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July 11, 2023

Canadian Adventure: Visit to Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia: Totem Poles

Vancouver, British Columbia was a complete surprise.

Our very first impression was that it is a “clean New York City”.  Upon entering the City of Vancouver we were greeted by this street sign:

We had to chuckle: Welcome to Vancouver – A Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.  This is cool!  Nowhere in Europe or in the United States would you see such a sign!

Before arriving, we had read that Vancouver is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities in Canada, with over ½ of the residents belonging to a visible minority (according to Statistics Canada).  Please do not take what follows as racist or culturally insensitive, but exactly what does “visible minority” mean?  The 2016 Census Vancouver/Statistics Canada lists everyone except European Canadians (47.2%) and Aboriginals (2.1%, comprised of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) as “visible minority”.  We really take exception to that.  Archaeological records show that Aboriginal (may we call them Natives?) people were living in the area from 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.  From the point of view of the Natives, at 2.1%, they sadly are the invisible minority.

Yes, the invisible minority, the peoples of the First Nations.  It is impossible to recap what happened to these proud people and their culture since the Pilgrims set foot on their land in a few sentences.  How quickly we forget that the Pilgrims escaped Europe and settled in North America to practice religious freedom.  Ironically, the settlers would not reciprocate those ideals when it came to the original inhabitants of the continent.  Various Christian sects then set out to “civilize” and Christianize the First Nations people.  Their barbaric efforts to strip the Native peoples of their cultural identity went from outlawing native ceremonies, banning their cultural practices and languages, stealing and physically destroying their cultural items and icons, to kidnapping their children and placing them in residential schools to “re-educate” them to learn English and adopt Christian ways.  The children were stripped of their native names and given new Christian ones.  You will notice this when you read on when I describe the poles and list the names of the carvers.

We wanted to learn more about First Nations or Aboriginal culture, their customs, and their way of life.  Imagine our excitement to discover that Stanley Park had a permanent display of a variety of Totem Poles.  Sadly it is not widely communicated to visitors of Stanley Park that it used to be home to a village called Xwayxway.  The village had several longhouses and was a base for First Nations who fished and gathered plants in the area.  That village was destroyed long ago by the white man.  The display of totem poles in Stanley Park is an attempt to acknowledge First Nations culture, however, the totem poles displayed were brought in from elsewhere and are not part of the culture of local First Nations.

Let’s move on:  A totem is carved from one log of Western Red Cedar trees.  These cedars are unique to British Columbia and lower Alaska, and thus their use is unique to the First Nation cultures in this region.  Western Red Cedar is lightweight and naturally resistant to decay and insect damage. 

Totem Poles convey stories of mythical as well as real events.  They can depict a family, a clan, or a chief.  As such, they were not used as idols, or for purposes of worship/  They incorporate a variety of designs from bears, birds, people, but may also contain mystical or supernatural beings.

Each carving on a pole has a meaning.  The kingdom of the air is represented by the eagle, the ocean by the whale, a river by the salmon, the land by the wolf, and interestingly, the link between the sea and the land is represented by the frog.

There are conflicting accounts on how to read the story or pole.  Some say that you start at the bottom and work to the top.  More emphasis and detail are given to the bottom of the totem because it is closer to the viewer for inspection.  Others say that the most important symbol is on top.  What do you think?  Take a look below at the totems on display at Brockton Point in Stanley Park, Vancouver, and examine them closely.

The following are notes about the photo above:

