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  Totem Poles and Cedar Trees   Dutch Totem Pole Websites  
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  Australian Totem Pole Websites   German Totem Pole Websites  
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  Canadian Totem Pole Websites I   Swedish Totem Pole Websites  
  Canadian Totem Pole Websites II   Totem Poles Admired Worldwide  

Totem Poles and Cedar Trees

Totem poles have long been appropriated by non natives for political and commercial purposes that often have little to do with indigenous identity or interests. Today totem poles perform a political role as ambassadors for Canada and British Columbia (BC), yet they are seldom recognized as an expression of sovereignty and First Nations land rights. The Vancouver International Airport has on public display some of the world's finest Northwest Coast works of art by noted aboriginal artists including the Salish posts (right) by Susan Point, welcome figures by David Joe inside the Arrivals Hall, and totem poles by Walter Harris and Earl Muldo outside the Hall. Northwest Coast art is a compelling tourist attraction and evidence of its popularity are the photo sharing websites where BC's totem poles are in abundance.


Salish Houseposts by Susan Point
Vancouver International Airport


Lewis & Clark Exposition, Portland, 1905.
Old postcard

  When Europeans first came as visitors to the Northwest Coast, they were awed by the monumental totem poles. Later when they became colonizers, they sought to destroy this powerful symbol of indigenous identity by theft and suppression. When a dozen of Alaska's most magnificent totem poles were displayed at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition (left), they were viewed as the products of a dying culture. Yet the culture has not died, but ironically the ancient cedar trees on which the totem carving traditions depend have all but been exterminated.


Today's cross cultural fascination with totem poles is reflected by the surprisingly high number of totem pole sites on the World Wide Web. Although these sites are spread over twelve countries, only two of these –Canada and the USA – have an indigenous tradition of totem poles carved from ancient red cedar trees. This internet resource lists selected totem pole sites by their country of origin: American (47); Australian (1); Austrian (1); Belgian (1); Canadian (72); Dutch (3); English (4); Finnish (1); German (4); Icelandic (1); Scottish (2); and Swedish (1). Out of a total of 150 sites, about one fifth (33) are indigenously owned.

Totem pole websites have a broad range of functions. Some are entirely devoted to totem poles while others are pages on larger gateway websites. Site authors vary from individuals with a personal interest in totem poles to educational institutions (universities, museums and libraries) and popular magazines. Other site authors are corporations, governments and non government organizations that promote totem poles for public relations and commerce.

In addition to being of aesthetic value as an indigenous and environmental art form, totem poles are the foremost expression of sovereign land rights on the Northwest Coast. The "'Ksan Pole" at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology was carved in 1980 by Gitxsan hereditary chief Walter Harris (1931 – 2009), assisted by his son Rodney and nephew Charles Heit (right). Chief Harris and his cousin, fellow Kispiox carver Earl Muldoe, were central to the landmark 1987 Aboriginal Title and Rights case in the Supreme Court of Canada: Delgamuukw.


Gitxsan pole by Walter Harris.
Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver


Airport totem poles by Walter Harris and Earl Muldo.
Photo: Karen Wonders


Airport welcome figures by Joe David.
Photo: Karen Wonders


Totem poles are carved from some of the oldest and biggest trees on Earth. These spectacular biological wonders are the result of 10,000 years of habitat evolution. Sitka spruce, red and yellow cedar, western hemlock and Douglas fir can grow over 300 feet tall and live for over 1,500 years. It is widely recognized that cedar trees are vital to the culture and lives of the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast yet no legal protection exists for these "Aboriginal Heritage Trees."

Urgent political measures need to be enacted to impose an old growth logging moratorium in BC that will include a ban on the commercial trade of ancient wood (right). Shockingly instead of an old growth logging moratorium, the BC government in 2007 released its pro industry "Coastal Forest Action Plan" that does nothing to stop the destruction of the rare surviving big trees. The Wilderness Committee reacted to this reprehensible forest industry sell out, calling it the "Log it All" and "Export the Logs" Plan.


Ancient cedar, Nanaimo, 16 August 2007.
Photo: Karen Wonders


Great Bear Rainforest clearcut, 2006.
Photo: Ian McAllister


Pacific Wild Frontline Much international support was given to protect the "Great Bear Rainforest" but industrial clearcutting here continues, as the photos taken by Ian McAllister reveal (left). The failure of Canada to prevent the massive industrial killing of ancient trees is an indictment of government policy on forests. These trees are not only a treasure of biodiversity, they are part of the lifeblood of Northwest Coast culture and art.

