Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Since moving to Vancouver Island almost 30 years ago—I've become more and more drawn to Pacific Northwest art, the carvings, the rain-shedding woven clothing, the bentwood boxes and the poles, reinforced by repeat visits to the stellar UBC Museum of Anthropology. Below, a pole, or post — in the entry to the museum's great hall.

Yeah I know, just another white woman going on a cultural appropriation rampage. Being surrounded by these artifacts, though, really makes you want to know the stories that lie beneath the surfaces of the poles. The rules bounding what is carved, when they are commissioned and the tools the carvers use are fascinating, as told by Hilary Stewart in her book Looking at Totem Poles.

This D-adze tool sold at auction in 2004 for more than $1600!
  And digging deeper one finds that the coast salish had house poles; not totems.
The following is an excerpt from the Klahowya website a newspaper published by the Naut'sa mawt Tribal Council on Vancouver Island. 

"One of the events involved a series of totem poles along the new Vancouver Island Highway and at major ferry terminals. It was to be called Route of the Totems. On July 30, 1966, an unveiling ceremony took place at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal. Leaders of Tsawwassen and the neighbouring nations of Squamish and Musqueam took part.
News reports of the occasion did not mention the irony of a celebration of native culture at the terminal that was built six years earlier and effectively cut the Tsawwassen reserve in half. Nor was it mentioned that the totem was a cultural icon on northern coastal peoples while house poles, not totems, was the Coast Salish tradition.
The totem was adopted as a centennial symbol because of the new ferry terminals at Swartz Bay, near Victoria, and at Skidegate, on what was then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. These were seen as the ends of ‘the route of the Haida’. The fact that the route passed through Coast Salish, Kwakiutl, and Tsimshian territories, once enemies of the Haida, did not seem to matter.
Haida-inspired totems, and the involvement of artists like Bill Reid and Mungo Martin, was instrumental in several generations of the public, not to mention Coast Salish artists, being influenced by Haida art.
Houseposts were Coast Salish
“While the northern Northwest Coast peoples carved totem poles to depict family or clan history, associated stories, crests, and other prerogatives,” Susan Roy wrote, “Coast Salish artists carved houseposts to depict ancestors and animal or spirit powers associated with family history. Houseposts were either a part of the structure of traditional cedar-plank longhouses or they were decorative boards within their interiors.”

I have three examples of little Haida-inspired tourist totems.

One was thrifted; the other two bought from antique stores in Sidney. Their hand-hewn charm is all the more appealing when knowledge of the crests, or animal figures represented, are understood. And after reading about Ellen NeelI'm even more fond of their kitschy-grrl-power goodness. Ellen supported a family selling totschke carvings in the late 40s. A lady artisan just getting things done; now there's a role model. A quick look online shows an example for sale at Lattimer Gallery in Vancouver… I'm feeling a bit 'wanty' after seeing this.  I suspect it may have been carved by one of her children since they apparently assisted her in production. Her serious work shows much more refinement… hardly surprising as she was a grandchild of Charlie James, a noted carver and stepfather of Mungo Martin.

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