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

An Interior Health nurse administers Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
105 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

Just over 8,000 new vaccine doses administered in the region for a total of 158,000 to date

The small fire was in the Big Eddy. (Contributed)
Revelstoke grass fire extinguished

The blaze is the first of the season in our area

Twin falls in Yoho National Park. Yoho is one of the mountain parks whose draft management plan is now available for review. (Claire Palmer photo)
Local input sought to shape future of mountain national parks

Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks are amongst those seeking input

The city has decided to apply to have the Jordan River area withdrawn from Crown Land disposition, which would put the decision on how the land is used and protected in the hands of the city. (File photo)
City of Revelstoke applying to withdraw Jordan River from Crown Land

At the moment the province has control over what is developed in the area

Arlene Howe holds up a picture of her son, Steven, at a memorial event for drug overdose victims and their families at Kelowna’s Rotary Beach Park on April 14. Steven died of an overdose at the age of 32 on Jan. 31, 2015. (Aaron Hemens - Kelowna Capital News)
Moms Stop the Harm members placed crosses Wednesday morning, April 14, on Rotary Beach in memory of children lost to drug overdoses. (Aaron Hemens - Capital News)
Kelowna mothers remember children lost to the opioid crisis

It has been five years since illicit drug deaths was announced a public health emergency

Demonstrators at the legislature on April 14 called on the province to decriminalize drug possession and provide widespread access to regulated safe supply across B.C. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
Rally calls for decriminalization, safe supply on 5th anniversary of overdose emergency declaration

From 2016 to the end of February, 7,072 British Columbians died due to overdose

A Keremeos family lost their home after a fire shortly before midnight on April 13. No injuries were reported. (Contributed)
Keremeos home destroyed in late-night fire

The family inside was unharmed

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Naloxone
Op/Ed: Interior Health CEO speaks on five years of strides and challenges in overdose crisis

In 2020, close to 4,000 people across IH had access to opioid medications

Somewhere in the pack being celebrated by his teammates is Vernon Vipers forward Zack Tonelli, who scored in overtime Wednesday afternoon, April 14, to give the Snakes a 6-5 win over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks in B.C. Hockey League pod play at Kal Tire Place. (Liza Mazurek - Vernon Vipers Photography)
Vernon Vipers bite Salmon Arm Silverbacks in OT

Snakes blow 5-3 third-period lead, rally in extra time for 6-5 pod play result over rivals

(Government of Canada)
Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

William Amos, in Quebec, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked

New parking meters have been installed on Main Street, Ellis Street, Front Street, Nanaimo Avenue and Padmore Avenue in Penticton. (City of Penticton photo)
Pay parking now in effect in downtown Penticton

A spot downtown will now cost you $2 per hour

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Feb. 1, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count jumps to 1,168 Wednesday, nearly 400 in hospital

Now 120 coronavirus patients in intensive care, six more deaths

Most Read