It is a beautiful sunny day in Vancouver, and our Aboriginal Tourism class is off to another wonderful field trip. Today we are going to Stanley Park to learn about totem poles. The outing is led by knowledgeable tour guide Gary Johnston, who we are lucky to have access to through the school. (Yes he works here at the college!) I have become interested in learning more about the stories behind the poles, and also about the story of the pole at the college.
Aboriginal people carve cedar trees into poles to record history, to symbolize inherited rights and privileges or to interpret stories and events. For the most part, in the past, only a Chief or person of high rank in a band could commission a pole to be made.
Stanley Park got its first pole in 1903 as a gift, and has been adding poles ever since. More poles were added at Vancouver’s Golden Jubilee celebration in 1936, at the Centennial, and at Expo 86. Renovations were done in 2006 and now there are many poles at the park representing cultures from all over the province, new interpretive signage, and a gift shop.
Vancouver’s climate is extremely hard on the Totem Poles, and the poles do not stand up to the elements for too long. Many of the originals are now in museums, and replacement poles were commissioned and carved. The poles attract over 3 million people a year and are the # 1 tourist attraction in the Province.
All poles have a story legend or meaning behind the art. There are many kinds of poles for different occasions, or events.
– Interior House Posts: which held up the massive beams in a longhouse.
– Carved Planks: attached to the inside or outside of ceremonial dance houses.
–House Frontal Poles: or Portal poles, which served as doorways. (Like the pole at the college.)
–Mortuary Poles: which could hold the remains of a chief or a high ranking person in a cavity box at the top.
–Free Standing Memorial Poles: erected in the memory of a past chief.
–Grave figures: which were carved in memory of a deceased Chief or other carved spirit figures that were part of ceremonial life.
–Shame Poles or Figures: To ridicule another Chief or family for improper behavior.
I hope you found this information of the totems interesting and that this encourages you to explore the meaning behind any Totems that you come across. If you are interested in the stories behind the poles at Stanley Park, there is a book you can buy in the school store called Totem Poles of Stanley Park by Vickie Jensen. There may not be a written record of some of the other poles around BC, but if you talk to elders in the communities where the poles are from, or find out who the artist is, you may hear some wisdom that has been passed down verbally through many generations.