Bulging eyes at the top gaze at the horizon, a grinning mouth bares teeth at the base of the pole. A bear? A wolf? The various symbols engraved in the wood still hold mystery, and a few misconceptions, about Canadian aboriginal culture. Fortunately, a renewed interest in the First Nations culture sheds some light on the poles’ spiritual and practical purpose.
I was first introduced to totem poles in a mythology course that inspired me to track a special pole while visiting Juneau, Alaska. It depicted a story: The Raven that Stole the Sun. Later, I observed totem poles in the natural setting of Stanley Park in Vancouver, and unexpectedly, in Capilano Shopping Mall and at Vancouver Airport. Each one depicted another story interpreted on a display near the poles.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Totem poles are only found in a small geographical area of North America.
- They are still raised ceremoniously for special occasions.
- The cradle of the totem pole culture is a UNESCO site on Gwaii Haanas (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands).
- Trying to identify the symbols of this unique art form is an entertaining travel activity for children.
- Learning about them is a captivating activity for families, tourists, students.
The Truth about Totem Poles
Totem poles were not worshiped and were not a protection against evil. Think of them as family crests, or associate them with albums containing only significant photographs! They recorded traditions and family history since no written language existed.
Furthermore, totem poles are not representative of all American natives. They are only found on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, and (in the USA) of Washington State and southern Alaska. It’s a 1,000 mile-long stretch of land–from the Puget Sound to 200 miles northwest of Juneau–along a strip of land some 100 miles wide. That’s it. Two reasons explain their limited presence. First, red cedar trees–used to make totem poles because they resist rot for some 200 years–only grow in the coastal northwestern rainforests. The second reason is that the natives of the Northwest Coast didn’t need to migrate: the ocean, rivers and forests provided plenty of food. Consequently, they settled in “longhouses” fronted by… totem poles.
Finally, not all poles are carved equal. Frontal poles display the family/clan lineage, spiritual experiences, natural encounters, and status (which might include the family’ ancestral hunting or fishing rights). Others are carved as welcome posts (such as those at Vancouver airport). Mortuary poles honored the life of chiefs and were carved by their successors. Memorial poles remembered a person lost at sea, for example. And then, there are celebration poles.
The Making of a Totem Pole
Today, poles are commissioned to artist-carvers often for special occasions. This was the case of the Legacy Pole raised in 2013 in SGang Gwaay– a Haida (and UNESCO) Heritage Site on Gwaii Haanas (a 150-island archipelago located off the coast of northwestern British Columbia). It was the first pole raised there in over 130 years. National Geographic Traveler rated the Gwaii Haanas Heritage Site and National Park and Marine Reserve the best park destination in North America.
Carved from a 550-year-old red cedar tree harvested from an ancient forest, the colossal pole stands 40-foot-high and 10 feet underground. It celebrates the 20-th anniversary of an agreement between the Haida Nation and Canada Federal Government “to protect and manage the islands from mountaintop to sea-floor.”
Before the pole was completed, I attended a presentation by its carver at the West Vancouver Memorial Library. Jaalen Edenshaw’s submitted design– land-sea-people in relation to the Haida people—had won him the bid and the honor.
How Symbols Tell the Stories of the Legacy Pole
Edenshaw captivated the audience. Sequence by sequence he revealed the stories behind the symbols.
- At the base of the pole a Sculpin (a fish) symbolizes the ocean floor protected under the Agreement.
- A Grizzly Bear holds the fish. Edenshaw says that oral stories and songs evoked grizzly bears, but no one ever heard of their presence on Haida land. Then, an archeologist found remains dating back 13,000 years. He included the bear to update the Haida Nation’s history.
- The carving of Five People Standing Together illustrates the Haidas’ fight to protect their traditional land — it led to the Agreement. Edenshaw was five-year-old when elders and the young formed the blockade that stopped logging vehicles on Athlii Gwaii. Clear-cutting was eroding the land, trees were felled in streams: Unspoiled land was being destroyed forever.
- The Raven, one of the two Haida clan symbols, symbolizes Creation: It is the trickster that stole the sun, the moon, and the stars to bring light and life on Earth.
- The Sacred One Standing and Moving relates to the 7.7 earthquake of October 28, 2013 that dried up the hot springs. “I wanted to acknowledge the power of this supernatural being, hoping that it will give us the springs back,” Edenshaw says. He described three symbols: A “Human figure wearing a Wasco skin as a cloak and bearing a post on his chest to supports the islands. When he moves, there is an earthquake. The Marten running up and down the post is the sound that preceded the earthquake.”
- A Dog carved in each of the bear’s ears was Edenshaw’s idea to commemorate ”the earliest scientific proof of Haida existence from 13,000 years ago.”
- The Visitor refers to “everyone outside of Haida Gwaii who comes to enjoy the land.”
- Three Watchmen symbolize those who are protecting the land: Haida watchmen and Parks Canada wardens.
- The Eagle “bookends the sea to sky motif,” says Edenshaw, “it is also a symbol of balance with the raven as each represents half of the Haida people.”
- As a whole, the Agreement Celebration Pole depicts the protection of the land from sea (the fish) to sky (the Eagle) by and for the people and their life.
Other Facts about Totem Poles
Edenshaw’s grandmother sang traditional songs. Other traditions such as pole raising ceremonies were forbidden under Canadian Law in order to eradicate the Natives’ culture. Wood carving had, therefore, been abandoned.
Eventually, remaining totem poles were displayed in museums for their historic value and for the preservation of what was seen as a dying culture.
In Masset in 1969, a pole carved by Robert Davidson was the first to be raised in nearly 100 years. Since then, the Haida Nation is seeking the repatriation of antique poles, often in exchange for new ones.
Totem poles were often depicted in fine arts, today their carving is an integral form of fine artwork, one that perpetuates an inspiring and spiritual culture linked to the natural world.
- See the carvers at work and the raising of the pole!
- Duncan, on Vancouver Island, is the City of Totems: Take a (self-)guided tour to view some or all of 80 totem poles.
- The University of British Columbia in Vancouver exhibits ancient totem poles.
- Observe carvers at Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver, and in Klahowya Village in Stanley Park (Thursday to Sunday).
- Travel to Haida Gwaii (find out about transportation, lodging and group restrictions).
- Get to know Gwaii Haanas with the ongoing Speakers Series!
- Learn more about native arts here!