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British Columbia’s First Nations Totem Poles


Totem poles at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (Photo: Adam Jones)

The iconic Coastal Mountains may dominate the west coast skyline, but the landscape includes another native attraction: indigenous totem poles, original to this part of North America.

Detail of modern totem pole in Vancouver’s Stanley Park (Photo: Kevin Grahame)

Created by Pacific Northwest aboriginal peoples, these statuesque sculptures carved from red cedar trees are visual stories of Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw folktales, tribal achievements or a literal family tree. They were erected in the centre of villages in today’s Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State.

Each pole features a series of images, such as birds, killer whales, raven or frogs, painted in traditional colours such as black, green or red to enhance the intricate carvings. Very few totem poles exist prior to 1900 due to decay within the rainforest environment, but well-known carvers such as Rupert Scow, Bill Reid and Robert Davidson are continuing the carving traditions of their nations into the 21st century.

Where and how to see totem poles in BC:

On Vancouver Island, the Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria features contemporary and historic totem poles in its Thunderbird Park on the east side of the museum, as well as in the main lobby and in the First Peoples Gallery.

In Vancouver, the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology displays a recreated Haida village, with totem poles carved on-site in the 1950s by Bill Reid and assistant Doug Cranmer, while North Vancouver’s Capilano Suspension Bridge park is home to locally created totem poles originally installed in the mid 1930s.

Some of the best collections of totem poles in their original locations (tours are available) are in northern BC: at Kispiox, 300 km inland from Prince Rupert, and in the Haida Gwaii Islands in northern BC.

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