Sunday, April 14, 2024

Aboriginal Art of the Northwest Coast of British Columbia: Totem Poles

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A totem pole is also known as a monument pole

Totem Pole Coastal Aboriginal Art:
A totem pole is also known as a monument pole. Tall structures of carved cedar wood, which were or still are for a variety of purposes as signboards, genealogical records and memorials by Aboriginal people of the Northwest Coast of British Columbia. Demonstrates their authority over dance and other aspects of tribal culture. Totem poles are used as mountaintop mnemonics and even to tell stories. The totems, carved in vibrant colors on tall, upright red cedar wood, represent both Coastal Aboriginal culture and Northwest Coast Aboriginal art.

Well-known Nipun wood engravers include Mungo Martin, Charles Edenshaw, Henry Hunt, Richard Hunt and Stanley Hunt.

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History of Totem Poles in Canada:
Archaeological evidence suggests that the northern peoples of the West Coast were the first to create the art of totem poles long before the arrival of Europeans. The practice then spread south down the coast to the rest of British Columbia and Washington state. Nations credited with creating the first totem poles include the Haida, Nuxalock (Bela Kula), Kwakwakawak, Tsimshian, and Longit. The Coast Salish people also make carvings out of cedar, but they are not actually totem poles. The Coast Salish carved wooden planks for their ceremonies or to connect the interior and exterior of the house.

However, the arrival of Europeans changed contemporary pole construction, as they introduced new materials and carving tools to the indigenous people through trade in the 19th century. Colonial totems threatened the existence of the original poles. In the early 19th century, the federal government attempted to integrate First Nations by banning various cultural practices in Canadian law, including potlatch (“a lavish ceremonial feast where wealth was gathered or, if necessary, destroyed to display wealth or enhance prestige”)—ceremonies that often involve the setting up of totem poles. was done Totem poles were moved or abolished by Europeans until the potlatch ban was lifted in 1951. Adivasis were taken from homes and placed in museums and parks around the world. Totem poles can also be seen in various parks in Toronto.

After the amendment of the Indian Act, tribal efforts to restore totem poles began to increase in the 1950s. New poles were introduced for museums, parks and international exhibitions; And in the late 1960s, totem poles were once again raised in potlatch. Totem poles can therefore be seen as symbols of ongoing survival and resistance to cultural and territorial encroachment. Many northwest coastal communities have struggled to reclaim totem poles taken from them by colonial forces. In 2006, Hysla was able to successfully repatriate a pole taken in 192 from a Swedish museum.

Pattern return:
Most of the Aboriginal ethnographic collections found in Canadian museums were collected (and sometimes confiscated) in the late 1800s and early 1900s by missionaries, government agents, amateur and professional collectors, and anthropologists such as Edward Sapir and Marius Barbeau. Today, many indigenous nations are requesting that these items be returned to their original homes.

Mochahat Moachlahat First Nation:
The totem posts in this replica house above were renovated and erected inside an old church, which was indigenous art in Yukot, British Columbia during European occupation. Today the remaining Moachat/Muchalahat people are slowly recovering their culture and many of the artifacts that have been confiscated over the years. First Nations celebrate the early achievements of their people each August during Yukot Summerfest. (Courtesy of British Columbia North Coast)

In 2017 the Haisla First Nation was able to bring back and replace an old monument pole that was built in a Haisla-designed style according to their customs. In February 2023, the Nuxalk Nation succeeded in repatriating a totem pole. The totem pole was taken a century before its return and housed at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, British Columbia. On February 13, 2023, the totem pole was returned to the Nuxalk nation.

Additionally, in February 2023, the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Center announced that they would repatriate a set of Mi’kmaq regalia. The regalia consists of several items that are currently housed in the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. The regalia was returned in March 2023.

“The finest Mi’kmaq traditional clothing is called ‘full regalia.’ These styles were attractive clothing for women. Traditional women’s clothing also includes a jacket and is usually broadcloth with ribbon trim and fastened with a brooch.”

