Ronnie George: Laughing Bear… Smiling Man
By Mark Kiemele
Ronnie was one of my favourite people and one of my favourite carvers.
While he lived at Kulleet Bay, he used to stop by my office at Stz’uminus First Nation to talk and sell his carvings. Lucky for me, my office was the first one among many, so I got to buy a lot of his carvings, especially his most famous – Laughing Bear.
Ronnie’s Laughing Bear makes me smile every time I look at it. It made me laugh too, the first time he told me the story behind it.
“White man and Indians are fighting over the salmon. Who’s got the fish… who’s got the fish?”
Ronnie would turn Laughing Bear around. The front showed the bear’s paw covering his smile. The back showed where the bear had hidden salmon and why he was smiling.
Ronnie didn’t use fancy carving tools. He just used a simple jack-knife to carve red or yellow cedar. And he didn’t use fancy oils or paints to decorate his carvings. Brown shoe polish would usually do the job just fine.
Augie Sylvester and Ronnie were best friends as young men on Penelakut Island. Augie likes to tell stories about how he and Ronnie would spend weeks travelling and fishing in their boat, often travelling far from their home. When food or gas supplies were low, they would head to the nearest port.
Augie would sketch a design on a piece of wood and Ronnie would carve it. Then they would sell the carving before heading out again into the Salish Sea.
When Ronnie was in Nanaimo hospital a few years ago, shortly before his death, he was looking weak and worn out from illness. A friend brought him a small piece of juniper. He stroked the smooth surface with his fingers and began to smile. He brought it up to his nose and smelled it. Then, he really smiled, like laughing bear.