I love totem poles and trying to decipher the stories they tell. I actually stopped to think if I had seen totem poles anywhere else other than the west coast. Many people (including myself) think of the totem pole as belonging to indigenous cultures all across Canada. As it turns out only six West Coast First Nations are responsible for the creation of totem poles – one being the Haida. Do you think it might have something to do with the over-abundance of huge old-growth cedar trees on the West Coast? I think I’m on to something!
How fortunate and privileged we were to witness and participate in “Totems in the Forest” – a Haida totem pole raising and ‘potlatch’ on June 21st. A celebration occurring on National Aboriginal Day and Summer Solstice. I had never heard the word ‘potlatch’ before (thinking it may be another word for ‘pot-luck’) but potlatch is a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The word comes from the Chinook Jargon, meaning “to give away” or “a gift”.
Our first glimpse of the totem pole came at the beginning of May when our grand-daughter Isla took us on a field trip to the Haida carving shed of Master Carver – Christian White. The new totem pole was being fashioned from a 600-year old red cedar tree chosen by Christian. At 15.5 metres [51 feet] in height (with an additional 3.4 metres [11 feet] in the ground) it will tower above its intended location at Heillen Longhouse Village. He, together with his 2 Haida Artists, his 8 apprentices and 3 assistants had been working on this totem pole since December 2016.
We are recreating a pole from the 1820’s, that stood on Haida Gwaii for 100 years and then stood in Prince Rupert until 1965 when it went to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. In 1976 it was finally repatriated and returned home to Haida Gwaii. Today, the almost 200-year-old pole is being stored in a carving shed. I wish I had gone to see the pole sooner to get a full look at the designs, as it started to crack right down the middle, said Christian.
Wearing our raincoats and rubber boots to fend off the expected misting rain and carrying our lawn chairs and dishes we headed to the event. The raising wasn’t scheduled until 2:00 p.m. but there were plenty of festivities and free food to enjoy ahead of time.
The ceremony featured traditional Haida regalia adorned with colourful patterns, beads and shells. Copious local foods harvested from the land and sea – was generously provided and prepared by the Haida. Free food stations offered seafood chowder, fried bread slathered with creamy yellow butter and sweet sticky jam, fried clam fritters, BBQ’d salmon, potato salad and coleslaw.
In the big tent, local artisans sold tightly woven spruce root hats, hammered silver jewellery, intricately carved and painted canoe paddles and souvenir t-shirts.
The Haida canoe, paddled by the carvers, set the stage for a traditional sail-past and ceremonial ‘sea-to-land’ arrival at the totem site.
The Haida elders were seated front row; the Host Chief welcomed elders, carvers, guests and visiting chiefs and spoke eloquently with honour and pride. Each of the carver’s were introduced and given an opportunity to speak.
Celebrating the completion of a totem pole and moments before it is raised, the Haida matriarch’s (women of high esteem) perform a ceremonial blessing of the pole waving eagle and raven feathers.
The carver’s brandishing their tools, perform a ceremonial dance demonstrating the strength needed to carve the pole.
An estimated 400 people descended at Hiellen Longhouse Village to both witness and assist with the raising of the pole, done in the traditional way with ropes and human power (and a little machine power). In an atmosphere of community and friendship among Haida and non-Haida, locals and visitors, young and old, the pole was pulled up, straightened, and fixed into position with rocks and dirt, accompanied by cheering and singing.
At the potlatch, gifts repay guests for witnessing the event with nonstop feasting, singing, dancing, and gift-giving. Hundred’s of people attend and every one, Haida or otherwise, leaves with a ‘goody bag’. Our gift included a souvenir mug and a gauze bag filled with cedar wood chips from the totem pole! How wonderful is that!
Fortunately, the rain held off. Such a humbling experience and nothing short of amazing! And to think this pole will stand erect for the next 200 years! I will never forget this – ever! Háw’aa, Thank you!
The stories brought to life on the pole include “The Watchmen” at the top of the pole, the “Grizzly Bear Hunter”, “The Man Who Became an Eagle”, and “The Raven Steals the Moon”. Can you see them?