Bringing Indigenous culture to the heart of SFU’s Surrey campus

Photo by @racheltophamphotography on Instagram
Photo by @racheltophamphotography on Instagram
New public art installations share Coast Salish traditions, culture, and identity in teaching and community spaces.

SFU has installed two of four new public works of art to acknowledge, honour and respect the unceded traditional territories of the First Nations, where SFU’s Surrey campus is located. More than static installations, the pieces are platforms for learning that invite audiences to deepen their understanding of the region’s Indigenous peoples’ traditions and their relationship with the land.

Our Roots Run Deep, produced by Phyllis Atkins and her son, Noah (Kwantlen First Nation), and Step by Step, by Rain Pierre (Katzie First Nation), are the first two Indigenous art pieces to be installed at the campus.

These works of art were designed in consultation with Indigenous and local community partners. Two additional works by Roxanne Charles and Leslie Wells (both from Semiahmoo First Nation) will be installed during the spring of this year.

"First Nations people have flourished on these lands since time immemorial. This art is a testament and reminder to all’about our people’s deep connection to land, place and spirit," says Chris Syeta’xtn Lewis, SFU’s Indigenous executive lead. "It’s one more step, on our journey, to create safe and culturally appropriate spaces for all’our Indigenous students, staff and faculty. I want to thank the SFU team and partners for your leadership and courage to create such meaningful spaces."

Rain Pierre (sl? m’xw)’s site-responsive artwork Step by Step reminds its viewers that everyone is united on one land, Turtle Island, carrying one another into a new and future world. The imagery that fills Step by Step asserts that Indigenous people have always been here and are the stewards of this land. The artwork depicts a turtle wearing a cedar headband as a tribute to Indigenous culture and traditions, and the beaming star is representative of the artist’s ancestors guiding the way to a better path and a better tomorrow. Poised at the edge of a new beginning, this new world cannot be accomplished unless there is collaboration between all peoples.

"I think that it is really cool to be a part of a project that brings people together and also represents our nations - all’of us," adds Rain. "My work reminds us of our collective connection to the land. It depicts a hand that is holding the earth up to let us know that Mother Earth is here to help us grow, so long as we take good care of her."

Phyllis Atkins qw’tic?’s and her son, Noah’s large-scale artwork Our Roots Run Deep depicts the sacredness of the salmon returning to its spawning grounds to create new life. Within the composition, the grizzly bear represents Phyllis Atkin’s mother’s family line, and the wolf represents Kwantlen First Nation, as the artists’ family descended from the wolf. The eagles, which fly higher and closer to the sun than any other bird, represent the artists’ ancestors carrying prayers to the good Creator, the creator of all beautiful things.

"We are grateful to SFU for this public art opportunity to collaborate, not only as Kwantlen First Nation members representing our community in a good way, but also between Mother and Son and the transfer of knowledge to the next generation," says Phyllis & Noah Atkins.

The creation of these installations also involved the mentorship of emerging First Nations artists. The collaboration between experienced and emerging artists bridges intergenerational sharing of artistic, cultural knowledge and technical skills.

The installation of Our Roots Run Deep and Step by Step was celebrated during an Indigenous ceremony that honoured the artists on March 15, 2024.

"I am thrilled to witness the installation of these amazing Indigenous art pieces. It has been a long journey to get to this day and I want to thank the SFU family and the First Nations artists for paddling in unison to make this happen," says Stephen Dooley, executive director, SFU’s Surrey Campus. "There is much more work to be done on the path to truth and reconciliation at SFU. But let these beautiful art pieces stand as a beacon of hope."

As permanent installations on the campus, these works of art not only help to create a welcoming space for SFU’s Indigenous faculty, staff, students and alumni, but also Surrey’s growing urban Indigenous communities and visitors from across the Lower Mainland, the country and around the world.

"The SFU Galleries team is honoured to support the realization of this important project for SFU Surrey," says SFU Galleries Director Kimberly Phillips. "It has been both inspiring and humbling to learn from each of the artists, to witness their formidable skills, the profound generosity of their mentorship, as well as their dedication to cross-generational relationship building, both within and beyond their communities."

To learn more about the artwork and artists, With sincere thanks, this project was made possible with the support of SFU’s Aboriginal Strategic Initiative, the Office for Aboriginal Peoples, SFU Galleries and the City of Surrey’s Public Art program.