Totem Pole Design and Importance:
Different indigenous peoples have their own methods of designing and carving totem poles. The Haida, for example, are known for carving animals with bold eyes, while Kwakwaka’wakwu usually have narrow eyes between the poles. The Coast Salish carve human representations on their house posts, while the Tsimshians and Naxalok carve animals with a supernatural being on their poles.

But generally the poles are elaborately carved from red cedar and painted in black, red, blue, blue-green and sometimes white-yellow. Although paint was not used much in the past as a part of design, it is used nowadays. Poles vary in size, but house front poles can be more than a meter wide at the base, reach heights of more than 20 meters and face the river or sea.

Animal family crests are depicted on totem poles. These crests are considered the property of a particular family lineage and reflect the history of that lineage. Animals commonly represented on crests include beavers, bears, wolves, sharks, killer whales, ravens, eagles, and frogs.

In some cases supernatural beings and even humans, these have special importance and significance to those who commissioned them and those who carved them.

Cultural appropriation of totem poles by Europeans over the years has created the false impression that the poles display a social hierarchy, with chiefs at the top and commoners at the bottom. In fact, human figures are not usually found at the top of totem poles, and in some cases, the most important figure or crest is at the bottom. Totem poles do not depict a country’s social organization in a top-down manner; Rather, they tell a story about the beliefs, family history and cultural identity of a particular nation or individual, above all coastal Aboriginal art.

Types of Totem Poles:
There are different types of poles in coastal areas, each with its own purpose and character analysis of social conventions. For example, sometimes specific to death and burial practices, such as erecting monuments in memory of a deceased party leader or high-ranking member. The poles depict the member’s achievements or history. Mortuary poles honor the dead. Haida mortuary poles have a box at the top where the ashes of a clan chief or high-ranking dignitary are kept.

Many family poles are used to depict lineage. House posts, placed along the back or front walls of a house, are poles that help support roof beams on the one hand and, on the other, tell stories about family lineage. Similarly, house front or portal poles are monuments at the entrance of the house that narrate family history.

The welcome pole welcomes guests. First Nations sometimes erect poles as a means of greeting important incoming guests during a feast or potlatch. Another type of wish pole is the speaker’s post – with an engraved image of the ancestor. An appointed speaker announced the names of the visitors from behind the post. In a sense, it allows the ancestors to speak through appointed speakers, also welcoming guests.

Heritage poles commemorate important and historical events In 2013, Haida Gwaii erected a heritage pole commemorating the signing of the Hanas Treaty (1993), a landmark document between the Haida and the Government of Canada that defines the government-to-government and management relationship for Gwaii. Hanas carved a legacy pole, known to be the first monumental pole raised in the protected Gwaii Hanas region for more than 130 years.

Poles are also used as healing poles or teaching tools. A totem pole by Aboriginal artist Charles Joseph, installed in Montreal on May 3, 2017; It is erected as a reminder of the residential school system. A survivor of residential school, Joseph sought to express his feelings about those painful years, while also working towards reconciliation. Similarly, artist and residential school survivor Isadore Charters shares his personal story with youth through a totem pole project. Charters carves a healing pole that recounts her eight years at a Kamloops residential school. Poles are also carved to foster healing.

The pole of shame or pole of ridicule is a common element of tradition. But traditionally it is often used to ridicule and criticize someone for doing something offensive or not paying a debt. These poles were also used by the chiefs against their political rivals. Contemporary communities now hold polls using similar tactics to protest external governments or corporate entities.

Significance and Memorability:
Totem poles are important expressions of specific indigenous cultures along the Northwest Coast. Despite threats of cultural, political and territorial encroachment, the art of totem pole carving has survived. Although the totem pole has been wrongly misinterpreted over the years as a common symbol of Canadian identity. But it is important to understand that these sacred monuments are highly valued art for certain First Nations, and therefore hold deep meaning for the people and their ancestors.

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