In September 1980, we were living in Beaverton, Oregon with our two small children – Carrie, 2½, and Kevin, 2 months. We decided to take a small scenic vacation and drive to visit Ken’s brother, Richard, who was working in Whistler, BC at the time. We made a side trip on our way home, taking the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria where we visited the beautiful Butchart Gardens and a “totem pole park” near our hotel. After 42 years, the only photos we have of the trip are two of little Carrie, standing on the deck of the ferry and standing by a large Native carving. They are two of my favorites of her. Notes on the back of the photos are simple: “Carrie, Vancouver to Victoria BC Ferry, Sept 1980,” and “Carrie, Totem Pole Park, Victoria BC, Sept 1980.” I wore Baby Kevin strapped to the front of me the entire trip. Sorry, Kev – no pics of you! #beforeselfies
When we returned to Vancouver & Victoria a few weeks ago on our 50th anniversary “celebration tour”, we thought it would be fun to locate the Native carving from Carrie’s photo and ask someone to take our picture with it. We visited many sites with totem poles and incredible artifacts, but we never found that large carving. What we did find, however, was the presence of a heightened cultural awareness and sensitivity for the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, indeed all of Canada’s indigenous people – First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. So in a spirit of understanding, it seemed like a good idea to post about the First Nations‘ arts & culture we experienced on our trip.
Ken was a history and anthropology major at Ball State, with an additional three semesters in Southern Methodist University’s Anthropology PhD program. So it was no surprise during our trip planning that he wanted to include the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology in our visit to Vancouver. Wow. The museum has a collection of artifacts from indigenous populations around the world, and incredible items from Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest.
We were welcomed outside the museum entrance by the first totem pole of the trip. It was nice to see work of a contemporary First Nations artist. Inside the museum, the sheer size of many of the carvings was jaw-dropping. The serving bowls and utensils for the (once outlawed) Potlatch Ceremony were immense! Racks of found totem poles rested on specially designed racks protecting from seismic disturbance. Videos told stories of Native traditions, forbidden traditions, artistic methods, and children sent to government boarding schools.
We loved the Multiversity Galleries! It was our first experience seeing thousands of curatorial holdings on display with such access. Cases and cases of visible artifacts and drawers and drawers of more! If you were interested in a certain type of artifact, you could do a deep dive on the spot. What a wonderful way to share – and quantify – the artistic and cultural wealth of the people.
We came across our second totem pole, “Eagle with Salmon, Orca, Bear with Salmon” in Butchart Gardens in Victoria. From The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Animal images on totem poles depict creatures from family crests. These crests are considered the property of specific family lineages and reflect the history of that lineage. Animals commonly represented on the crests include the beaver, bear, wolf, shark, killer whale, raven, eagle, frog and mosquito. The crest animals represent kinship, group membership and identity, while the rest of the pole may represent a family’s history.”
We found our next totem pole going through Beacon Hill Park to Alert Bay in Victoria. Some claim this 173 foot totem pole is the tallest in the world. Some say, however, that because it is made of two sections (163 foot base + 10 foot top), it is a false claim. Regardless, it’s tall enough to make taking it’s photo a bit of a challenge! Not that you can see the details of the upper area, the figures include the Sun Man, a whale, an old man, a wolf, the Thunderbird and its cousin, the Kulusł, a two-headed serpent, a bear holding a salmon, and a raven holding copper!
Our last morning in Victoria, I walked over to Thunderbird Park while Ken returned our rental car to the airport. It seemed to me that this was the location of the native carving pictured with Carrie. Well if it was there in 1980, it is no longer. Still, I enjoyed the park and its display of several totem poles. Located adjacent to the Royal British Columbia Museum and across the street from The Empress hotel, it makes a great stop for downtown Victoria visitors to get a good glimpse of the collection.
Our final totem pole encounter was in the lobby area of the Royal British Columbia Museum. Unfortunately I didn’t take notes on the three large totem poles as we were pressed for time and also wanted to walk through the natural history exhibits. The third floor houses their First Peoples Gallery, but it was closed for “modernization.” I’m sure it would be well worth an appointment!
There is so much to learn about Canada’s First Nations, and we only had time to experience a small part of their rich arts and cultural heritage during our visit to Vancouver and Victoria. It is truly fascinating and heart wrenching at the same time. I encourage you to explore the links below to broaden your perceptions and perhaps better appreciate the lives of these Native peoples.
Learn More about the Art & Culture of the Native Peoples of the Pacific Northwest:
Collection Online | Museum of Anthropology at UBC
Take a virtual walk through the collections and discover MOA’s 49,300 objects
Collections Areas | Royal BC Museum and Archives
The Royal BC Museum is honoured to care for, and learn from, this extraordinary collection of 14,000 objects, ensuring that it is accessible to First Peoples, artists, researchers, scholars and the interested public by appointment
Totem Pole | The Canadian Encyclopedia
History, design and meaning, and types of totem poles
Where to See Totem Poles in British Columbia | Travel British Columbia (travel-british-columbia.com)
We saw many – but we didn’t see them all
Debunking Misconceptions About First Nation Totem Poles (ictinc.ca)
Potlatch Ceremony – Indigenous Culinary Arts – Library and Academic Services at RRC Polytech
A ceremonial feast, outlawed by the Canadian Government from 1885 to 1951, held for births, deaths, adoptions, weddings, and other major events
Canadian Indian residential school system – Wikipedia
A network of boarding schools created to isolate indigenous children from their families, their native culture and their native language in hopes of assimilating them into the more dominant Canadian culture
National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – Canada.ca
In 2021, the Canadian Parliament established September 30th as a new federal holiday in commemoration of the history and ongoing impacts of residential schools
First Nation wants Royal B.C. Museum to return its totem pole – Victoria Times Colonist