Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Essay: Totem Pole Art: Changing Perceptions with comments on Collection, Preservation and Renovation

Much of my time in 2008 to 2010 was spent taking some university courses. It might be of some general interest if I convert a few of my essay assignments into blogs. One of my courses was titled ‘Introduction to Heritage Resources Management’. I wrote an essay on the following topic:
Discuss how Northwest Coast native art has been collected, restored and preserved.  Give emphasis to the totem poles found in villages of the upper Skeena River valley.  Include a discussion of how they were viewed by earlier visitors and how that view has changed.
The following is an edited version of my student submission:
The native peoples of the northwest coast of North America created monuments – especially totem poles – from the Western Red Cedar which grows abundantly in local forests.  This is a wonderful carving material, but in the wet coastal climate anything created in wood requires care, preservation and restoration if it is to survive.  The practices and policies that promote totemic preservation and renewal have changed several times in the last century.  These changes have brought conflict between the Canadian government and local Native[1] nations.
Changing times have brought new respect for totem art.  To illustrate changes in attitudes and practices, it is useful to include a history of a representative sample of the many totem poles that were carved in a few small villages near British Columbia’s upper Skeena River.  This small area contains perhaps the best preserved collection of totem poles still found in the same original locations where they were first raised.  It is an area that the author has known from both readings and personal experience.
While it is uncertain when free-standing totem poles were first created, it is certain that the Natives were making fine carvings with metal tools before they were ‘discovered’ by English, Spanish and Russian explorers.  When Captain Cook visited Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island in 1778, he observed that the local people’’’s “great dexterity in works of wood, may, in some measure be ascribed to the assistance that they receive from iron tools, for, as far as we know, they use not other; at least we saw only one chisel of bone.”[2] Apparently, iron tools were in common use before the coming of the white man.  Some were received in trade with other tribes who had European contact. Other iron had drifted ashore in wreckage, so much so that Haidas believed these “iron logs” to be the original source of the metal.[3]
Edward Keithahn notes that other Europeans, visiting before 1800, described large communal houses with big vertical support poles.  Some of these poles were carved and painted.  Free standing poles were seen in front of a few houses but they appeared to be rare.  Their carved surfaces were commonly painted red, green and black.  Shorter mortuary poles were erected with wooden boxes at the top where the remains of chiefs were placed.  He concludes that “interior house posts were in general use throughout the region before the coming of the white man; that the mortuary pole was common in Tlingit and Haida villages; that the exterior house post is Haida in origin.”[4] Exterior poles became more common and became known as “totem poles”.
The heyday of totem pole creation started about 1830 with the acquisition of new wealth from the fur trade and new steel tools.  By the 1880s the art was already in slow decline. The Native population was devastated by smallpox and other disease, Canadian policy discouraged the carving of totem poles, and perhaps most importantly, government policy discouraged the ceremonies required to raise new poles as replacements for the old ones which had fallen.
On the subject of Totem Restoration[5], Edward Keithahn says that the act of moving, repainting, altering or replacing a pole would require a potlatch and the same ceremony as though he were erecting a new pole.  It required great expense and brought no prestige to the owner.  “Wind and weather, fungi, insects and plant life all contribute to the decay of a totem pole… once fallen it is generally left to return to the earth”.  To raise it again requires a new potlatch ceremony.  “A contemporary pole raising may include traditional elements such as a full-blown potlatch that involves the feeding of many hundreds of people at a lavish sit-down dinner.”[6] In the wet coastal climate a wooden totem pole could barely be expected to outlive the lifetime of its creators, yet the traditional cycle which created new copies to replace the old eventually became almost completely broken.
Totem poles were collected by the great museums of the world.  Museums sent collectors to gather as many ethnographic objects as they could persuade the Natives to part with.  Between the 1870s and the 1920s hundreds of poles were purchased or simply removed without permission.  When a village was empty for a few years – or even just for a season of fishing and harvesting – the totems became fair game for removal by unscrupulous collectors.  Museums from Chicago to Stockholm to New Zealand treasure their totem collections.  In Canada, one finds prime examples in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.[7]