  1. Kwakwaka'wakw artist Oscar Maltipi carved this pole in 1968, at the top you see the mythical Thunderbird, and below a Killer Whale.
  2. Beaver Crest Totem Pole, carved in 1987 by Nisga'a artist Norman Tait along with his son Isaac, his brother Robert, and his nephew Ron Telek. The carving shows how the Tait family’s Eagle clan adopted the Beaver as their family crest, and how the eagle and raven met, and shared the sky.
  3. In 1987 Nimpkish artist Doug Cranmer carved this pole called Chief Wakas Totem Pole. The original pole on which it is based was placed at the entrance of Chief Wakas' house in Alert Bay in the 1890s.  On the top of the totem pole is the mythical Thunderbird, next to the Killer Whale, followed by the Wolf, then the Wise One, next to another mythical bird Huxwhukw, then the Bear, and on the bottom the Raven.  Just imagine this: A raven’s body was painted on the front of Chief Wakas’ house, and you would enter it via the Raven’s mouth of the totem!  That must have been quite impressive.
  4. The first woman to become a Northwest Coast carver, Ellen Neel, carved this pole along with her uncle Numgo Martin.  The pole is called Kakaso'Las Totem Pole. It was completed in 1955 for Woodward's Department Store. Again on the top of the pole is the Thunderbird, a Sea bear holding a killer whale, next to a Man, followed by a Frog, then a Wildman of the woods called Bak'was, next a giantess called Dzunukwa, and on the bottom a Raven.
  5. In 1987 Tony Hund carved this Thunderbird House Post Totem Pole.  These types of carved poles were used to support the huge roof beams of traditional First Nations cedar houses. It is a replica of an older pole, carved by Kwakwaka'wakw artist Charlie James in the early 1900s.  The original is on display in the Vancouver Museum.  The totem has a Thunderbird on the top, and below it is a Grizzly bear holding a human.
  6. In 1991 Kwakwada'wakw artists Wayne Alfred and Beau Dick carved this pole called Ga'akstalas Totem, it is based on a design by Russel Smith. The artists are quoted: "We wanted this pole to be a beacon of strength for our young people and show respect for our elders.  It is to all our people who have made contributions to our culture."  The totem depicts many key figures in Kwakwada'wakw culture.  The story tells of an ancestor Red Cedar Bank Man, who survived the great flood and gave the people the first canoe.  To illustrate the story, we see the legendary bird called Quolous on top.  Next is the Red Cedar-bark man with his canoe, then the two-headed serpent Sisiyutl, the hero Siwidi is riding a Killer Whale, next is a Raven, then we see a Grizzly bear over man's head, and finally the giantess Dzunukwa. 
  7. In 1964 this totem was carved by Haida artist Bill Reid and his assistant Werner True.  Then in 1994, the moon face at the top was recarved by Don Yeomans.  It is called Chief Skedans Mortuary Totem Pole and it is a new version of an 1870s pole in the Haida village of Skidigate. The top of the totem pole contains a cavity where the chief’s remains would be placed.  We see a rectangular piece with the chief’s crest the moon, next is a Mountain Goat, then a Grizzly Bear, and on the bottom is a Whale.

The next pole is also on display in Stanley Park.    An interpretation of Coast Salish teachings, it is called “Children of the World” and was carved by Francis Horne.

Here six family members are displayed: on the bottom, you see the father (the larger head) with his son sitting in front of him.  It looks like the sitting son has pulled his legs in front of him and is holding his knees.  Above the father and son pair, you see the rest of the family. The Mother (again with the larger head) is on the top half of the totem.  She is balancing her twin babies on her knees, and their sister is peering out between mom’s knees.  It is interesting to see how the male faces are depicted more angular, showing their strength, whereas the females (mother and daughter) have rounder, softer faces.  Can you determine, if the twin babies are male or female?

Victoria (on Vancouver Island), British Columbia

We visited Victoria, the capital of British Columbia.  Victoria is located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.  Victoria has a wonderful park called Thunderbird Park, where a number of breathtaking totems are on display such as the Kwakwaka'wakw Totem below:

I took this photo many years ago when we visited Thunderbird Park in Victoria, British Columbia.  I have searched extensively for the name of this pole, but only saw a reference to it being a Kwakwaka'wakw totem.  Like many specimens, this totem was carved from a single log, with the wings and beaks being added separately.   On the top of this totem, we see the Thunderbird.  For the Haida tribe, the Thunderbird was the symbol of thunder, lightning, and storms, which are created when the Thunderbird flies. 

Beyond Thunderbird Park, we saw this beautiful totem on the grounds of the Parliament buildings in Victoria.  It is called Knowledge Totem.  It was carved by master carver Cicero August.  The totem tells the story of the Aboriginal people of the northwest coast.

Let’s read this totem:

On the bottom, we see the frog.  Some Northwest Coast tribes associate frogs with springtime and renewal.  They symbolize creativity, adaptability, and strength.  After all, frogs are equally equipped to survive in the water (as tadpoles) and on land. 

Next, we see a bone game player.  According to Northwest Coast mythology, the Creator gave the bone game to humanity as an alternative to war at the beginning of time.  It was to be played by people who did not share the same language. 

Then we see a fisherman.  Notice the fishing spear in his right hand and a fish (salmon) in his left.  The fisherman represents the traditional way of life of the North Coast peoples.

Finally, on the top is a loon.  Loons are symbols of harmony, generosity, and peace. In some Algonquian tribes of the northeast, loons are regarded as divine messengers.  Here the loon is said to be the teacher and interpreter of all Aboriginal languages. 

When you put all these symbols together, they represent lessons learned from the past and hope for the future.


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