Archive for the ‘northwest coast history’ Category

A couple of weeks ago when I was in Terrace, Dean Heron drove me the fifteen kilometers northeast to the Kitselas Canyon National Historic Site. We left the highway, bounced up a gravel road through some second growth forest to a gate and, after opening it, descended to the top of the site.

I’ve been hearing about construction on the site for a couple of years and the work that teachers, students, and graduates of the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art had been doing there, but nothing really prepared me for the site or the scope of the effort. The top of the site was dominated by a nearby mountain, so dramatically close that I could never quite keep it out of my glance, or resist looking up at it (or be unaware of it at my back):

To date, four longhouses have been completed. A fifth is largely complete but unpainted and will eventually display a wolf design, if I remember correctly.

In front of the line of longhouses, are the carved figures of a grizzly bear and a beaver:

Each of the longhouses, Heron explained to me, would become the showcase for a different aspect of the local Tsimshian culture. About a hundred meters across the gravel was the future gift shop and the washroom.

However, the current buildings were just the start of the plans. Eventually, part of the leveled gravel will become a ground for dances and ceremonies. And, behind the gift house, a path lead down to the archaeological site where the original village had been located. I would have liked to descend to the site, where an interpretive center was being built, but Heron was unsure of his right to go there. He had a key to the gate, and having worked on the top of the site, had no hesitation about going there, but the archaeological site was another matter – perhaps because he was not a member of the Kitselas First Nation.

Nor could we enter any of the longhouses, because alarms had been added recently to them. Naturally, I was disappointed, but I was glad that some pre-cautions were being taken, because apparently one of the longhouses had already been broken into. In fact, considering some of the art work there, I can see a day coming when the site has security staff around the clock.

Still, even without seeing everything, I was impressed, both by what had been done and what I imagined the finished result would be. Between the magnificence of the setting and the carvings by Dempsey Bob, Stan Bevan, and their current and ex-pupils, Kitselas Canyon has every chance of being the cultural and tourist landmark it is intended to become. Personally, I can’t wait to see what it should become in a few years — and I’m grateful to Dean for the preview.

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The more I learn about Northwest Coast art, the more the term “totem pole” bothers me. For years, I’ve been looking for a better term, and now I think I’ve found a couple.

“Totem pole” bothers me for two reasons. To start with, despite what the Europeans believed when they reached the northwest coast of North America, the artifacts that the term refers to are not totems. A totem is a supernatural guardian of a group of people, often their mythological ancestor – a minor deity comparable to the local spirits of the ancient Greeks. However, so-called totem poles classically did not depict totems, but hereditary crests and the occasional allusion to both historical and mythical accounts of the family that uses the crest.

In other words, when the European settlers destroyed the artifacts in the belief that they were destroying false gods, what they were really doing was the equivalent of smashing and defacing the coats of arms depicted on government buildings and the houses of the rich in Europe.

In addition, the popular term has also given rise the idiomatic expression “low man on the totem pole.” This expression suggests that the most important figures were always at the top, when, in reality, no such convention in Northwest cultures. In fact, in some cultures, such as the Tsimshian, the most important figure was placed on the bottom, and figures of secondary importance at the top, according to master carver Henry Green.

You could use “crest pole” instead, as I have occasionally seen. But the trouble is, I also object to the word “pole.” True, “pole” is technically accurate, being a word that describes a round object made of wood, and it is often used today in place of “totem pole.” However, it greatly understates the magnificence of many of the artifacts to which it is applied. You might as well call the Arc de Triomphe a gateway or a slab.

My first hint of an alternative came when Henry Green referred to a pole he is doing using the Sm’algyax (Coast Tsimshian) word “pts’aan.” Seeing this word was a bit of a revelation, because I realized that I had never heard the word in any First Nations language for a pole. It seems to me that, if we are starting to use the original name of cities and countries, pronouncing the capital of France as “Paree” instead of “Paris” and using “Suomi” instead of “Finland,” then we might also consider using the proper names for important cultural institutions and artifacts.

Apparently, though, “pts’aan” has an even more exact meaning. According to Green, it refers specifically to a pole that is hollowed out and flattened at the back. By contrast, a pole that is left fully rounded is a “k’an.”

