Totem Poles July 17, 2019
Vancouver has some of the most stunning and spectacular scenery of any city anywhere. I don’t think many would disagree with that assertion. But you may be surprised to learn this interesting fact. The First Nations totem poles in Stanley Park are Vancouver’s number one tourist attraction!
Totem Poles are monumental structures made to be used for a variety of purposes. Typically carved from the trunks of Western Red Cedar trees, they are derived from the cultural heritage of Canada’s First Nations people, and are rich in symbolism.
The word totem is from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) word ‘odoodem’ meaning “his kinship group”. A totem is an emblem of an animal or plant. Traditionally, they have deep spiritual significance for First Nation people. Their purpose may be to show the ancestry and the social rank of a particular family, or to watch over and protect the whole tribe.
Different First Nations tribes each have their own styles and methods of designing and carving their totem poles. The Haida, for example, are known to carve creatures with large, bold eyes, whereas the Kwakwaka’wakw designs typically have narrow eyes. The Coast Salish tend to carve representations of people on their house posts. The Tsimshian and Nuxalk tribes, on the other hand, tend to show supernatural beings on their poles.
All totem poles, though, are generally carved from red cedar, and are usually painted using black, red, and blue, and sometimes white and yellow pigments. Totem poles vary in size. House posts, for example, are commonly a metre or more at the base, and can often be over 20 metres in height. Typically, they are erected facing the shores of a river or ocean.
Animal images on totem poles depict creatures from family crests. These crests are considered the property of specific family lineages and reflect the history of that lineage. Animals commonly represented on these crests include beavers, wolves, sharks, killer whales, ravens, eagles, and even mosquitoes!
Animal Symbolism on Totem Poles
The Bear symbol, often used quite prominently, represents strength, family, vitality, courage, and health. He is considered to be a thoughtful creature, yet independent and distant. He makes lonely periods of life easier to bare (no pun intended).
The Beaver symbolizes industriousness and productivity. He serves as an example, meant to teach one persistence, and to use all available resources. The Beaver helps people to understand teamwork and to appreciate each individual’s talents. The beaver represents creativity, creation, cooperation, and harmony.
The eagle, ‘master of the sky’ is a symbol of great significance, because he is the creature with the closest relationship to the creator. Soaring great heights, he can travel between the physical world and the spiritual world. For example, if a prayer needs immediate attention, an eagle feather might be used in the ceremony. The eagle feather transmits strength; it gives the ability to speak honestly from the heart, without hurt or anger. The middle vane in the feather symbolizes the path that every man walks in their lifetime. And every barb that comes of the middle vane symbolizes the choices we all have in life. The wings of an eagle symbolize the balance and co-dependency between males and females.
The eagle feather transmits strength; it gives the ability to speak honestly from the heart, without hurt or anger. The middle vane in the feather symbolizes the path that every man walks in their lifetime. And every barb that comes of the middle vane symbolizes the choices we all have in life. Although every part of the eagle has a separate and significant meaning, the Eagle as a whole signifies focus, great strength, peace, leadership and incredible prestige.
The Sea Otter has always been a highly valued animal and symbol in First Nations cultures. In the past, only tribal nobility were allowed to wear its fur. Native legends describe the otter as a giver of great fortunes. The otter symbolizes friendship, peace and kindness. It is also the symbol of grace, empathy, and happiness.
Vancouver Totem Poles
Vancouver’s biggest tourist attraction is located in Stanley Park, in two different areas of the park. All but three are situated at the Brockton Point meadow area. The others are located in the area of the park where the miniature train operates.
In the early 1920’s, the Vancouver Parks Board had planned to erect a replica of a First Nations village, and purchased four totem poles from Vancouver Island’s Alert Bay. Some of these were carved as early as 1880. In 1936, some additional totem poles were purchased from Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) and the BC central coast Rivers Inlet, to celebrate the 1936 Golden Jubilee.
The totem poles were originally erected at Lumberman’s Arch and Prospect Point, but in 1962, they were moved to their current locale at Brockton Point. By 1980, some of the original poles were deteriorating, and were moved to museums. Those have since been replaced by replicas.
The totem pole is just one example of amazing art in Vancouver. We live in a part of the world with spectacular beauty. I try to instill that in my own work, where I strive to capture magic of the lower mainland in my paintings.