Around the Northwest, new energy is infusing an ancient tradition.
If there were one place the traveler interested in authentic totem pole culture should get to, it’d have to be a misty speck on Cormorant Island off the coast of British Columbia called Alert Bay.
During the dark period between 1884 and 1951, when Northwest Coast Native potlatch culture was outlawed by the Canadian government, the defiant ‘Namgis people of Alert Bay and other Kwakwaka’wakw-speaking people were among the artists who kept totem culture alive. Potlatches were held behind closed doors, at times behind the guise of wedding and birthday parties. Poles were carved in secret. Led by legendary carver Charlie James (1867–1937), rebellious artists around Alert Bay produced, among other iconic work, the now ubiquitous and irresistible winged thunderbird totem poles.
Mungo Martin, James’ best-known apprentice and eventual “Father of Totem Pole Revival,” is buried in Alert Bay’s small cemetery. The village is also home to the world’s tallest totem pole, a 173-foot whopper raised in 1973 bearing the crests of most of the tribes in the Kwakwaka’wakw language group. Its U’mista Cultural Centre houses an outstanding collection of elaborately carved masks and other regalia.
The last time I was in Alert Bay, carvers were at work on totem poles commissioned by a park in Belgium for a permanent display. Maybe more than ever, totem poles are central to the culture here.
Alert Bay’s isolated location is as important as its spiritual locus. The predominantly First Nations village lays two steps off the beaten grid, and from there a spectacular BC Ferries trip to the shores of Cormorant Island.
Around British Columbia and Southeast Alaska — authentic totem poles are exclusively the domain of Pacific Northwest Native cultures — many towns have more numerous and ornate collections. Yet this is simply another reason to recommend Alert Bay. Getting here all but requires the traveler to pass through more well-known totem pole sites, setting up a journey through some of the most scenic lands and artistic cultures in North America.
Starting in Vancouver with the famed collection of totems at Stanley Park, then moving up the coast of Vancouver Island, the modern Totem Trail is easy to follow. As a combination of tourist destination and totem site, the provincial capital of Victoria is impossible to beat. The magnificent Wawadit’ła house, carved by Mungo Martin, along with 12 totem poles at Thunderbird Park stand within view of the illustrious Fairmont Empress hotel. It’s a unique place to take in a broad swath of Canadian history.
About a 40-mile drive from Victoria, Duncan is the self-proclaimed “City of Totems.” Its clearly marked walking tour takes in more than 40 totem poles around town. Most have been raised since 1985, part of a resurgent wave of totem culture that has yet to crest.
Farther north, Prince Rupert is the approximate geographic center of totem pole culture. About three and a half hours northwest, in the northern British Columbia village of Kispiox, some 24 totem poles date from 1880 to 1995. New and old totems dot a dramatic mountain region at ‘Ksan Historical Village.
“There are more totem poles standing today than there were a hundred years ago,” writes author Aldona Jonaitis in her 2012 book Discovering Totem Poles: A Traveler’s Guide.
Among more impressive recent examples is the Haida Heritage Centre. Opened in 2007, the magnificent attraction includes multiple poles and elaborate carvings around expansive museum grounds on the island of Haida Gwaii. Fans of the 2005 bestseller The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed will be familiar with the mystical reputation of the sacred island.
I’m generally not a fan of tour guides — they tend to be slow when I want fast, fast when I want slow — but along the Totem Trail I make an exception. It may be easy enough for travelers to identify a carved raven or beaver, but understanding totem poles is impossible without a local. There’s a myth that totem poles tell a story, much like a book. That’s not true. The images on totem poles merely represent parts of a story like pictures in a book and are impossible to decipher, even for Native peoples, without the presence of a tribal storyteller.
At Vancouver’s Stanley Park, you might walk right past the carved faces on an entry gateway without someone like Coast Salish guide Candace Campo pointing out the significance of the older faces on one pole looking toward younger faces on the other.
“The Gateway recognizes the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, which is extremely important to us,” Campo says. “The older and younger figures face each other to indicate the revitalization of our culture.”
Virtually all totem poles are carved from cedar. Soft yet rot-resistant, its wood remains central to Northwest Coast Native life.
“Cedars are the tree of life,” Campo says. “Cedar allowed the construction of buildings and large societies, canoes for transportation, baskets, boxes, mats, household tools, masks, medicine, clothing. Everything we have comes from cedar.”
No one knows who carved the first totem pole. The distinctive art of Northwest Coast Natives evolved among interconnected nations along the rugged coastline and interior stretching from Vancouver Island into Southeast Alaska. The first stand-alone pole has long since fallen and deteriorated into oblivion. Exposed to the region’s harsh marine environment, totem poles raised outdoors have a lifespan anywhere between 50 and 150 years.
The first totem poles were likely raised by the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast, notably the Tsimshian and Gitxsan, and the Nisga’a who inhabit the Nass Valley, a 200-mile drive inland from the port city of Prince Rupert.
“They say pole carving developed in this area and spread to the Haida along the coast and all on to our neighbor Tsimshians and up north to the Tlingits in Alaska and all over,” says Eric Grandison, communications director for Gitlaxt’aamiks, the village that houses government offices for the roughly 2,500 Nisga’a who live in the Nass Valley.
Four poles bearing crests of every clan and house in the valley stand outside the government’s administrative offices. Heralding the wolf clan, one includes a unique feature that illustrates today’s vibrant and evolving totem culture — animal figures with inlaid teeth made of moose bone. Travel the province and you won’t find another pole like it.
“I’m a bone carver, so I just decided to do something different,” says artist Eric Clayton, who carved the pole. “It’s a one-of-a-kind.”