In the 1890s, parks were created in Alaska near Sitka and Wrangell.  Many totem poles were moved there for restoration and preservation.[8] In the illustrations of a 1905 Worlds Fair guide book one finds a photo labelled “Totem Poles – The finest collection in existence, arranged in a semi-circle in front of Alaskan wing of Government Building.  Made by Indians from the Prince of Wales Island. ...  Vary rare and valuable curiosities.”[9] These totems appeared to be well appreciated by their American audience, but perhaps the appreciation was quaint curiosity in a dying art more than it was any artistic appreciation.  The same guide book has a photo depicting a sculpture of four roughrider cowboys mounted on horses. The cowboys appear to be drunk and shooting pistols in the air.  The description reads “A striking group of sculpture, characteristic of early days in the great Northwest.  The sculptor has certainly caught the right spirit in his interpretation of the daring cowboys of the plains—a type that is rapidly disappearing and giving place to the onward march of civilization.”[10]
Between 1920 and 1945, more than 50 American totem poles were restored and moved to locations that ranged from Seattle to Ketchikan.  Keithahn uses the term “purloined” to refer to the 1899 totem in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.  The restoration and removal was a joint effort of the US Forest Service, the U.S. Indian Service, the Governor’s Office and many other public agencies.[11]
In Canada restoration projects were carried on “to a certain extent” ever since 1900. Up until 1925, the official policy was to acquire totem poles from deserted villages and then bring them to Victoria and Vancouver where they would be restored, placed in museums or displayed in public parks.[12]
In 1925 an extensive restoration project was started in British Columbia along the Skeena River.  Keithahn mentions Barbeau writing about the difficulty in getting Native permission to restore the poles.  “’Why,’ they asked, ‘do you wish to preserve totempoles which only a few years ago you forbid us to erect?’”[13]
Leslie Dawn writes of the international appreciation of Canada’s Native art in the 1920s.  In Europe this art sometimes received a more favourable reception than did the works of artists who were far more respected back home in Canada.  For example, in 1927 the Canadian government sponsored an Exposition d’art canadien at the prestigious Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris.  There were several rooms of fine landscapes painted by all the great Canadian painters including the complete Group of Seven.  There was also one small table with eleven small Native pieces; mainly Haida works carved in black argillite slate.  A prestigious French reviewer wrote that the works of the Canadian landscape painters were rugged and had potential.  He then described the Native carvings as having “a rare perfection of execution, a remarkable character and a styling that had nothing of the banal.”[14]  He noted a direct dependence of the modern painters on Native traditions.  Such a dependency would have been rejected almost immediately in Canadian art circles.
Back in Canada, the general consensus was that the natives were dying off, that their culture was dying with them, and that Native “tribes” such as the Gitxsan had already given up any claim to control of their ancestral lands.  For each of these ideas, Dawn provides much evidence to the contrary.  He writes of the absurd situation in Alberta where government bureaucrats did everything they could to stop native dances and ceremonies at the same time that the CPR tourism department, and the organizers of the Calgary Stampede, encouraged photogenic Native gatherings in Banff and Calgary.  In Northern British Columbia the CNR was encouraging the restoration of totem poles in their original locations while civic boosters in Vancouver, Victoria and Prince Rupert vied to get the best specimens for their public parks.[15]
The history of some individual totem poles can be readily tracked.  One pole was purchased from Alert Bay, British Columbia in 1928 and shipped to Stanley Park in Vancouver for display.  This pole was photographed in its original location and was painted there by Emily Carr.  By the 1980s it was so deteriorated that the original was shipped to the Northwest Coast exhibit of Ottawa’s Museum of Civilization.  A replica was carved in Vancouver and erected there in 1987.  A raising ceremony was conducted by the Native peoples of Alert Bay.[16]  The Stanley Park totem pole group is the most photographed and visited tourist spot in B.C.[17]
Canadians finally started to appreciate their Native arts.  Starting in 1935 more than a dozen poles were moved from Massett and Skidegate to various public locations in Prince Rupert.  In 1940 a Thunderbird Park was established in Victoria.  Keithahn predicted that in the future the totem will be considered as significant as the pyramids of Egypt or the ruins of Rome.[18]
Marius Barbeau relates trying to purchase a pole at Kincolith on the upper coast. The chief / owner was on his death bed and refused to sell. The chief said that selling his totem would be like selling the gravestone of BC’s first governor.  Barbeau says that “The figures carved on it were not pagan divinities, as is often supposed, but the heraldic emblems of the clan; they were like the coats of arms of our nobles.”  He then relates his efforts to buy that same pole from the old chief’s sons after his death.  Barbeau is proud that it “stands now in a better place for its preservation. Lost to all notice in the northern jungle, it would soon have tumbled to the ground and decayed, whereas it is now on display for everyone to see and may last forever.”[19]
