Sanford and Marlana Williams. Submitted photo.

The silence of Sanford Williams: Island 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 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

Colwood resident Maria Curcic shows off a one-of-a-kind hat that she created. Curcic is one of several artists that took part in the annual Stinking Fish Studio Tour. (Contributed - Maria Curcic)
Curtain closes on Stinking Fish Studio Tour

The Stinking Fish Studio Tour will live on through the lasting legacy… Continue reading

A screenshot from a Nuu-chah-nulth healing song and performance created in collaboration between Hjalmer Wenstob and Timmy Masso. (Screenshot from YouTube)
VIDEO: Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation brothers produce COVID-19 healing song

Hjalmer Wenstob and Timmy Masso share dance and inspiration.

Katie Hamilton is one of three Victoria residents receiving a $10,000 podcast production grant from Telus Storyhive. Her podcast, Her Love of Sport, will take listeners through stories from women in the sports industry. (Courtesy of Katie Hamilton)
Three podcasts coming to Victoria following Telus Storyhive grants

Victoria podcasts chosen out of 700 applications to receive $10,000

Nanaimo playwright Anne Nesbitt is presenting a staged reading of her play about Indigenous conservationist Gertrude Bernard, also known as Anahareo (from left). (Photo courtesy Andrew Nesbitt/Riding Mountain National Park)
Island playwright tells the story of Indigenous woman who ‘saved the beaver’

Anne Nesbitt presents ‘Anahareo’ as part of TheatreOne staged reading series

Orca 1
Orcas: Our Shared Future

Royal BC Museum dives into the world of orcas with upcoming feature exhibition

Sooke author Beverley Elliott is bringing awareness to autism with her newly published book, Greyson’s Shoes. This is the first book Elliott has published, but she intends to create more in the future. (Photo courtesy of Beverly Elliott)
Sooke author shines light on autism in new children’s book

Beverley Elliott hopes book can be used as tool to bring awareness and understanding around autism

From left to right: Vicki Barta, Bruce Ormond, Greg Heide, Gord McInnis, and Charles Harman rehearse via zoom for the upcoming radio play, “Visitor from Planet Zoltan”. (Submitted photo)
Radio plays prove successful for Ladysmith Little Theatre, four more in production

Ladysmith Little Theatre pivoted to producing radio plays during the pandemic

Nanaimo children’s entertainer Steve Romanik, represented by his character Mountain Dweller, is giving away his songs and stories to help raise money for children’s causes. (Photo courtesy Steve Romanik)
Nanaimo children’s entertainer ‘Mountain Dweller’ helping raise money for kids’ causes

Steve Romanik partnering with Nanaimo Child Development Centre, B.C. Children’s Hospital

“Racing Classics” by John Horton depicts sailboats near Trial Island off the coast of Oak Bay. The painting will be featured in his <em>Maritime Impressions</em> exhibit at the Winchester Gallery until April 14.
Greater Victoria galleries beckon spring with vibrant, whimsical nature scenes

At The Galleries: look at what’s on display this month

‘We Are All Beautiful’ by Elise Cole and ‘The Modern Thrall’ by Enigye (Happy) Amarkah (from left) are two of the pieces featured in VIU’s Anti-Racism Arts Festival. (Images courtesy the artists)
Vancouver Island University holds first Anti-Racism Arts Festival

Three-day online event to feature visual arts, performance, film and poetry

Thomas Kuecks, Bellamy Kuecks and Paula Foot have come together to create an album of stories for children. (Nina Foot photo)
Moments with Miss Paula creates musical stories for kids

Music and the spoken word from Island pair available on streaming

Author Eden Robinson poses for a portrait during an interview in Toronto, Wednesday, May 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Trickster trilogy author Eden Robinson hosts online conversation and reading

Haisla and Heiltsuk will join fans in event hosted by Vancouver Island Regional Library

Nanaimo author Lawrence Winkler’s latest book is ‘The Last Casebook of Doctor Sababa.’ (Bulletin file photo/supplied)
Nanaimo author wraps up trilogy following ‘antihero’ Island doctor

Lawrence Winkler presents ‘The Last Casebook of Doctor Sababa’

Most Read