What does BC mean in history

Every totem pole tells a story

The Pacific Northwest totem pole is something that most travelers - and many locals as well - admire but sometimes don't really understand. These totem poles, designed by indigenous wood carvers, not only represent unique works of art, but also stories and landmarks. Each of these is a symbol of family history and ancestors, representing a connection to the land and its resources.

Totem poles at SGang Gwaay Llanagaay in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in northern British Columbia. Photo: Brandon Hartwig

The indigenous peoples have always passed on their knowledge orally from generation to generation, that is also in the form of stories. The totem poles are the traditional way to tell the story of a particular clan or to pass on legends, history and culture. Each totem pole has its own story and can be assigned to specific categories; The categories are determined by the location of the totem pole and the occasion for which it is carved.

Carving a totem pole in Calvin Hunt's studio in Port Hardy. Photo: Calvin Hunt

Welcoming poles were traditionally set up on the water to greet visitors. Today, modernly designed “welcome totem poles” stand at major sights and greet visitors when they enter indigenous land, for example in museums and cultural sites. In the past, so-called house poles were seen in high-ranking chiefs in their homes: the family history was carefully carved into each totem pole. As a memorial or memorial pole, the totem poles stood in front of the house to point out special achievements or events in the life of the deceased family members. As grave totem poles, they housed the remains of those who held a high position within the community. The piles were turned over to create more space and a cavity for the remains at the top.

Welcome totem poles at the Qualicum First Nations campsite in Qualicum Beach; carved by Simon Charlie

Many of these stakes can still be seen in various places on the west coast, but there is a totem pole that can only be found in the museum: the “Schampfahl”. This was traditionally built on behalf of a chief who wanted to humiliate or mock another, often a rival, with it. This type of totem pole shows its subject in a less flattering representation. When the injustice was corrected, the stake also disappeared.

Carving a totem pole at the Haida Heritage Center in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii. Photo: Kent Bernadet

Every picture carved into a totem pole represents a narrative and documented story. Often living beings from the natural environment appear on the totem poles, for example bears, fish, wolves and whales, but also mythical animals such as the thunderbird or the sea snake. Often a certain being is depicted as the coat of arms of an indigenous family on the stake - this coat of arms is usually passed on from generation to generation, but it can also be acquired through marriage, through the submission of an enemy or by another family. This family crest often appears at the top of the totem pole.

A totem pole as a memorial on a Namgis burial ground in Alert Bay.

Totem poles can also contain objects from ceremonies or everyday life that indicate a family's social status or legends that are at the center of the totem's history. These stakes often represent a family's place within their community, their origins and ancestry, rights and privileges, supernatural experiences, territories, marriages, and ancestral memory. A totem pole represents the entire family history and is made to last.

Totem pole at the Ksan Historical Village & Museum. Photo: Grant Harder

As soon as a totem pole is completed, a festival is held on the occasion of its erection, which is accompanied by a potlatch. Visitors from near and far come together for the several days of festivities. The Canadian government's ban on potlatches in 1884 was followed by a period in which totem poles were increasingly bought or stolen from collectors around the world. At the same time, the traditional carvers passed away without having passed their knowledge and skills on to the next generation. This resulted in the art of totem pole carving nearly becoming extinct by the 1950s.

The staff at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia understood the implications of the impending loss of this traditional craft. In 1950, Mungo Martin, at that time one of the last remaining master carvers in the Pacific Northwest, was commissioned with the replication of old totem poles that were doomed to natural decay. It is thanks to this foresight and the lifting of the potlatch ban in 1951 that this art could be brought back to life. They brought forth a new generation of carvers, who among other things were commissioned to recreate old totem poles that had been damaged by time and weather.

While painting a replica of a totem pole in Calvin Hunt's studio. Photo: Calvin Hunt

This cultural tradition became even more prominent in 1966 when the provincial government hosted the centenary of the union of the colonies of Vancouver Island with the rest of British Columbia. As part of this memorial event, 11 indigenous carvers were tasked with building 19 totem poles to form a new “Route of the Totems”. These totem poles were designed to illustrate the land and water route from Tsawwassen on the mainland to southern Vancouver Island and up to Prince Rupert in northern BC. Most of these carvers belonged to the last generation of traditionally trained indigenous artists of a tribe, and the stakes created for the occasion are among the last legacies of their work.

Starting point of the totem tour in Duncan

Many of the totem poles along the Route of the Totems are still in place today. Traditional totem poles are also erected throughout BC to show respect for the indigenous peoples. The city of Duncan, also known today as “The City of Totems” - the city of totem poles - has recognized the important cultural and historical value inherent in totem poles. A tour through the center of the village was launched here, which takes visitors to 39 totem poles that were designed by various indigenous artists in different styles. The world's tallest totem pole at 53 meters is in the secluded settlement of Alert Bay. There on the Namgis grave field there are also other totem poles that are in different stages of decay. Allowing totem poles to return to earth, and thus to its origins, is part of the tradition. Today, many weathered totem poles are being restored or recreated to keep the stories carved into them alive.

Totem poles are not only unique works of art, they also tell stories - stories that connect indigenous peoples to their past and represent their future: a true testimony to the resilience of British Columbia's indigenous peoples to keep their culture and traditions alive.