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Totem Poles, Inukshuks & Our First Nations Heritage

Categories: Canadian Travel

totem polesThe 2010 Olympic Winter games introduced to the world a native Canadian symbol, the Inukshuk, and a giant one stills proclaims that legacy at the top of Whistler. It was a testament to the fact that the games were Canada’s games, not just Vancouver’s. But on Canada’s West coast, it is our totem poles, perhaps a distant cousin to the Inukshuk, that is a lasting symbol of its First Nation’s heritage. Today, totem poles are found all the way up the West Coast from Victoria to Alaska and they have become a major draw for travellers to this part of Canada.

These impressive creations were carved by the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to commemorate ancestors, histories, people or specific events. They can be variously described as artistic, colourful, evocative, garish, suggestive, phallic, beautiful or impressive! All such characterizations would be accurate.

Totem poles were carved from large trees, mostly red cedars (a softwood that carves easily) into a variety of human, animal and mythical figures. Poles range in height from three to twenty metres. Although a long-lasting wood, even red cedar eventually decays. Thus, there are no poles older than about 200 years remaining.

Typically, a variety of different images are carved, in layers, or totems, from top to bottom, with each distinct totem representing a different story, element of history or important being. Sometimes, diverse symbols are amalgamated to form hybrid figures or protrusions. Sometimes, but not always, wings, or arms are attached near the top. The various shapes are then painted in a range of bright colours.

The different animals carved into the poles have known and diverse meanings. The bear, for example, represents power or sovereignty, while the frog represents sensitivity, hidden beauty, or peace. The eagle represents such things as intelligence, a spiritual connection or even friendship, while the beaver represents determination or being a builder. Often a family, or tribal “crest,” such as the thunderbird, the eagle, or the killer whale marks the head position.

But a key feature of the poles is that they are all different, reflecting the rich diversity of the First Nations culture. This diversity reflective not only the different tribes represented, each having their own unique style, but also their various myths and legends, and their creativity.

While totem poles were symbolic, their creation, itself, was also a symbolic act. First, trees were carefully screened before being harvested. “Each tree is like a human being,” says Native artist Roy Henry Vickers. “It has its own personality and uniqueness.” So, being selected for totem-pole carving has been seen as a way of honouring the selected tree. Often a traditional ceremony to show respect to the tree was performed prior to its harvest, sometimes accompanied by a feast or “potlatch.” At such a ceremony, the reason for the pole’s erection, often to commemorate a chief, or a monumental event, was shared with the community. When a totem pole fell to the ground, it was left, not re-erected, believing that it simply was its time to complete the cycle of life and return to the earth.

In times past, totem poles were a way of keeping alive the stories and traditions of previous generations. Some were “generational poles,” situated outside a family’s house, to tell the story of their ancestry, and to reflect their social status. Others were “mortuary poles,” where they served both as a tomb and a headstone. Some were simply “community poles,” in the centre of a village or in front of the longhouse (a sort of community centre). Less commonly, some First Nations carved “shame poles” to ridicule neighbouring groups who had unpaid debts.

In colonial times, they were often misunderstood as religious symbols or idols, reflecting shamanistic practices. For that reason, they were discredited by early colonial and Christianizing efforts. With these assimilation efforts, the art gradually became a dying part of native culture, but, with the repeal of discrimination legislation in 1951, the totem pole carving tradition was revitalized.

The totem pole tradition remains a living art-form, now being carved to represent modern stories. One, for example, has been carved to remind people of the mishandling of the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaskan coast.

What of the Inukshuk then? These were structures of stones stacked by the Inuit people of Northern Canada. Some may have had commemorative value, but they also served much more utilitarian purposes. Among their practical functions, they are used as hunting and navigational aids, coordination points and message centres, such as to indicate a cache of food.

An abundance of totem poles can be seen in Stanley Park in Vancouver, as well as in Duncan, on our Vancouver Island Explorer trip, with a sprinkling of them on all the various West Adventures’ west coast itineraries. For those who want to view Inukshuks, the Lands of the Midnight Sun trip takes visitors to northern areas where they are abundant. Near Vancouver, the Whistler Inukshuk is the best attraction.

Totem Pole facts
1. The original totem poles were created by only six tribes of the western part of North America: the Haida, the Coast Salish, the Nuxalt, the Tlingit, the Tsimshian, and the Kwakwaka’wakw.

2. Modern, private totem poles can be commissioned for carving by a totem pole artist for a price of, typically, $25,000 to $60,000.

3. The nine totem poles at Brockton Point in Stanley Park are BC’s most visited tourist attraction.

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