Totem poles: history, heritage and symbolism at the Royal Ontario Museum

Shaking Pole of Kw’ax̱suu
Shaking Pole of Kw’ax̱suu

Totem poles are a poignant and important symbol for Canada’s First Nations – but what do they really represent?

When I was growing up there were totem poles in one of our community parks. I knew as a child that these were made by First Nations people and that they were important and deserved respect. I learned that the carved figures of animals and humans had specific meanings for the First Nations community who created the poles – but there was no discussion about which First Nations group the poles belonged to or why they were in our community park. In high school I studied the famous Canadian artist Emily Carr and was enthralled by her painted depictions of totem poles in villages on Canada’s west coast in the 1910’s. When I came ‘face to face’ with one in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto my desire to learn more was rekindled.

House 16: Strong House Pole
House 16: Strong House Pole

Across the world the totem pole is falsely seen as a symbol of all indigenous North American peoples. The carving of totem poles is an ancient cultural tradition that originated on the west coast of North America with First Nations such as the Tsimshian, Haida, Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuxalt and Coast Salish. Each group has their own carving styles and traditions. Although carved for different purposes, traditional totem poles were emblems that communicated a family’s or clan’s crest animals, relationships, ancestors, accomplishments and rights. Common crest animals include the thunderbird, wolf, eagle, grizzly bear, killer whale, frog, raven and salmon. Each carving tells a story: there is much more communicated through the carving of a totem pole than the depiction of myths or local animals.

Three Persons Along
Three Persons Along

Traditionally, totem poles were raised during the potlatch ceremony but for decades the Potlatch Ban was enforced in Canada as part of a wider policy of cultural assimilation (Section 149 of the Indian Act was in effect from 1885-1951). Totem poles were bought and stolen from west coast indigenous communities until the Potlatch Ban was lifted. In the 1920’s the curator of the ROM’s Archeology museum, Charles Trick Currelly, obtained four giant totem poles from Canada’s west coast through the famous and controversial Canadian ethnographer C. Marius Barbeau and the British ethnographer Charles F. Newcombe. Currelly was motivated by a desire to share these important and beautiful representations of west coast First Nations culture with the rest of Canada. It was thought at the time that the indigenous cultural traditions of Canada would not long exist – thank goodness this was wrong.

Shaking Pole of Kw’ax̱suu
Shaking Pole of Kw’ax̱suu

The hand-carved western red cedar Nisga’a and Haida Crest Poles in the ROM were transported by train to Toronto in the 1920’s. They couldn’t fit in the original museum space and had to be kept in storage until the ROM’s eastern extension was constructed in 1933. The poles are so tall that they were brought into the museum’s new wing before construction was completed! Once they were reassembled and erected, staircases were built around them. This position within the museum space gives the visitor the unique chance to wind their way around the poles from bottom to top and examine each carving up close as they climb. The individual marks in the wood remind you that these magnificent objects were shaped by a master carver.

Pole of Sag̱aw̓een
Pole of Sag̱aw̓een

The ROM totem poles  from the Nsga’a Nation are referred to as ‘Three Persons Along’, the ‘Pole of Sag̱aw̓een’ and the ‘Shaking Pole of Kw’ax̱suu’ and from the Haida Nation the ‘House 16: Strong House Pole’. The ‘Pole of Sag̱aw̓een’ is the tallest known example of a historic 19th century pole, towering at over 24.5 metres. Actually a memorial pole carved in 1860 to commemorate Chief Ksim Xsaan of the Raven Tribe, ‘Three Persons Along’ is so named for the three human figures carved on it. It was cut down in 1918 and is only one of three complete poles from the village of Gitlaxt’aamiks – the other 19 poles were destroyed in the early 20th century.  The 14 metre tall ‘Shaking Pole of Kw’ax̱suu’ once stood on the beach along the Nass river and was created by two carvers, Oyee and Yarogwanows, in the 1840’s. This memorial pole was carved for the female Chief Kw’axsuu from the clan Gitlaxgwanks and unusually depicts the crests of two tribes: Wolf and Raven. The story goes that grizzly bears would climb the pole and shake it!

Pole of Sag̱aw̓een
Pole of Sag̱aw̓een

A resurgence of totem pole carving began with the lifting of the Potlatch Ban in 1951. From that time on many First Nations communities have been working to repatriate totem poles that were taken during the heyday of collecting. In some cases they have been successful. Equally there is an awareness of the political and cultural importance of allowing some poles to remain in museums so people throughout the world can see them and learn about west coast First Nations. This is the case with the totem poles at the ROM which are now held in trust for the Nisga’a and Haida Nations after considerable consultation and a ceremony to bless the poles where they stand now. Today the older generation of master carvers continue to create and teach the younger generation – ensuring that this valuable cultural tradition is not lost. Totem pole carving is very much a living tradition that has evolved over time and continues to develop with its communities.

House 16: Strong House Pole
House 16: Strong House Pole

Totem poles are to many people a quintessentially Canadian symbol – mini versions can be bought in most tourist shops around the country. This modern appropriation of the totem pole is part of the larger continuing story of Canada and its peoples. For me totem poles are a symbol of my developing understanding of First Nations cultures and communities:

The totem poles in my home town’s community park symbolised to my childhood self the generally unseen presence of First Nations groups in my area. Later they symbolised the often tragic history of Canada’s First Nations after Europeans arrived. Today totem poles symbolise for me that First Nations cultures are living and enduring, and they symbolise the progress my nation, Canada, is trying to make towards reconciliation.

Pole of Sag̱aw̓een
Pole of Sag̱aw̓een

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