Sanford and Marlana Williams. Submitted photo.

The silence of Sanford Williams: B.C. master carver and his wife navigate racism

Indigenous carver and residential school survivor didn’t know how to speak up against discrimination

Master carver Sanford Williams is well known among art circles across Canada. His carvings adorn the walls of notable institutions world over.

He not only comes from a lineage of renowned carvers, but his people – the Mowachaht First Nation from Yuquot (Friendly Cove) on the west coast of Vancouver Island – have a rich 4,000-year-old history. Yuquot is where Captain James Cook’s arrived in 1778 and ‘first contact’ is recorded between Europeans and Vancouver Island First Nations.

But that legacy is brought crumbling down every time Sanford faces discrimination – which has been a steady reality throughout his life.

And every instance has made him relive the trauma of his time at residential school, the sexual and physical abuse he endured there and the centuries of mistreatment that his people have witnessed through colonization.

RELATED: ‘Vile’: Officials condemn reaction to Cowichan First Nations COVID outbreak

RELATED: Anti-Indigenous racism embedded in B.C. healthcare system: report

Since he was a young man, employees at retail outlets have followed him around in stores to make sure that he’s not “stealing” or intoxicated.

When he is out his wife Marlana – who is not First Nations – servers and clerks either ignore or hassle him, and question his ability to make a purchase until Marlana drifts to his side.

Sanford is now 54, but he has never retaliated nor spoken out against the discrimination. This is a trait he says he shares with many other residential school survivors in Canada who either “shrug it off” or “learned to deal with it.”

“I didn’t know how to speak up,” he said, adding that he always ended up feeling like a “really bad person.”

It’s a feeling that constantly follows him around mostly in cities. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, he is most comfortable with his family and friends – First Nations or not – without being judged.

“But when I leave that environment, I can feel the change right away.”

Sanford silently burns inside with hurt and anger at the way society treats Indigenous people. He only began venting about it, when he met Marlana, who over the years helped him articulate and speak out these feelings.

“He won’t say anything but in his mind he’s thinking, ‘I am not a drunk, I’m a world-class artist, why are you treating me like I’m beneath you when you don’t even know the person I am?” she said.

Marlana said that as a “white woman married to an Indigenous man”, although she is not the one experiencing racism, she feels its ripple effect of it, especially when her husband is mistreated.

On social media, ignorant people take every excuse to perpetrate racism against First Nations, she said.

”They try to find a way to explain their racism without saying that they’re racist.”

In a recent altercation on social media, Marlana received flak for defending Sanford and his family in a conversation about the poor quality of drinking water in First Nation communities. She said commentators refused to acknowledge the racism in their statements instead calling her a “liberal” and adding “everything triggers you.”

Both Sanford and Marlana want people to research and go back to history before they propagate stereotypes and misconceptions. But sometimes asking the crowd to research and look at the full picture also backfires. They see it as an insult as nobody likes to be told that they don’t have all the information. Those who make discriminatory remarks are ignorant about the cruelty of the past and the ongoing issues that First Nations communities continue to face.

“The problem is that too many people are touting free speech, or using that as an excuse to say hurtful things,” said Sanford.

Sanford said that those who racially profile natives as drunkards, don’t realize that many Indigenous people historically resorted to alcoholism to cope with the trauma inflicted on them in residential schools. ”

There’s a need for more constructive dialogues between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, said Marlana and added that people entering these dialogues must exercise caution.

“There are a lot of First Nations people that were abused in residential school and they don’t have the communication skills. They have got it all in their mind and they want to let it out but don’t know how.”

If the other side joins this conversation with fixed opinions and without the intention to listen and understand,it’s meaningless, she said.

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

First Nationsracism

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Nav Canada will not be closing the tower at West Kootenay Regional Airport. Photo: Betsy Kline
Nav Canada tower to remain open at West Kootenay Regional Airport

The organization was considering closing the tower

Dresses hang outside Nelson city hall as part of the REDress Project by Métis artist Jaime Black. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Nelson’s REDress Project exhibit vandalized

The REDress Project brings attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
54 more cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Thirty-two people in the region are in hospital with the virus, 11 of them in intensive care

Dr. Katherine Oldfield is a naturopathic physician, mother, and active member of the Nelson-West Kootenay chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Photo: Submitted
COLUMN: Restore our Earth, restore our health

Katherine Oldfield marks Earth Day by writing about the priorities we need to have

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

As part of the province’s strategy to combat the opioid overdose crisis, take-home naloxone kits have been distributed throughout the province. (Courtesy of Gaëlle Nicolussi)
Vancouver Island could be at its worst point of overdose crises yet: medical health officer

Island Health issued overdose advisories for Victoria, various communities in the last two weeks

BC Hydro released a survey Thursday, April 22. It found that many British Columbians are unintentionally contributing to climate change with their yard maintenance choices. (Pixabay)
Spend a lot of time doing yard work? It might be contributing to climate change

Recent BC Hydro survey finds 60% of homeowners still use gas-powered lawnmowers and yard equipment

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Nanaimo RCMP say a man was injured while pouring gunpowder on a backyard fire in Harewood on Wednesday, April 21. (File photo)
Nanaimo man hospitalized after pouring gunpowder onto backyard fire

RCMP investigating explosion in Harewood also came across a still for making alcohol on property

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives for briefing on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020 (B.C. government)
B.C. sees 1,006 COVID-19 cases Thursday, ‘alarming’ 502 in hospital

Vaccine bookings for people aged 60 and older set to start

Shannon Zirnhelt, from left, her son Lockie, 3, Julia Zirnhelt, 13, and Ella Krus, 13, co-founders of Third Planet Crusade are featured in a music video set to air on Earth Day, April 22, 2021. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
B.C.-made music video launched in time for Earth Day 2021

Singer songwriter Shannon Zirnhelt worked with Third Planet Crusade on the project in the Cariboo

Ambulance crews have been busy with a record number of emergency overdose calls this Wednesday, April 21. (BC Emergency Health Services)
B.C. paramedics responded to a record 138 overdose calls in a single day

Wednesday’s calls included 48 in the Vancouver Coastal Health region and 51 in Fraser Health

Most Read