I’ve long been fascinated by Indigenous art and totem poles that stretch up to the sky.  What do they mean and what do they tell us about Canada’s Indigenous people?

This week’s feature on Mary Two-Axe and her struggle to give Indigenous women protections to their ancestral lands reminded me of these tall and mysterious totem poles.  They have been in existence for over 200 years where they can be seen along the coast of the Pacific Northwest.

Overlooking Stanley Bay in Vancouver, B.C. (Photo credit: Rose McInerney) 

I imagine most Canadians are like me and don’t know much about Mary’s name or these rich symbolic and historic totem poles.  And yet, these  bright, colorful skywalkers help to make the Indigenous culture visible for all to see.

Totem poles tell a story from the bottom up.  “The word totem is derived from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) word ‘odoodem’ meaning “his kinship group”.  While totem poles have nothing to do with royalty or worship, they inspired honor and respect.

Generally, totem poles were used to communicate a family’s social status and wealth.  They provided a record of history, a burial marker, a remembrance for a supernatural occurrence, or even an architectural post to be displayed at the front of a home. So the more elaborate, tall, colorful and ambitious the totem pole, the more prominent the individual or family was within the community.

Color and symbols used on the totem pole provide key clues and specific meanings but because the Indigenous culture is so difficult to compare to traditional cultures, it’s impossible to translate exactly what each one means.

That said, totem poles generally use four sacred colors: black, white, blue and yellow.  Red and white are also popular but interpreted with greater flexibility in meaning.  When the color red is used, it often symbolizes wounds, blood, earth and war, while a color like blue symbolizes sky, water, female and sadness.

These general rules are also true for animal spirit designs carved into totem poles.  The most popular animal or spirit shapes are eagles, wolves, thunderbirds and bears.  Again, some families will adopt animal carvings as representative of their family members.  Using a certain animal might help to convey a family or individual person’s spiritual journey or legacy.

Bears are an obvious symbol of strength while a butterfly represents the art of transformation and a change of mind.  Eagles represent a connection to the divine, as the one in the photo does; otherwise, an eagle may represent a teacher.

To complicate matters when trying to  understand a family’s totem pole, different tribes use different carving styles as well.  These styles – changing the eyes of an animal or the position of its body on the pole – highlight different things an artist might want to convey to family or other communities.

The easiest way to try to understand a modern totem poles is therefore to see it simply a way of honoring First Nations villages and keeping their traditions alive.

Because men have long been the keepers of family lineage, as we saw in Mary Two-Axes story, I wondered if there were any female artists who had helped to shape this artful totem-making form.

That’s when I discovered Ellen Neel, the first Indigenous woman to carve a totem pole.  I stumbled upon her history when I visited the Emily Carr museum in Victoria, British Columbia several years ago.  I wanted to understand how Indigneous art influenced Emily as a painter, especially after seeing her unique and sometimes dark perspectives coupled with some sweeping brush movements and rich, deep hues of color.

As a carver, Neel’s work was like a giant storybook or poem, an ode to the people who had come before her. Her work was celebrated in the  surrounding Vancouver area and while I didn’t know it at the time, I snapped a photo of Neel’s work when I went for a walk in the city’s Stanley Park.

Neel’s grandfather, Charlie James carved totem poles and was from the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe.  Neel never set out to inherit his skill or become an artist.  Instead, she started carving when her husband had a stroke.

Until then, Neel had been a stay-at-home mom raising her seven children and carving the odd sculptures for friends. Carving more seriously provided a way to earn extra money to support her family and, before long, people began to notice Neel’s work.

After she was invited to speak about her carvings in 1948 at the Conference on Native Indian Affairs, Neel quickly became an established artist.

The Parks Commission saw the power of Neel’s work and gave her a studio in the park that Neel called Totem Art Studios.

Later that year, restored some of the historic totem poles and also dedicated a 16 foot-totem to the university in 1950.  The installation was placed in the front lobby and Neel’s sons completed the bulk of carving.

This soon became a necessary source of income for Neel’s family and in 1953, Neel provided a commissioned totem pole for a museum in Denmark.  This lead to further commissions in shopping malls and parks.

Thanks to Ellen Neel, who used her Native artistry to feed her family while keeping the heritage of her people alive, Canada has a legacy of Indigenous stories to share with the world.

Next time I see a totem pole, I’ll respect the honor and traditions of both the family it represents and a woman named Ellen Neel who created them.

Rose McInerney

Rose McInerney

Rose combines her love of all things artfully-designed to connect women to a shared community of learning and a richer, more fulfilled self. As a passionate storyteller, published writer, and international traveler, Rose believes women can build a better world through powerful storytelling.

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