Nuxalk – Smayusta A 2006 clearcut by Interfor (International Forest Products) is at Parker Creek on King Island (left). Over a decade ago Nuxalk activists took a courageous stand against clearcut logging by the same company at ISTA, in the adjacent watershed (Fogg Creek) on King Island. Nuxalk elders were arrested and several leaders were jailed for their attempt to stop the destruction of the ancient forest.


Nor are ancient trees protected from industrial logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest. Established a hundred years ago by the American president Theodore Roosevelt, it includes nearly two dozen national monuments, preserves and wilderness areas. In the 1930s, a number of totem pole parks were set up to launch a cruise ship industry along the "Inside Passage" in the Tongass National Forest (right). The venture boomed and now every year hundreds of thousands of tourists visit and photograph the totem poles, making it one of Alaska's most lucrative industries. Within the coastal "viewscape" of the cruise vessels, the ancient trees appear primeaval and thriving but the reality is one of squandered biodiversity and old growth decimination (below), as reported by the National Geographic report in 2007.

"Wasted Resource," Tongass Forest, 2007.
National Geographic


Cruise industry advertising, 1930s.
Photo: University of Washington

Tongass National Forest did not protect the Haida and Tlingit inhabitants who saw their land robbed, their cultures assaulted and their populations decimated by disease and forced evictions. According to the US Forest Service, in 1900 there were more than 800 totem poles in the Tongass Forest. By 1930, fewer than 200 remained and these were " harvested" by the Forest Service for far away American big city museums. An equally devastating loss is happening today as the mature cedars required for totem pole carving are being exterminated by industrial clearcutting.


During the past century, the logging industry has systematically targeted the ecological heart of the ancient temperate rainforests on the Northwest Coast. These are the low elevation watersheds with the highest biodiversity, featuring rich salmon streams and groves of big trees. On Vancouver Island, where some of the biggest trees in the world grew not long ago, 90 percent of the old growth forests located on valley bottoms have been logged and yet there still is no legal protection for the endangered surviving giant trees that are advertised as a hallmark of BC.

Big trees are a non renewable resources and the ongoing extermination of them is having a grave impact on Northwest Coast art, especially on totem pole carving, which requires mature cedar trees that are hundreds of years old. At Bella Coola, a traditional cedar house pole by Nuxalk carvers Dave Moody and Orden Mack stands at the entry to the House of Noomst (right). Indigenous carving traditions in red and yellow cedar evolved from the rich biodiversity of the ancient forests. Nuxalk activists have consistently protested against the industrial clearcut logging of their forests and tried to stop the plundering of their aboriginal heritage yet clearcut logging continues to this day.


House of Noomst, Bella Coola.
Photo: Solveig Lubeley


Nuxalk carver (left) and pole (right), Hamburg.
Photos: Greenpeace and S. Roehl (right)


Nuxalkmc Tributed in Germany In 1999 a group of Nuxalk from Bella Coola came to Europe on the invitation of Greenpeace Germany to carve a totem pole called ISTA (left). It was carved from an ancient cedar log from Bella Coola as a protest against Interfor Interfor (International Forest Products) which clearcut logged ISTA on King Island despite Nuxalk protests in 1995 and 1997.

Totem poles represent a culture that is the opposite to the colonial one imposed upon the indigenous inhabitants of the Northwest Coast. The art of totem poles is dependent on a long term sustainable relationship to nature whereby the forests are stewarded for future generations rather than liquidated for short sighted and unethical corporate profit. The extermination of totem pole trees by the wood products industry is unconscionable and must be stopped.


Biodiversity destruction is an immoral practice by the inordinately powerful international forest industry. Not only is it able to squash nature protection but also indigenous rights. A blatant example is the Canada – BC Pavillion erected in 2006 in Torino, Italy, to promote the 2010 Olympics in BC. Its biggest corporate sponsor was BC Wood, an international lobby group for wood products and its centrepiece was the "Bella Coola Spirit Tree" (right).

This is more than a crude case of commercial appropriation of native culture: it underscores how the BC government disregards Aboriginal Title and Rights by promoting its selfserving motto "Super, natural BC means big business." Until recently, the Nuxalk indigenous people were known as the Bella Coola Indians. They were world famous long before the settler town of Bella Coola was founded in their territory, on land that they have never ceded.

