from his mother, who belonged to the Haisla Beaver Clan.
He incorporates the beaver into many of his carvings, including two exemplary totem poles — one nestled in trees in the southern tip of Kitamaat Village and the other displayed in glass at the Kitimat Museum and Archives.
The former, Robinson carved in the 1950s. The latter he carved from yellow cedar for the centennial Expo 67 in Montreal. He sold it to the district museum two years later, and it was one of the first pieces displayed there.
Robinson, his totem pole and one of his beaver masks are permanent features of the Kitimat Museum and Archives, where a wall placard states:
“Sammy is the region’s oldest living master carver who still practices the ancient ways of carving cedar. His work has been commissioned by collectors, governments, museums and companies from around the world.”
'An icon in Kitimat'
When Robinson tells the story of his life, he describes a whirlwind of global travel and countries where his art can be found, such as Sweden, Malaysia, Taiwan, Germany and Japan. Mounted on the wall in his workshop are photos of him meeting Belgium’s Princess Astrid as well as former B.C. premier Christy Clark.
In 2013, Robinson received the BC Achievement First Nations Art Award for his skills and dedication to spreading the craft. According to Laurel D’Andrea, head of the Kitimat Chamber of Commerce, he’s known by just about everyone in the region.
“He’s an icon in Kitimat, obviously, a very gifted artist and amazing storyteller,” she tells Global News from her office between the centre of town and Kitamaat Village.
Having moved to the North Coast from Kelowna, D’Andrea says Robinson topped the list of people she was told to meet as soon as possible: “Everybody has to know Sammy and everybody does know Sammy.”
In 2021, D’Andrea says an email from a strange address landed in her inbox — someone from Finland had bought one of Robinson’s carvings at a thrift sale and wanted to know more about him. The buyer took a shot in the dark, emailing the chamber of commerce to connect, as Robinson has no website.
D’Andrea says she was able to get photos of the killer whale carving and the story printed on the back of its frame down to Kitamaat Village, where Robinson took a look and quickly recalled the piece.
“He remembered making it when he was in his early teens, I believe,” D’Andrea says.
“We actually got a picture of Sammy and Sammy’s studio, and we actually sent it back to this individual, and this person was over the moon.”
That kind of awe isn’t uncommon among people who know Robinson well, according to two of them — Haisla Nation Chief Coun. Crystal Smith and Ellis Ross, Skeena MLA and former Haisla chief councillor.
As a girl, Smith said she was “fortunate enough” to get some coveted time at his carving shop with her classmates.
“He would tell us stories of legends and they were always so entertaining. He always kept you so captivated,” she recalls, standing on the marina dock in front of Robinson’s house.
Often those stories would include a language lesson. If the kids didn’t repeat back the words he asked them to, “the story would end,” she adds.
“I definitely have so many prized memories of him. Throughout my time being on council, he’s been one of our huge supporters as a hereditary chief in our community. It’s always very inspiring and enlightening to hear his vision.”
Ross, who grew up with one of Robinson’s sons, echoes Smith’s comments. Standing outside his constituency office in Terrace, he says Robinson was always very patient with him.
“I grew up around Sammy Robinson’s shop, probably bugging him, pestering him, but Sammy’s always been good to me,” Ross says.
“When I was chief councillor for six years, we talked a lot about where we’re heading as a nation and him and his wife would always give me support.”
Robinson holds unique knowledge of Haisla culture, Ross adds — an understanding of the significance of different regalia, songs, and dances, as well as the hereditary chief’s role in the feast hall.
“I think everybody will acknowledge, at the feast hall, when Sammy Robinson walks in — he gets the priority. He gets a special seat at the table at the end of the room and usually nobody talks until he talks,” Ross says.
“I really respect him … he’s got a good mind for business and he did it at a time when nobody was really talking about any type of reconciliation.”
Collector, carver, captain
While Robinson has become a master carver of wood, silver, and gold, he has also held many other careers in his lifetime.
He worked on a fishing boat, at the aluminum smelter now owned by Rio Tinto, and for 70 years, ran a fishing charter boat company with a fleet of nine vessels. He still rents out his two cabins on the Douglas Channel as well.
Even in so-called retirement, Robinson’s reputation still precedes him — during the interview, two European tourists hoping to fish salmon knock on the door of his carving shop, asking if he can take them out on the water.
Despite these adventures over the years, the only thing he speaks about as passionately as his carving are his collections. His home and workshop are full of eclectic items, which he proudly describes in great detail.
The highlights include more than 30 miniature wooden boats, an elaborate metal cash register estimated to be more than 100 years old, a massive vault of roughly the same age, at least 10 species of taxidermized animals, more than a dozen daggers and knives, a sacred bear claw necklace worn by seven Haisla chiefs, and a set of vintage guns.
“I’m a crack shot with a pistol — deadly,” he laughs.
While Robinson says he purchased some of items in his treasure trove, he also traded his artwork for many of them. Trading has always been a part of his life and is central to his carving practice.
“The story of the killer whale — it belongs to the fish tribe, but I wanted to carve it so I went to the woman that has that story,” he explains. “I used to give her whatever she wanted, like fish or clams, wild game.
“I was good at that, so I kept them supplied with all that — not only her, (but) other older people, just to get the story from them.”
He says carving is sacred, so doesn’t let anyone film him while he’s doing it. In fact, he says there’s a place up the Kitimat River where only carvers are allowed to visit while working on their totem poles, masks and paddles.
If someone can’t afford his art, Robinson says he gifts it to them. Asked what his next big project is, he says there remains only one.
“I want to carve one more totem pole,” he says. “I’ll carve as long as I can, the small stuff. That’s what keeps me going.”