north to see totem poles, masks and longhouses in situ
and to meet the artists carving out a new future
B.C. It's dark and drizzling when I finally reach the village
of Gitanyow, but the dull weather can't blunt the striking scene
before me. Here, alongside the muddy main road, stand more than
20 weathered totem poles, the carved crests and lineage of families
who have lived here for centuries. While it's impressive to see
these stark sentinels in any setting whether in a museum,
art gallery or urban park the chance to view the poles in
situ, in the First Nations community where they belong, is both
wonderful and humbling.
in this isolated Gitksan village, in northern British Columbia,
I'm among some of the oldest standing poles in the world.
one is from 1760, this 1880, and 1910," says hereditary chief
and local museum curator Deborah Good, as we walk among the remains
of the weathered wooden figures, many which had been left to rot
on the ground before this small museum was opened in 2008.
Terrace, with its abundance of community galleries, carving sheds
and museums, is the best place to explore the First Nations' carving
tradition, it's here in Gitanyow (a.k.a. Kitwancool) and neighbouring
Kispiox, that Canadian artist Emily Carr came to paint the totem
poles of the northwest coastal people nearly a century ago. She
saw the faces of the wolf, the frog and mountain eagle entangled
in the encroaching temperate rain forest, and depicted many poles
in her art, including the oldest Hole-in-Ice (or Hole-in-Sky) pole,
standing in this spot for more than 140 years.
spent some time with my great grandparents, in 1928," says
Good, pointing out the corner of the museum dedicated to Carr and
the whimsical frogs the crest of the local Frog Clan
encircling a ragged segment of one of the oldest poles.
row of traditional longhouses that Carr saw, framing this forest
of towering carved cedars in Gitanyow, has been replaced by a motley
collection of 20th-century bungalows, but it's still an iconic spot
to see this ancient art form.
poles are land and property deeds the poles tell the story
of where the people originated from, and how the land was given,"
Good explains. In the collecting frenzy of the 1800s, Gitksan poles
were taken to museums in Vancouver, Ottawa, Boston and Philadelphia,
she says, but somehow these remained untouched.
somehow, in small pockets of the province like here along
the interior reaches of the Skeena and Nass Rivers the tradition
of carving survived, despite nearly a century of suppression. In
1884, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald banned the potlatch feasts
and dances, the centre of the coastal peoples' unique social and
legal system. Many poles were removed, toppled, even burned, and
the skill of carving such ceremonial articles all but disappeared.
By 1951, when the ban on the potlatch was finally lifted, only a
few carvers remained.
artists we know today Mungo Martin, Bill Reid, Freda Diesing
had to comb the world's museums to learn about their ancestral
crests and carving styles. But thanks to these stalwarts, and their
apprentices, West Coast Native art and culture is again alive in
towns and villages from Haida Gwaii to Prince Rupert and Hazelton.
You will still see old poles and contemporary poles
standing in communities like Kitselas, New Aiyansh, Canyon City
and Kitsumkalum not as museum pieces, but to tell clan stories,
claim property rights and mark local events as they have for centuries.
the 'Ksan Historical Village near Hazelton, high above the banks
of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers, there are several reconstructed
buildings where young guides describe 1870s aboriginal life inside
smoky cedar long houses. There's a forest of poles here, too
many carved by the generation of artists who helped resurrect the
art form in the 1960s and '70s.
believe the first free-standing poles were raised by inland Tsimshian,
Gitksan and Nisga'a families in the area around Terrace. So it's
not surprising that this is where the art of carving is finding
At the Northwest Community College, Latham Mack sits behind his
drafting table, pencil poised over a drawing of a stylized bear,
the kind that may some day wrap around the surface of a bentwood
23-year-old artist is one of 24 students at the Freda Diesing School
of Northwest Coast Art, the only accredited coastal First Nations
fine arts program in Canada. Students learn the fundamentals of
designing with the traditional ovoid shapes, how to make tools and
develop basic carving skills, under the hands-on tutelage of artists
Stan Bevan and Ken McNeil, and master carver Dempsey Bob.
with two of the other students here, Mack has just won an important
scholarship: His carved Thunder mask will be displayed at Vancouver's
international airport, part of the impressive collection of First
Nations art that welcomes travellers.
the Diesing school only opened in 2006, graduates are already mentoring
others and creating new works. Visitors will see a flurry of building
and carving activity in the area from the new crest poles
and painted longhouses at the Kitselas Canyon historic site, to
a Nisga'a project to carve four massive canoes, and a spectacular
longhouse under construction at NWCC.
the Wilp Simgan carving space below the historic George Little house
in Terrace, you'll find artists like Todd Stephens and Henry Lincoln
at work, carving boxes and creating paintings in bold traditional
black and red. Four members of the school's first graduating class
also carved two poles raised at the new Terrace Sportsplex, and
recently opened their own gallery and studio space, The House of
Carvers, where I found Henry Kelly and Geo (George) McKay at work.
me, carving is therapy it gives me peace and serenity,"
explains McKay, a mask emerging from a piece of yellow cedar in
his hands, the aroma of wood shavings in the air. "It's not
about me, it's about promoting our people and our culture. It's
like a poster reminding us where we are and where we are going,
and it's an honour for me to be part of that."
In one of the new longhouses at Kitselas Canyon, artist Dean Heron,
another Freda Diesing School alumnus, is with his mentor, Stan Bevan,
discussing the eagle, wolf, raven and killer whale clan crest poles
they carved together, and the huge panels he is painting for the
interior of the college's new longhouse. Heron's art was selected
by the Vancouver Olympic Committee for the Cypress Mountain Olympic
venue. His massive installation painted across 20 canvases
and representing a huge snowboard decorated with historic paddle
designs will be a permanent fixture at the ski resort which
hosts 2010 Olympic freestyle and snowboard events.
fact, First Nations art will be prominent in Olympic venues around
the province, with 90 aboriginal artists commissioned by VANOC to
create new artworks for display.
to Vancouver can't help but be impressed by the aboriginal art aesthetic
here from the collection of First Nations public art at Vancouver's
YVR to the totem poles of Stanley Park and the haunting imagery
of Emily Carr's paintings hanging in the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Coastal art seems ubiquitous, the stylized imagery borrowed by local
fashion designers and jewellery makers, and seen on everything from
logos and T-shirts to coffee mugs. But, despite its growing popularity
and commercialization, it's the cultural and spiritual side of the
art that matters in small Native communities such as Greenville
In this Nisga'a village near Terrace, internationally renowned master
carver Alver Tait is overseeing a monumental carving project, fashioning
a 40-foot red cedar log into a massive canoe. It's the first canoe
to be created here in a century, one of four to be carved with the
help of 20 local youth, in a project designed to help them reconnect
with elders and reclaim their traditional culture.
shows me a photograph of the harvesting ceremony he's standing
before a massive tree in the rain forest, wrapped in his traditional
button blanket regalia. "When I harvest the trees, I thank
the creator and talk to the tree promise to make something
beautiful of it, and not waste it," he says.
it's fascinating to see First Nations totems anywhere in the world,
it's inspiring to visit communities like these, where the tradition
of carving is being passed to a new generation.
comforting to know you've accomplished so much," says the Nisga'a
elder. "You're leading your nation out of the darkness and into