In October 2007, Canada and the US refused to sign the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights which states that the survival and wellbeing of indigenous peoples depends on their access to and control of lands and resources. Totem poles proclaim this indigenous right to sovereignty, and commissions for these monumental carvings are best organized directly with the First Nations themselves.


"Bella Coola Spirit Tree," Torino, 2006.
Photo: BC government


Kispiox totem poles.
Photos: Flickr


Despite centuries of theft and colonial attempts to eradicate totem poles, the art has survived and flourishes. Totem poles are raised to mark community events such as the naming of a chief: inaugurating a new house; honouring a family; hailing a marriage; ridiculing a debtor; celebrating a birth; or commemorating a death.

According to George MacDonald, former director of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, totem poles not only "lie at the heart of Northwest Coast art," they are also boundary markers, or "icons of territorial claims." He cites the words of Gitxsan carver Chief Walter Harris: "They are our deeds to the land. They serve as witnesses to the encounter of our ancestors with the supernatural beings who control all the fish, animals and plants in our world. They are our charter of rights from time immemorial" Walter Harris.


The 1928 painting "Heina" by Emily Carr (right) was published in colour as the frontispiece to Totem Poles (1950), the magnum opus of Marius Barbeau, long time director of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The dedication reads: "Let this book be a memorial to the native artists of the north Pacific Coast! Their genius has produced monumental works of art on a par with the most original the world has ever known. They belong one and all to our continent and our time, and have shown how creative power may thrive in remote places. Independent of our great moderns, from Turner to Gaugin, Van Gogh, and Cezanne, they were nonetheless their contemporaries."

Barbeau clearly thought highly of the aesthetic attributes of totem poles but he got it wrong when he wrote in the introduction to his book: "The art of carving poles belongs to the past." He fatalistically thought, like all other ethnologists of his time, that native culture was "dying out" along with the indigenous peoples who created it. Nowhere in his scholarly work did he pay tribute to the totem pole as a powerful political icon of resistance that defied Canada's suppression of First Nations peoples and reaffirmed their own ancient traditions and land rights. Barbeau and the artists he promoted such as Emily Carr made the totem pole into an emblem of "Indianness" that was appropriated as part of Canada's cultural identity. At the same time, Canada was engaged in the brutal dispossession of First Nations from their lands and cultures.


"Heina," Haida Gwaii. Emily Carr, 1917.
National Gallery of Canada


Among the first important totem poles to be commissioned by the government of Canada was a gift to the Queen of England to mark the one hundredth birthday of BC in 1958. The 30 meter high totem pole was carved from an ancient cedar tree that originated on Haida Gwaii. It was carved by the influential Kwakiutl Chief Mungo Martin and raised with great ceremony at Windsor Park, where it remains on public display today (right). A copy of the Kwakiutl pole, also carved by Mungo Martin, was raised at Vanier Park in Vancouver as part of its cenntenial celebrations (below). Today it stands as a reminder of the ecological crisis being faced by the ancient big cedar trees and their rainforest habitats.

Mungo Martin pole, 2007.
Vanier Park, Vancouver, BC


Mungo Martin pole, 2007.
Windsor Park, England


Mungo Martin Totem Poles (Click photos to enlarge)

Far left: Vanier Park, BC
Left: Windsor Park, England


The Mungo Martin totem poles at Vanier Park in Vancouver and at Windsor Park in England have no historic connetions with these locations. And the event they commemorate, the colonization of BC, is not celebrated by the First Nations who originated the art of totem pole carving. The indigenous nation to which Mungo Martin belonged was the Kwakwaka'wakw. Born in 1881 in Tsaxis (Fort Rupert), he was a member of the Kwakiutl tribe and inherited the title Chief Nakap'ankam ("ten times chief"). He apprenticed under his step father and master Kwakiutl carver Charlie James.

The Seattle based American photographer Edward S. Curtis used Tsaxis as the base for his monumental 1915 book of Kwakwaka'wakw photos. Among them is a photo of a house pole at Tsaxis (right). It shows a pole carved by Charlie James and raised by David Hunt in front of his house to honour his grandmother. It was a copy of a totem pole originally located at the Tlingit village of Tongass that had been stolen by American businessmen in 1899 and erected in Pioneer Square in Seattle.