Totem poles are prominently displayed throughout the valley, in front of houses, schools, hospitals, bridges, wherever. A well-preserved pole from 1870 commands the entry of the $14 million Nisga’a Museum. Opened in 2011, the angular modern building pops up like a spaceship on the fringes of the Great Bear Rainforest.
The Ancestors’ Collection in the museum’s permanent gallery consists entirely of repatriated objects confiscated from First Nations villages from the 1880s onward and returned only in recent years per the landmark Nisga’a Treaty. Signed in 2000 after 113 years of negotiation with the Canadian government, the treaty confirms First Nations sovereignty and self-government on traditional lands. National government reconciliation policies — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was launched in 2007 — have helped fuel renewed interest in First Nations cultures, both among indigenous and non-indigenous populations.
Upon its arrival at the Nisga’a Museum, the 50-foot Pts’aan pole was blessed by descendants of its original owners.
“It’s an emotional piece for us here in the valley,” says museum director and curator Stephanie Halapija. “The totem pole and whole museum are statements of survival. It’s very much, ‘Look what we’ve done. Despite everything, we’ve survived. We’re here.’ It’s a war cry of survival.”
It’s difficult to say whether Vancouver’s renowned Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia is the best place to start or finish a totem tour. Designed as a veritable temple of totem poles and Northwest Coast Native art, the dramatically lit Great Hall conveys the majesty of totem culture like no other place. If you want to get someone hooked on totems, buy a ticket, walk them through the front doors, then get out of the way when the photo flurry begins.
Yet it’s hard not to recognize the museum as a place of pain and sorrow. Totem poles and works of art originally stolen or acquired under duress from villages around British Columbia are powerful reminders of a time when First Nations art commanded great commercial interest but a criminal lack of cultural respect. Like zoos, museums say different things to different people — sometimes all at the same time.
In 2018, the museum’s treasured Raven Pole (called Hosumdas Raven, Cuáxsi by Natives) is at the center of one of the most important new totem projects in Canada. With its 11-foot-long carved beak, the pole holds pride of place in the museum. Framed against a bank of cathedral windows looking outside onto a re-creation of two Haida big houses, it’s one of the first things you see when you enter the Great Hall.
Carved circa 1890, the pole originally stood in front of the house of a chief named Xvusemdaas Waakas. Removed from the village after years of deterioration, it was acquired by the Museum of Anthropology in 1956.
In 2017, in what he calls “an act of regeneration by the House of Walkus,” First Nations artist Roy Henry Vickers began work on a reproduction of the historic pole, to be raised in its original village location. Owner of his own successful gallery in Tofino, the 72-year-old Vickers, who has carved some 30 totem poles over a distinguished career, is among the most renowned First Nations artists in Canada.
He’s also the adopted grandson of Chief Waakas. His brother, Ted Walkus (different spellings of names have developed over the years), is the head hereditary chief. The new pole is being carved from a 1,000-year-old tree hand-selected by Vickers and his brother — the 30-foot-long, 17,500-pound totem section was flown out of the woods by Boeing helicopter. Once finished, it will stand in front of his family’s house in Wuikinuxv after a potlatch and raising ceremony.
“This will be the first traditional house front totem raised in my village since the 1800s,” Vickers says. “It’s the biggest project of my life by far. It’s huge. It scares me. So many people know the totem pole and the story. Nobody’s paying me to do this. What I’m doing here is bigger than that.”
Vickers is amazed at the skill and creativity of the unknown artist who first carved the pole. To recreate its intricate design as precisely as possible, he’s employing an unorthodox tool — Adobe FreeHand MX.
“Here I am being put down in lots of ways as not a very traditional totem carver,” Vickers told me last fall in his workshop by the Skeena River. “Yet I’m copying the design of a totem that was done more than a hundred years ago by an artist who was doing totally contemporary work. If someone saw this today and didn’t know this was a copy of a museum piece, they would go, ‘Oh, this guy, he is not traditional, this is new stuff.’ ... This artist was doing work, like, way out where the buses don’t run.”
As part of his own creative process, Vickers has traveled to the Museum of Anthropology numerous times to stand before his ancestral family totem pole, studying every detail and absorbing its profound spirit.
“For many years, I carried a lot of resentment that poles literally stolen from villages are in this museum,” Vickers says, pondering the uneven arc of the Totem Trail. “However, I realize now that if that hadn’t been done, these poles would be gone, and I wouldn’t be doing what I am today. It’s given me a second perspective.”
Totem Poles of Southeast Alaska
Traditional totem pole culture is essential to Southeast Alaska, where it is practiced among Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples. Here are must-see highlights of the Alaska Totem Trail.
The self-proclaimed “totem capital of the world” has two signal attractions. Totem Bight State Historical Park showcases 14 totem poles from around Southeast Alaska and a large, elaborately designed clanhouse. Saxman Totem Park includes 25 replicas of early poles from villages abandoned as Native Alaskans moved into more populated cities.
Though the 173-footer at Alert Bay, British Columbia, is generally acknowledged as the world’s tallest totem pole, it’s made of two connected pieces. Residents of Kake will tell you the 132-foot pole raised there in 1971 is the world’s tallest from a single tree.
Surrounded by a forest of spruce and hemlock, Sitka National Historical Park is located on the site of a battle between invading Russian traders and Kiks.ádi Tlingit. Tlingit and Haida poles now stand along a pleasant coastal trail.
More than 20 totem poles are scattered around the state capital, including one in front of the governor’s mansion. One of the oldest original poles standing in Alaska, the Wasgo or “Old Witch” totem pole was originally raised in 1880 in the Haida village of Sukkwan. It’s now protected from the elements in the lobby atrium on the eighth floor of the downtown State Office Building.
From the August/September 2018 issue.