How totem poles (and an owl) put a spell on me
The pull is undeniable.
Under overcast skies and a forecast of heavy rainshowers, I walk out one January morning from Vancouver’s West End and head out towards Stanley Park for a morning walk.
Past Coal Harbour and Deadman’s Island, I arrive finally at the totem poles near Brockton Point.
The totem was the British Columbia Indian’s “Coat of Arms”. Totem poles are unique to the northwest coast of B.C. and lower Alaska. They were carved from Western red cedar and each carving tells of a real or mythical event. They were not idols, nor were they worshipped. Each carving on each pole has a meaning. The eagle represents the kingdom of the air, the whale the lordship of the sea, the wolf the genius of the land, and the frog the transitional link between land and sea.
I’ve seen and known these totem poles for over four decades.
There are few people around in mid-morning and conditions are cold and damp.
But is it quiet because there aren’t many people around, or because this place with its towering poles induce an atmosphere of reverence?
Once upon a time in the Seventies, I was on a school-sponsored field-trip to Stanley Park with the required stop at the totem poles. I thought they were a little intimidating at the time, but I also thought they were beautiful wood carvings. They’re just wood.
From within the trees, a call went out, loudly and slowly, like sad wailing.
The totems had spoken directly to me, and they were very unhappy.
Naturally, this scared the crap out of me. Who knew an owl’s hoots could strike such fear in the hearts of children? Despite learning more about them, my irrational fear of owls and totems remained for years.
I no longer fear the fearsome-looking totems; this place is one of my favourite spots in Stanley Park. But every time I look at them, there’s a tiny streak of … something … which never fails to hit the mark.
Here are two totems which have made the most impact …
Thunderbird house post
Top-to-bottom: thunderbird, grizzly bear holding a human.
Yesssss, stare into the thunderbird’s eyes …
Thunderbird House Post : Carved house posts are used in traditional First Nations cedar houses to support the huge roof beams. This pole is a replica of a house post carved by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Charlie James in the early 1900s. Tony Hunt carved this replica in 1987 to replace the older pole (which is) now in the Vancouver Museum. James experimented with colours and techniques creating a bold new style that has influenced generations of artists including his step-son Mungo Martin and grand-daughter Ellen Neel. A pole by Ellen Neel stands to the left.
Chief Skedans mortuary pole
Top-to-bottom: Moon (a chief’s crest), mountain goat, grizzly bear, whale.
Top-to-bottom: Moon (a chief’s crest), mountain goat, two tiny figures.
Chief Skedans Mortuary Pole: An older version of this pole was raised in the Haida village of Skidegate about 1870. It honours the Raven Chief of Skedans and depicts the chief’s hereditary crests. The two tiny figures in the bear’s ears are the chief’s daughter and son-in-law who erected the pole and gave a potlatch for the chief’s memorial. The rectangular board at the top of the original pole covered a cavity that held the chief’s remains. Haida artist Bill Reid with assistant Werner True carved this new pole in 1964. Don Yeomans recarved the top moon face in 1998.
The totem poles at Stanley Park are one of the most visited tourist attractions in Vancouver. I come to see these symbols, and it’s another familiar piece in the great collection of memories I call home.
With public transit, you can take Translink bus route 19 westbound to its terminus at Stanley Park bus loop. After disembarking from the bus, the walk east through the park takes about 20 minutes to reach the totem poles.
I made the photos above on 6 January 2012 with the Canon EOS450D camera and 50mm prime-lens. This post appears originally on Fotoeins Fotopress (fotoeins.com).