Mungo Martin was related by marriage to the Hunt family; his second wife was Abayah, widow of George Hunt's son David. David Hunt was the grandson of Anisalaga (Mary Ebbetts Hunt). Of the Ga.nax.√°di Raven clan, she was a Tlingit noble woman who had been one of the original owners of the stolen Tongass pole which had been raised as a memorial to her mother in about 1870. The history of this totem pole is a fascinating exposé of colonial injustice.


House totem at Tsaxis, 1914.
Photo: Edward S. Curtis


House pole, Dadens, Langara Island, c. 1790.
Sketch: John Bartlett


One of the earliest pictures of a totem pole on the Northwest Coast was a rough sketch (right) published in an early 1790s travel narrative by the Boston seaman John Bartlett. He described the strange appearance of the Haida village of Dadens located on Langara Island off the northwest coast of Graham Island: " We went ashore where one of their winter houses stood. The entrance was cut out of a large tree and carved all the way up and down. The door was made like a man's head and the passage the house was between his teeth and was built before they knew the use of iron." Barlett's amazement that "savages" could create such monumental architecture was expressed by other early visitors to Haida Gwaii who could not comprehend that what they were seeing was a civilization of equal significance to their own.


Lepas Bay and Langara Island, 2007.
Haida Gwaii


Langara Island can be seen north of Lepas Bay on Haida Gwaii (left). This was the location of another Haida village that was recorded by the Royal Navy Captain George Dixon in 1787, called Kiusta.

In 1884, the government of Canada banned the potlatch, an act of attempted cultural annihilation intended to crush tribal customs and aid the takeover of Indian land. This repressive act, more than any other factor, almost brought to an end the monumental art of totem pole carving. Government officials and missionaries seized and destroyed or sold the cultural heritage of the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples in a sustained attempt to assimilate them at the same time as plundering and killing off their resources.


Kayung pole, Haida Gwaii, 1884.
Photo: Archives Canada (R. Maynard)

Following the banning of the potlatch in 1884, the most magnificent totem poles were removed from the indigenous communities by collectors, an example being the Haida pole in the British Museum (right). The 39 ft high cedar pole came from Kayung near Masset on Haida Gwaii. It was described in 1903 by T. Joyce: A Totem Pole in the British Museum.


Kayung pole, Grand Hall, 2007.
British Museum, London


Kayung pole diagram (left).
Watchman detail on top of pole (right).


The first photographs of Kayung were taken in 1884, when 14 houses of the old style were still standing, among them the remains of Goose House (above left). It was this frontal pole which ended up in the collection of the British Museum in 1903 (above right).

This astonishing pole tells the story of the lazy son – in – law. A diagram was published in 1903 to help explain the Haida legend that had been narrated by Chief Weah of Masset (left). The British Museum had earlier, in 1898, acquired a complete model of a Haida house through Rev. J. H. Keen, a missionary at Masset. Its house pole was almost an exact facsimile of the full sized pole from Kayang. In both works, the Haida house chief sits at the top, holding his club (left). For most of its time at the museum, the pole was too large to be displayed anywhere but a stairwell. In 2007, it was installed in the newly constructed Great Hall.


Haida Heritage Centre, 2007.


The early salvage ethnologists justified their dubious collecting activities by pointing to a decline of the importance that totem poles and their legends had to the indigenous communities. While the world's greatest museums were keen to acquire totem poles before they "disappeared," no attempt was made to preserve and display the poles within the native communities.

Despite its enormous losses, Haida culture has resurged. Many heritage objects have been repatriated along with ancestral remains by the Skidegate Repatriation Committee. In 2001, six new totem poles representing ancestral villages and clans were raised at QAY'LLNAGAAY near Skidegate on Haida Gwaii. Six years later, on 22 January 2007, the new centre of Haida culture and heritage opened (left).


One of the most spectacular places to see totem poles in their original environment is at SGANG GWAAY, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, rated one as one of the best nature preserves in North America. In the 1980s many Haida elders and forest activists blocked the logging road on Gwaii Haanas and prevented the trees from being clearcut logged. Thanks to them, visitors from around the world are today able to gain an appreciation of Haida culture and its ten thousand year old relationship to the ancient trees and forests of Haida Gwaii.