In 1957 a group of carvers including Bill Reid went to Ninstints on Anthony Island in the Queen Charlottes.  They found a fine house frontal pole on the ground: “We turned it over,” Bill Reid said, “expecting to find total decay, but to our delight the carving was intact except for some rot and a long crack.”  The original was cut in half for transportation to UBC. It is on display at the UBC Anthropology museum.  A 2/3 size copy was made by Bill Reid and others. It is now on display outside that museum.[20]
The villages of Gitwangak[21], Gitanyow, Gitsegukla and Kispiox have had a quite different history than many other Native sites in Canada.  Their Skeena River locations were far enough from the coast that they were little visited before the arrival of the Grand Truck Railway.  There was a good supply of local food and plenty of wood for carving.  The local people were just warlike enough that government agents were willing to try a little negotiation before using the full force of the law.[22]  New Histories for Old provides a background on the early relations between Natives and white people in the Skeena Valley.  The native villages operated their own form of government. When there were conflicts between them and white intruders – usually missionaries, prospectors or fur traders – they insisted on operating according to their own rules and their own sense of morality.[23]
Writing in 1940, Barbeau reports that the best collection of totem poles, still fairly complete, was found that area. There were more than a hundred poles or carvings in scattered groups found in “eight tribal villages of the Gitskan nation. (The Gitskans are one of the three nations of the Tsimsyans.)”[24] [His commentary uses both the words nation and art.]  “Their own alien and bizarre appearance was enhanced by the striking background of darkly wooded and mist-shrouded, ice-capped peaks.”[25]
George F. MacDonald writes a lot about the totem poles at Gitwangak. He notes that Gitwangak is the best-documented totem village in the Northwest.  The National Museum of Man’s files in Ottawa contain more than 500 photographs of the Gitwangak poles.  He states that with the exception of nearby Kitwancool, Gitwangak has the most extensive collection of old totem poles of any village in British Columbia.[26]
In 1958 the village elders of Gitanyow allowed several old poles to be moved for museum preservation as long as they were replaced with carved replicas.  In 1960, master Kwakiutl-style carvers made a replica of an original that is now seen in the Great Hall of UBC’s Museum of Anthropology.  This replica pole is now displayed at Thunderbird Park in Victoria.[27] In this case, native carvers from a distinctly different artistic tradition carved a Gitxsan design for public display in Victoria.
Leslie Dawn’s book has several chapters about the complicated relationships between the Gitxsan Natives, various Canadian governmental agencies, ethnographers – such as Marius Barbeau – and a variety of visiting artists.  The Gitxsan nation has never signed a Land Treaty with Canada.  Ever since the Grand Trunk (now the CNR) railway was built through this area, the government has been anxious to pretend that the “dying race” had abandoned their land and their culture was almost gone.  Efforts were made to collect, record and preserve the remnants before all traces were gone.[28]
Barbeau writes that the totem poles of BC and Alaska are “known all over the world.  The excellence of their decorative style at its best is nowhere surpassed by any other form of aboriginal art”.[29]  “The art of carving poles belongs to the past.  Racial customs and stamina are on the wane everywhere, even in their former strongholds.”[30]
A.Y. Jackson, W. Langdon Kihn and Emily Carr all sketched and painted extensively in Kitwanga and the other Gitxsan villages.  They were encouraged by the authorities as long as they recorded a land nearly empty of people.  The government – and its ethnographer Marius Barbeau – preferred a land of scenic mountains, some mighty rivers, a few ancient cultural monuments and perhaps a handful of Christianized locals.[31]
Gitwangak village, also known as Kitwanga, still has a dozen standing poles.[32]  Most of the totems were originally erected facing the bank of the Skeena River.  As the river banks eroded the poles were moved inland.  Most now face the gravel road through the lower town.  The CNR tracks are a hundred yards away but the train station is gone and passenger trains rarely stop.  A bridge across the Skeena was built at Kitwanga in 1974 so access from the highway is now easy.  The setting is quite spectacular.  The mountain range known as the Seven Sisters can be easily seen from the totems.  That is one of the most spectacular mountain scenes viewable from any paved road in BC.
It is interesting to speculate that while Natives following the buffalo would mark their flat prairie with simple stones circles; here in the midst of dense forests and steep mountains these more-settled Native peoples carved bright monumental poles to compete with their surroundings.
These individual totem pole histories illustrate how government policy, international interest and Native attention have all modified the care, preservation and restoration of Gitwangak totem poles.  Illustrations from national and international sources have shown how appreciation has changed for these and other Monuments in Cedar.  Wooden objects will never remain erect without care and attention in the harsh weather of the Northwest coast.  If totem pole carving is to remain a vibrant living art, then future training, preservation and government support will be required.

