Totem poles are wonderful examples of aboriginal art – the ancient practice of totem carving has been handed down through generations as a way of preserving the history of local native heritage as well as honouring tribal rituals and sacred spirits of people.
There are many ways to experience the rich culture and native heritage of British Columbia’s most fascinating people. There are annual powwows and a multitude of First Nations cultural journeys in every corner of the province.
The aboriginal peoples of B.C. have maintained their diverse cultures by breathing life into ancient traditions and customs and welcome all of us to experience it. For your own exploration of some of the best totem poles and aboriginal art in British Columbia here are a few areas worth visiting.
Vancouver Island and the Gulf and Discovery Islands
Alert Bay: The U’mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay houses one of the finest collections of historical artifacts and elaborately carved masks depicting the Potlatch Ceremony of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. Alert Bay lies cradled in the arms of Cormorant Island, easily accessible by a scenic ferry ride from Port McNeill on Vancouver Island.
The Dominion Government outlawed the ceremony of the Potlatch in 1884 and authorities began to seize ceremonial regalia, including masks, rattles, robes and coppers. These ceremonies, which mark important occasions such as births, marriages, deaths or the transfer of names, were forced underground following this ruling. After more than 65 years, the confiscated items were returned from museums and private collections throughout North America.
Located on the northern end of Cormorant Island, on the outskirts of the Nimpkish Reserve at Alert Bay, stands the world’s tallest totem pole at a height of 52.7 metres (173 feet) – the totem is comprised of two parts. Unlike most totem poles, which are specific to a particular family, the thirteen figures depicted on this pole represent many of the tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation. A collection of memorial poles may be viewed from the roadway at the Namgis Burial Grounds at Alert Bay.
Follow Highway 19 south to Campbell River. The rich native heritage of Campbell River is proudly displayed in the Campbell River Museum, which features a fine display of contemporary native masks and ceremonial items. Totem poles can be viewed at various sites throughout Campbell River: Tyee Plaza Shopping Centre, Foreshore Park, Coast Discovery Inn and Discovery Harbour Centre.
Quadra Island: A ten-minute ferry ride from Campbell River is well worth a visit. The Nuyumbalees Cultural Center (formerly Kwagiulth Museum) at Cape Mudge, on Quadra Island, displays an impressive collection of masks, potlatch regalia, rattles, whistles and other ceremonial objects associated with winter dances. These are some of the items that have filtered back from private collections over the years, after the Government of Canada first outlawed the ceremony in the early part of the 20th century.
Tofino: The Eagle Aerie Gallery located in Tofino displays interior totem poles and works of art by renowned artist Roy Vickers.
Duncan: Native history and culture are apparent throughout Duncan, the “City of Totems.” A short stroll south from the museum, there are 41 intriguing totem poles to see on the self-guided walking tour – just follow the yellow footprints on Duncan’s sidewalks, which provide a path through the sites – and the fascinating world of totem poles. The Quw’utsun’ Cultural and Conference Centre, in downtown Duncan, recreates the history and traditions of the coastal people in its buildings, displays and excellent presentations. Under the roof of a large carving shed, totem poles take shape; visitors may view work in progress.
Victoria: The Royal British Columbia Museum located in the inner harbour area of Victoria, presents a premier collection of native artifacts. Outside the museum, protected from the elements, stand some of the oldest totem poles and greet figures ever collected and preserved.
Totem poles carved in the styles of aboriginal people throughout British Columbia can be seen in Thunderbird Park, adjacent to the Royal British Columbia Museum.
In 1956, renowned Kwakwaka’wakw artist Mungo Martin and his team raised the world’s tallest free-standing totem pole – at 38.8 metre (128 foot) located in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria.
Sechelt: Twelve Coast Salish totems look out over Trail Bay, at Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast. These totem poles recount the history of the Sechelt Nation, the first band in Canada to achieve self-government.