Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Northern Convergence: Stories on Trees, the Totems of the Northwestern First Nations

During the flurry of planning for our Northern Convergence journey through Canada and the Pacific Northwest, I was barely keeping up with the geology, and any background information on the anthropology/archaeology of the region fell to my colleague from our anthropology department. There were certainly some intriguing sights related to the First Nations people of  Canada, and the one of these impressed itself on me early in the trip.

We were rushing from one part of Vancouver Island to another, and I was running down the beach cliffs below Beacon Hill Park in Victoria while Mrs. Geotripper went wandering off somewhere.  I was vaguely aware that there was a really tall telephone pole or satellite receiver tower at the edge of the forest, and eventually I noticed that Mrs. Geotripper was motioning me over.
It slowly dawned on me that I was looking at one of the largest totem poles in the world. It was impossibly tall, and I had to go up and touch it to make sure it was made of wood. It was. The plaque at the base notes that the pole honors the First Nation people who fought in the world wars.
The pole was carved from a gigantic Western Cedar tree in 1956 by a team led by Mungo Martin, a Kwakiutl tribal chief. According to the city history, the pole was expected to last no longer than 50 years at which time it would return to the Earth. Major restorations a decade ago added some years, but it may not be there beyond 2020 or so. It stands 40.5 meters (133 feet) high, making it the fifth tallest in the world (or the tallest "free-standing"). The tallest in the world is in the village of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island at the north end of Vancouver Island. It is 53 meters (173 feet) high. We may not see many more poles of this height. There are few monster sized Cedar trees left to carve them from.
Totem poles haven't left much of an archaeological record for fairly obvious reasons. Wood disappears fast in this humid environment. They are known from the 1800s, and are known to have been present with some First Nation tribes prior to European contact. They are a beautiful art form, and communicate family histories, legendary stories, and clan status. They were apparently never objects of worship.
On our rainy day with the students on Vancouver Island, we made a stop at the town of Duncan in the Cowichan Valley, a region with a large First Nation presence. The town has embraced the display of totems, with around 80 in the town center. Each was carved by a local First Nation artisan..
It was an interesting area to take a break and learn a bit of local history. The town is also home to the Quw'utsun Cultural and Conference Centre run by the Cowichan tribe, the largest in British Columbia.
The rain continued (the blue skies in these pictures were from our reconnaissance trip a week earlier), and we needed to be in Nanaimo in a few hours to catch the ferry back to mainland. We drove north to Departure Bay. Our story will continue with our journey up the Sea to the Sky Highway.

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