Looking at the varied histories of a few notable Gitwangak poles illustrates the how policies and practices have changed:
(Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 5) Pole of the Mountain Lion.[33]
This was carved and erected as a house pole about 1865.  It was reinforced with back support pole about 1885.  It was reinforced or moved in 1926, 1942 and 1967.  After more than 140 years it has significant rot.  It is still standing within a hundred metres of its original location and the original figures are still easy to distinguish.
1. A separately carved mountain lion.
2. Wolf, head down. The mountain lion is impaled on its tail.
3. Ensnared bear.
4. Wolf.
5. Ensnared bear around doorway.

 (Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 9) Bear's-Den-Person
This pole was erected about 1840 and destroyed in 1969.  It had an interesting story.  It was one of the earliest erected after the local people moved from the Kitwanga Hill Fort.  Barbeau described it as “one of the most valuable relics of the kind on the Skeena.”[34]  It was photographed standing to the west of the village in 1899.  It fell in 1912. By 1924 it was lying on the ground split in two.  It was then moved and later fell again.
“Disaster struck in the summer of 1969 during the totem pole restoration project when one of the workers decided on his own to that the pole was beyond repair and burned it in a bonfire ‘to clean up the site’… The loss of this monument of national heritage value is a sobering reminder of the destruction that can accompany restoration projects.”
1. Eagle.
2. Bear's-Den-Person.
3. Bear's-Den-Person.
4. Split Eagle.

 (Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 10) Dog Salmon
This one was erected about 1860. It was leaning badly by 1925. Reinforced and re-erected the next year. It was threatened by a 1936 flood. Re-erected and repainted in 1940's. Fell down about 1960. A copy was made with rubber and fibreglass moulds in 1969 and shipped to Ottawa. The original remained in Kitwanga and a replica was made in Ottawa. The replica was shipped back and eventually erected in Kitwanga. The fibreglass version went to Ksan village in Hazelton and the original went to Ottawa.
1. Person-with-the-Fish-Spear stand on tail of dog salmon with salmon's tail behind person's head.
2. Dog salmon.
3. Split-Person hanging onto the fin of a second dog salmon with head in mouth of first.
4. Dog salmon with two dorsal fins.
5. Split-Person in the mouth of the second salmon.

 (Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 12) Halibut
Erected around 1880, blown down 1925 and re-erected in 1926. This pole was moved in 1928 without owner's permission to the side of HBC store. There it remains long after the store building was removed in the 1980s.  Barbeau lists it as "among the best at Kitwanga."  It faces train tracks and road crossing; therefore is the only one easily seen from the railway.
1. Person-with-Drum.
2. Split-Person or Half-Man merging with Bear's-Den-Person.
3. Person holding halibut.
4. Two halibut; one held in each hand of person.
5. Split eagle.  Possibly borrowing on Russian eagle concept.
6. Person-with-Drum holding a crest or mask in his hands.

(Gitwangak Totem Pole No. 16) Whereon-Climb-Frogs.
Carved about 1900 to 1905.  It has a distinctive appearance with a canoe containing three figures.  It was featured in paintings by Emily Carr.  It can be easily traced in photos from 1926, 1974 and 2007.
1. Eagle with a frog facing upwards on body.
2. Copper-Smell-Person in shape of a human being holding two animals that might be white groundhogs.
3. Climbing frog.
4. Canoe with three figures: Kewok on top, his son Nekt attached by tongue and bottom Lutraisu, Nekt's mother.
5. Climbing frog.
6. Half-Bear.

