British Columbia’s Totem Poles Bring History to Life

Magnificent sculptures, normally carved from Western Red Cedar trees by people indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, Totem Poles depict a variety of images which often evoke legends, commemorative stories, cultural beliefs, or shamanic powers. There are many different types of totem poles with variants that range from mortuary structures that contain grave boxes to simple pieces which artists have used as canvases for self-expression. There are many places in BC where you can view different types of totem poles – let’s take a look at some of the most popular.

The Museum of Anthropology at UBC

Founded in 1947, this fantastic museum is located at the University of British Columbia, in the heart of Vancouver. Not only is it a great destination for the entire family, it is also a research and teaching museum that houses more than 535,000 archaeological objects and another 38,000 ethnographic objects, including a collection of totem poles and other First Nations art objects. One of these, a contemporary piece by Bill Reid titled the Raven and the First Men, is depicted on the Canadian twenty dollar bill. While some pieces are housed indoors, you can see many examples on the museum’s grounds. The Museum of Anthropology is just twenty minutes from downtown.

Stanley Park’s Totem Park

Stanley Park in Vancouver is vast, encompassing 1,000 unique acres that represent the natural beauty the province has to offer. Within the confines of the park near the Brockton Oval cricket pitch, just beyond the sea wall, a group of eight stunning totems rise up against a backdrop of evergreens and snow-capped mountains. Each is unique and tells a different story; for instance, the Ga’akstalas totem, carved in 1991 by Wayne Alfred and Beau Dick, tells the tale of Red Cedar Bark Man, who gifted the people with the first canoe. The killer whale, the raven, the grizzly bear, and other legendary figures are beautifully depicted on this colourful totem, which is topped with the image of Quolus, a legendary bird with outstretched wings. A nearby gift shop offers all sorts of treasures.

Anthony Island’s Ninstints Native Village

A UNESCO World Heritage Site located within the confines of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve (close to Queen Charlotte City) the old Haida village of Ninstints is the site of ancient abandoned totems, some of which have fallen. This mystical place offers a much different experience from other popular totem sites in British Columbia; these totems were carved by the people who lived here during the 1800’s and are a poignant reminder of the tragedy that wiped out the entire village in 1863, when a European passenger, sick with the pox, was ordered off a ship that was on its way to Victoria. Despite the fact that the captain knew the natives had no resistance to European diseases, he sent the traveler into the village. Nearly overnight, more than 250 natives died and within a year, only five people survived. They fled the site, leaving the silent totems behind. Today, the poles stand among cedars, just off the beach.

These are just a few of the many places where you can observe British Columbia’s totem poles. The village of Kitwancool, for example, has what are believed to be the oldest totems in the province, and there are more at Prince Rupert’s Museum of Northern British Columbia, as well as at several other locales. Remember to bring your camera; these wooden totem poles are susceptible to the ravages of nature and will not last forever.

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