"The Haida perspective recognizes that identity, culture, history and the very meaning of existence lie in the relationship with the forest, fish, air, water and everything in their surroundings. We desperately need to support and nurture that perspective and learn from it as we tear at the last bits of wild nature all over the planet" David Suzuki, Respecting the Natural Balance (Eagle Law).

SGANG GWAAY, Haida Gwaii, 1957.
Photo: BC Archives


K'UUNA ILNAGAAY, Haida Gwaii, 2007.
Photo: J. Heisig

The ancient Haida sites at K'UUNA ILNAGAAY (Skedans) and SGANG GWAAY (Ninstints) are part of the Haida Heritage Site of Gwaii Haanas (above and left). "In 1957 eleven of the best preserved poles of SGANG GWAAY were removed and shipped to museums in the south. Despite this, the village is considered to provide the most magnificent display of standing Haida Mortuary poles in the world, and in 1981 the village was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO" Ancestral Village Sites (Skidegate Band Council).


In a 2004 environmental report, the distinquished Haida carver Jim Hart protested against the unrelenting industrial logging of Haida Gwaii: "At this rate, old growth cedar will logged to extinction in the near future. This is wrong" Vanishing Cedar = Vanishing Totems. The rebuilding of Haida cultural heritage was featured in the article "Keepers Of the Forest" in the Canadian Geographic Magazine (March 2007) which cited the need to preserve the monumental trees: "the relationship between the Haida and the forests was, and remains, one of respect and protection." Photo galleries of cedar trees and totem poles were featured. Haida elder Norman Price was shown at his home in Skidegate with a totem pole he carved for his 80th birthday (right). On 12 December 2007, the Council of the Haida Nation signed a land use agreement with the BC government that will provide more protection for aboriginal heritage trees.


Haida carver Norman Price, 2007.
Photo: Farah Nosh


Anti logging protest, Victoria, 1985.
Photo: Robert Soderlund


Northwest Coast totem poles are inextricably linked to the fight by First Nations peoples to protect their ancient forests and cultural heritage. At Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, a traditional 27 foot Nuu chah nulth welcome figure was carved in red cedar by Joe David in 1984 and taken to the BC Legislature to protest against the indusrial logging of Meares Island (left).

Joe David was born in 1946 in the Tlao qui aht village of Opitsat on Meares Island, to the north of the village of Tofino. On 21 April 1984, Tlaoquiaht chiefs signed a statement declaring Meares Island as a Tribal Park and demanding the "Total preservation of Meares Island based on TITLE and survival of our Native way of life."


Big cedar, Meares Island, 2007.
Clayoquot Sound, BC


Cedar figure by Joe David.
Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver

Today the cedar figure by Joe Martin is on display outside the Museum of Anthropology Museum in Vancouver (above). Plans are that it will be returned to Meares Island which has become a popular destination for tourists wanting to see the big trees saved from the logging industry such as the ancient cedar "Hanging Garden" (left).


The Meares Island carving by Joe David, called " Haa hoo ilth quin," was used to shame both the logging company MacMillan Bloedel and the BC government and expose them as culprits. Totem poles have often been used historically for similar purposes, to ridicule or discredit certain individuals. The "Three Frogs" of Chief Shakes Island at Wrangell, Alaska is a well known example of this sort of monument (right). The three huge frogs are said to represent three Kiksakdi Tlingit women (whose totem was the Frog) for whom Chief Shakes was demanding upkeep payment from their Kiksaki chief. The "Tree Frogs" pole was reconstructed many years later from earlier drawings for public display yet its function was still so b within the Tlingit community that it aroused unpleasant memories about the original incident.


Three Frogs, Chief Shakes Island.
Wrangell, Alaska


Cordova, Alaska
Photo: EcoTrust

Inspired by the Northwest Coast tradition of ridicule totem poles, Alutiiq artist Mike Webber carved a totem pole (right) to make a social condemnation: "As a memorial to corporate greed and the labyrinths of the legal system, this ridicule pole is dedicated to Exxon, who has refused to meet its debt or recognize its obligation to the communities and ecosystems profoundly affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill" Artist's Statement. The seven foot yellow cedar pole was raised in the native Eyak village at Cordova, Alaska (above), the hardest hit community by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Exxon Ridicule Pole was commissioned by Eyak member Bob Henrichs. The huge scale of this ecological catastrophe is featured in the website "Exxpose Exxon."


Exxon Ridicule Pole and carver Mike Webber.
Photo: Exxpose Exxon