Silyas Saunders – Nuxalk Artist

Nuxalk carver Silyas Saunders was born in Bella Coola in 1936, the son of Joe Saunders Sr., a master boat and canoe builder and fisherman. His ancestral home was in villages at the mouth of the Dean River and at Kimsquit where Silyas spent the first ten years of his life. Silyas had his first fishing boat when he was 14 and his first tree falling job when he was 17. A lifetime of working in the forests and on the seas has given him a special connection to the natural world around him.

Silyas is part of the last generation of Nuxalk people who can still speak their language. Wanting to help keep his traditional culture alive he decided in 1997, after retiring from commercial fishing at the age of 60, to make carving his new career. For hundreds of years the use of carved masks was an integral part of Nuxalk Culture.

Long an avid collector of books on the carvings and art work of his people, Silyas found that with the knowledge he had gained from them, and the natural talent and ability he possessed he was ready to try. Teaching himself how to carve he began creating images in red and yellow cedar, wood deeply rooted in his cultural tradition. In a very short time he was producing beautiful masks based on traditional designs. Since then he has also created original works related to ancient myths.

Soon his masks were being danced at potlatches and the first Hao Hao he completed was danced during a Nuxalk youth tour of New Zealand. In 1999, despite carving seriously for less than three years, Silyas became the first international artist awarded the prestigious Native Artist Fellowship from The National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. In October of that year he traveled to New York and spent three weeks conducting research at museums there as well as in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.. Silyas was given special access to the collections everywhere he went including The American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian. He also received an invitation to visit the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

In 2002, his work “The Sun Mask and the Four Carpenters” was accepted for inclusion in the art exhibition “Stories from the Circle: Science and Native Wisdom” at the Ned Hatathli Museum in Tsaile, Arizona and was on display there during that summer.

Many of his earlier masks can be seen on the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian website at: His most recent work can be viewed at Silyas Gallery, Four Mile Reserve, Bella Coola, British Columbia, Canada.