Seeing these words, I asked Green what he might suggest for an English translation (assuming that we need one). He emailed back, referring to both a pts’aan and a k’an as columns. Perhaps you could call a pts’aan a half-column and a k’an a column in English? If other Northwest Coast cultures have additional terms, then “column” could be further qualified as needed.

This change of terms, I think, could have a powerful effect on how the Northwest Coast cultures are regarded. Regardless of whether you refer to a totem pole, a crest pole, or just a pole, a pole sounds like a simple, utilitarian object. A pole, after all, is something you use for fishing, or to hang a light from.

However, call a pts’aan or k’an a column, and you are making it the equal of Trajan’s Column or Nelson’s Column. Suddenly, by using “column” instead of “pole,” you realize that you are talking about an object of major importance to its culture – something that required considerable effort and artistic skill to create, and celebrates something important. You are forced to confront the fact that the cultures that made such things are not primitive (assuming that this word actually refers to anything these days), but as complex and as rich as any in Europe. Just by changing the word, your entire perspective changes.

Probably, “totem pole” is too entrenched to be replaced easily. However, I am seriously thinking of trying to promote the use of “column” as a replacement. It simply seems more accurate and precise.

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For the past three Wednesday evenings, I’ve attended George Macdonald’s lectures on Haida villages at the Bill Reid Gallery. It was time well-spent, and I only regret that the lectures stopped with three. Nobody is boring when talking about an area of expertise, and Macdonald, Director of the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Art Studies at Simon Fraser University and the author of Haida Monumental Art, was certainly in his element. Just as importantly, he combined knowledge with an informal and lively manner, which made for an absorbing scholarly trio of evenings.

Macdonald divided his subject matter into the southern villages centering on Skidegate, the central villages around Masset, and the northern or Kaigani villages of southern Alaska. Unsurprisingly, the second lecture was the most popular, with many Haida living in Vancouver coming out for it, including artists like Gwaai Edenshaw and Dorothy Grant, but the third was also popular, perhaps because the arbitrary border has resulted in few Canadians knowing much about the Kaigani villages. And the entire series was attended by a core of regulars, including me.

The first surprise in the lecture is how much photographic evidence exists from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because much of this evidence is not available to the general public, many people, I suspect, are like me and believe that it is very limited. However, Macdonald speaks in terms of thousands of photos (and I’m not sure that he didn’t talk of tens of thousands), to say nothing of sketches by anthropologists and navy officers, and works of art like Emily Carr’s. In fact, so much of this evidence exists that pieces can be cross-correlated, and the distinctive style of individual – if often anonymous – artists can be detected. Macdonald showed perhaps a few hundred slides of this evidence, but his lectures were enough to suggest the surprising wealth of material.

Another source of evidence is family tradition. In many Haida villages, memory or written records have preserved the names of many of the houses, as well as some of their history. For instance, at the third lecture, Dorothy Grant told her grandfather’s story of how his village was abandoned for a centralized, missionary-run new village of running water and electricity. During the burning of possessions that the missionaries insisted upon, her grandfather saved only the contents of the bentwood box in his hands.

Nearly four hours of lecture and audience participation is almost impossible to summarize. However, other topics in Macdonald’s lectures included the patterns of resettlement in the south as European diseases forced the survivors to regroup and, in many cases, regroup again; the use of palisades and hilltops during wars between lineages; the names and appearances of some of the great chiefs and carvers of a hundred and forty years ago; the question of whether Albert Edward Edenshaw was trying to bypass matrilineal inheritance by bestowing property on his son, and the characteristic designs of the graves of shamans. In many cases, too, the villages were illustrated by sketch maps or aerial photos.

Equally fascinating were Macdonald’s own stories of his experiences as an archaeologist in the field. They ranged from the careless destruction of one pole that survived into modern times in Prince Rupert, and the danger of bears while exploring villages. Macdonald also revealed in passing some of the professional issues and puzzles in the study of villages.

This was the first lecture series from the Bill Reid Gallery. The gallery is an ideal place for a small crowd, even if the monumental Mythic Messengers and the smell of cedar from Jim Hart’s work on his tribute pole to Bill Reid sometimes became distractions. But, on the whole, if it is an example of what these organizations plan to offer in the future, then future events deserve to be crowded. Like any good lectures, Macdonald’s have pushed back the boundaries of my ignorance a little while tantalizing me to find out more.

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