For many tourists and Canadians, when you think of Vancouver images of a city flanked by mountains, ocean and lush green forests come to mind … and so do totem poles.
The nine totem poles in Stanley Park are heralded by the city as “BC’s most visited tourist attraction” and the shops in Gastown’s tourist district are filled with made in China totem pole tchotchkes.
But totem poles aren’t native to Vancouver. They’re actually rooted in Haida, Nuxalk, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tsimshian and Łingít cultures further north and west — not Coast Salish.
It’s an misconception James Xwalacktun Harry is passionate about correcting.
“I really don’t like to see more work that isn’t from this territory going up on our land because it just says to me that our city, our society isn’t really listening to our voices,” said Harry, a member of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw, with a Kwakwaka’wakw grandmother.
The fire was lit under him to advocate for better representation of Coast Salish art because of the way it was being recognized, or wasn’t.
An artist and carver, Harry began honing his craft when he was five years old. He spent his formative years in the studio watching his father, master carver Xwalacktun, make masks and house posts and took up the craft after him.
“I’ve been asked to carve totem poles before and I can because of my grandmother but a lot of what I’ve been doing from my dad’s teachings is to really pull back and think about the territory that we’re on,” said Harry.
“Because here in Vancouver we didn’t have totem poles, we actually only did house posts which were more structural functional pieces … so it’s been about educating the public … it’s exactly why I got into public art.”
How totem poles became popularized in Vancouver could be a combination of things, Harry said — from the Museum of Anthropology collecting more pieces, to the poles that were raised in Stanley Park and when cruise ships full of people dock in the city, the first thing they see is representation of First Nations art that’s not necessarily from the territory. And familiarity breeds more of that work.
“For a lot of our people, even here locally, you would find Coast Salish artists practicing form line because it’s just what the market dictated,” said Harry.
He says the origins of totem poles are further muddied because local commissioning agencies would put out calls or hire individual artists on their own accord without speaking with local First Nations.
“Totem poles were popularized especially (with) artists like Bill Reed (who) made a really big imprint nationally for Indigenous people. And a lot of what he was commissioned to do were totem poles,” said Harry.
“Of course people love them, they’re beautiful and have this intrinsic emotional value to them. But meanwhile, a lot of our voices when we’re trying to tell people that, ‘Hey, look these actually shouldn’t exist here, we need to do something about it.’ It’s only more recently that we’re starting to see a kind of shift in dialogue.”
Harry said the best case scenario would be to see more local Coast Salish designs pop up across the city before more work is put up from other First Nations in the province.
“Form line and a lot of northern artwork has really had its imprint on our territory, I would like to have more of an equal chance for our own community members to raise more works because we’re underrepresented on our own land and it feels like we’re invisible on our territory a lot of the time,” he said.
Meanwhile, Harry said that’s not the only misconception about totem poles. The expression, “low man on the totem pole,” which is meant to imply the least important person, is factually incorrect. He said totem poles are unique and community specific, often representing intermarriages with different family crests, rather than a hierarchy.
“I guess that’s just the western world projecting their own ideologies on First Nations work,” he said. “We never looked at it that way … a lot of the time you see the bear at the bottom, which represents strength, and it takes a lot of strength to hold up your community so there’s that but not the least important. “
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