Bibliography and references used in this Essay
Barbeau, Marius Totem Poles (2 vols)
Ottawa, Ontario: Department of the Secretary of State,
National Museum of Canada, 1940
Binnema, Ted and Susan Neylan (editors) New Histories for Old: Changing Perspectives on Canada's Native Pasts.
Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2007.
Dawn, Leslie National Visions, National Blindness: Canadian Art and Identities in the 1920s
Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2006.
Keithahn, Edward L. Monuments in Cedar
Ketchikan, Alaska: Roy Anderson, 1945
Lee, William H. Glimpses of the Lewis and Clark Exposition and the Golden West
Chicago, Illinois: Laird & Lee, 1905
MacDonald, George F. The Totem Poles of Gitwangak village: Studies in Archaeology, Architecture and History Ottawa, Ontario: Environment Canada, 1984
Stewart, Hilary Looking at Totem Poles
Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd. 1993
Tippett, Maria Emily Carr, a Biography
Toronto, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co., 1979

[1] To signify aboriginal people in general this author has chosen to use the same capitalized ‘Native’ terminology as seen in Leslie Dawn’s recent book.  While ‘First Nations’ is common Canadian modern terminology, the Canadian nation is still trying to sign treaties with the Native Skeena River peoples.  Therefore, the exact demarcations between what defines a family, a band, a tribe and a first nation are still controversial and under review.
[2] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 24
[3] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 24
[4] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 25
[5] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[6] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 29
[7] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 21
[8] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[9] William H. Lee Glimpses of the Lewis & Clark Exposition [The pages are not numbered in book but this is approximately p. 17; the photo shows seven totem poles; apparently brightly painted. In front is a great dugout canoe.]
[10] William H. Lee Approximately p. 37 the photo is labelled “Hitting the Trail”
[11] Paragraph based on Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[12] Paragraph based on Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[13] Paragraph based on Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[14] Quote from Thiebault-Sission, “Une exposition d’art Canadian au Jeu-de-Paume”, in Le Temps March 25 1927 as referenced in Leslie Dawn’s National Visions, National Blindness p. 101.
This entire paragraph is based on Dawn’s chapter Canadian Primitives in Paris.
[15] This section is based on several chapters of Leslie Dawn’s book, including Chapter 5 Barbeau and Kihn with the Stoney in Alberta, Chapter 6 Barbeau and Kihn with the Gitxsan in British Columbia, Chapter 7 Giving Gitxsan Totem poles a New Slant and Chapter 8 Representing and Repossessing the Picturesque Skeena Valley.
[16] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 89
[17] Vancouver Sun newspaper’s online edition of Aug 02, 2008 Totem poles most-visited site in B.C.
[18] Edward L. Keithahn Monuments in Cedar p. 118 - 128
[19] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles p. 32
[20] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 54
[21] A note on naming terminology: Every explorer, ethnographer and writer seems to have used a different spelling system.  I chose to use Gitwangak, Gitanyow and Gitsegukla for the Native villages.  (These groups themselves commonly use this particular spelling).  The Gitxsan tribal nation is also spelled as Gitskan.  I refer to Kitwanga (Gitwangak), Kitwancool (Gitanyow) and Kitsegukla (Gitsegukla) where appropriate for the actual physical locations.  These are the most common spellings seen on modern maps.
[22] This paragraph is somewhat based on personal observation.  Regarding militancy, it is interesting to visit the Kitwanga Fort National Historic Site.  It is the only such Native fortification in Canada.
[23] Ted Binnema and Susan Neylan (ed.) New Histories for Old. Skeena native govt. is mentioned in several chapters; especially “Gitxsan Law and Settler Disorder: The Skeena ‘Uprising’ of 1888” by R.M. Galois
[24] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles Introduction p. 4
[25] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles Introduction p. 4
[26] George F. MacDonald The Totem Poles of Gitwangak Village Preface. The National Museum of Man is now known as the Museum of Civilization.
[27] Hilary Stewart Looking at Totem Poles p. 107
[28] See note 12 regarding Leslie Dawn’s book
[29] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles Introduction p. 1
[30] Marius Barbeau Totem Poles Introduction p. 1
[31] See note 12 regarding Leslie Dawn’s book
[32] The comments on the current state of Gitxsan art is based on a tourist visit by this essay writer to the area in July 2007.  Many photos were taken.  This writer also spent most of 1974 working in Kitwanga.  Scenery comments are also based on personal experience.
[33] The pole numbering, pole naming, figuring numbering and figure descriptions used in this section are from George F. MacDonald’s book.  MacDonald based his descriptions on the research of Marius Barbeau.  The figures described are seen from top to bottom.
[34] As quoted in MacDonald p. 75.

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